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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)

May 27, 2016

Book Review: Scapegoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies and Threatens Our Freedoms by Arsalan Iftikhar


Given the horrible rhetoric we've been hearing from various sources during this election year (2016) in the United States, Scapegoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies and Threatens Our Freedoms, a new book from human rights lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar published by Sky Horse Publishing, couldn't be more timely. Television viewers might be familiar with Iftikhar as the "The Muslim Guy" - as he calls his website - CNN and other major networks haul out after every so-called Islamic incident for comment.
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"Scapegoats" is in part a distillation of the message he tries to present during these spots - a small group of insane idiots don't represent the majority of Islam. However, as his voice always seems to become lost in maelstrom of sensationalism and fear mongering television seems to delight in - what sells better than fear and mayhem? - this book offers readers a chance to hear his arguments without distraction.

If you think this book is only going to be about Donald Trump and his ilk, you'll be in for a big surprise. Sure it mentions the usual hate mongers and supposed charitable foundations who fund them, but Iftikhar also points out some of the even more insidious attempts to smear Muslims.

One of the most noxious was Congressman Peter King's decision to hold congressional hearings called "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response". Very rightly Iftikhar likens this to Congressional witch hunts of the past and says it legitimized singling out a segment of the American population and deeming them suspect because of their religious beliefs - beliefs that are protected by the American Constitution.

Iftikhar quotes Richard Clarke, who worked for both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush as a counterterrorism czar, as warning this type of inquest would aid America's enemies. "To the extent that they (the hearings) are the object of fear-mongering, it will only serve Al Qaeda's ends", by wrongfully portraying that America is somehow at war with Islam.

However, it's not just conservatives who Iftikhar takes issue with. It's also those so called liberals who hide their fear and hatred behind supposed concern for civil rights and liberties. Those who do their best to make martyrs out the drawers of obscene cartoons and purveyors of hate speech.

He doesn't say the killings at the Charlie Hebedo offices were justified by any means. At the same time he doesn't see them, or the right wing Danish newspaper who published the infamous cartoons of Mohammad, as the great defenders of free speech everyone has made them out to be. How would people have reacted if those publications ran obscene cartoons of Jesus? (The Danish newspaper actually refused to run cartoons of Jesus by saying they wouldn't appeal to their readership)

People can say Muslims shouldn't be so sensitive to people making fun of them or shouldn't be allowed to oppress the free expression of ideas. Yet no one seems to raise much of a fuss when conservative Christians pressure advertisers into dropping support for TV shows they don't like or having books removed from libraries and school districts.

Iftikhar actually does say he thinks Muslims should learn to ignore these obviously deliberate provocations. While he may not like what the cartoons depict, he also doesn't agree with any of those who think they should take to the streets in protest against them. Call it hate speech, explain why these sorts of things are offensive, but aside from that don't give them the attention they desire.
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Iftikhar also deals with how the media differs in its depiction of similar crimes committed by non-Muslims. How is it that someone who opens fire on the clients and staff of an abortion clinic in the name of his God is not a Christian terrorist? Or a white man who walks into an African American church and shoots nine people isn't called a white terrorist? Yet when two people of Muslim background indiscriminately kill people, including Muslims, as happened in San Bernardino California, the media are quick to label it an act of Islamic terrorism even though the couple in question had no connections to any terror groups.

Scapgoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies and Threatens Our Freedoms is a reasoned and passionate defence against the hate filled rhetoric which has been filling American airwaves and print since September 11 2001. In it Iftikhar shows not only how unreasonable the calls for restrictions on Islam are, but how they contravene the American constitution - Freedom of Religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment.

He also does a fine job of showing how Americans are actually aiding and abetting their enemies through the rhetoric of hate. By making it look like America, from the government down to the media, are attacking Muslims, they give ammunition to those who would whip up support for armed attacks against Americans all over the world.

Unfortunately Iftikhar is only one voice in a very loud wilderness. While he does his best to write in as direct and straightforward manner as possible, his arguments can't be reduced down to a thirty second sound bite. Whether or not the people who need to read this book will be bothered to, or whether it will change anybody's mind about the subject, is questionable. This is a well written and passionate book defending reason and rationality. But the world is no longer a rational or reasonable place.
(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Scapegoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies and Threatens Our Freedoms)

February 5, 2016

Book Review: Massive Pissed Love: Nonfiction 2001 - 2015 by Richard Hell


As its title suggest Massive Pissed Love: Nonfiction 2001 - 2014 from Soft Skull Press is a collection of essays, critiques, and assorted other articles and remarks by Richard Hell. While Hell was initially known as the front man for such seminal New York City bands as Television, The Voidoids, and The Heartbreakers, he's also a poet, novelist, and a essayist.
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Aside from his personal artistic achievements, Hell is also a keen and intelligent observer of the arts and has written and spoken about everything from pop culture to the avant-garde in film, poetry, and the visual arts. He's also been closely associated with some of the foremost contributors to pop culture and art in and around New York City since the early 1970s. All of which gives him the awareness to put his observations in an historical and social context.

Reading Hell's work is an object lesson in being a critic. He makes no secrets of his personal biases or opinions, but still strives to be as fair as possible to the work he's talking about. His writings on film are a perfect example. He makes no bones of his preference for the work of people like Jean Luc Goddard to more mainstream work, but he's still able to critique a Hollywood movie fairly based on its own merits. He judges all art in this manner - by seeing how well it stands up to the standards set by works of a similar style and form.

What makes these articles even more interesting in Hell's personal knowledge of many of the creators. His writings on authors like Jim Carroll (The Basketball Diaries and The Petting Zoo) are made that much more interesting by his personal recollections of the person behind the work. We gain not only a deeper understanding of the artist in question, but we also begin to see their work in a different, more personal, light.

Of course, not all of the articles are going to be of interest to everyone, in fact some might even find some the work discussed in the book disturbing. However, art is not always a comfortable blanket we wrap around ourselves - it should make us ask questions and provoke a response. The aesthetic appreciation of a piece art extends far beyond whether we "like" it.

While Hell never comes out and says this directly, the diversity and range of expression he writes about in Massive Pissed Love gradually bring this point home to us. Art is not created to please us, but meant to challenge us to look at the world from multiple perspectives. Remember, works we now consider acceptable, the paintings of Picasso for example, were once scorned and ridiculed.
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While some of the articles in this book might be inaccessible to some, his writings on popular music are sure to appeal to most. One of my favourites is the piece comparing The Rolling Stones with the Velvet Underground - "The Velvet Underground vs. The Rolling Stones". He examines the albums each group released during the same time frame - the time the Velvets existed - 1966 -1970. (The Velvets' first public appearance was in '65 and their first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, wasn't released until '67 but was recorded in '66 at the same time the Stones recorded Aftermath)

Not only is the article a in depth and careful analysis of both bands' output giving you a deeper understanding of their musical significance and appreciation for their work, its also highly entertaining. Lacking the pretentious bullshit language these types of articles usually end up being couched in, it becomes an honest and candid examination of two bands who seem to be at completely opposite ends of the pop music spectrum.

Massive Pissed Love is not arranged chronologically, rather arranged as to how the articles fit into the three categories of the title. Some are long - "Massive" - some angry in tone - "Pissed" - and others full of adoration for their subject - "Love". As Hell says in his introductory note "It was to dull just to divide it by subject matter". One thing you can be sure of, this book is never dull. Contrary, intelligent, opinionated and perhaps to some people's minds controversial, but always lively and stimulating. If you care at all about modern art and culture this is a must read.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: 'Massive Pissed Love: Nonfiction 2001 - 2014' by Richard Hell)

June 7, 2015

Book Review: Anger Is An Energy by John Lydon


Normally I don't read autobiographies. Especially ones written by rock and roll personalities. The ones I've read are usually too self-serving by half to be informative; all you find out are the levels of false modesty some people can achieve. However, there are always exceptions to every rule and John Lydon's Anger Is An Energy, published by Harper Collins, is every bit as original as its author.

Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, first came to prominence as the lead singer of the seminal British punk band the Sex Pistols. Although the band only released one studio album, Never Mind The Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols back in the mid 1970s, their influence on popular music can't be underestimated. While the band imploded after only a couple of years, Lydon went on to form PiL (Public Image Limited) and has continued to push the boundaries of popular music forty years after his career commenced.

In the hopes his autobiography would mirror his music career in both approach and content; unpredictable and exciting; I picked up a copy at a local bookstore. That I happened to be listening to Never Mind The Bollocks on my i-Pod when I walked in the store is just one of those weird coincidences. Lydon follows the typical pattern for books of this type by starting off with details of his childhood and moving forward into the present. However, that's about the only way its typical to the format.
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Lydon's narrative and story telling are rich in both detail and context. We start off in a London which is still in full recovery from being bombed in WWll, and the conditions he was brought up in. While this could have been an opportunity for someone to talk about their hard life, he never once stoops to that. Instead he describes what he learned from his life and how it benefited him. He even talks about his bout of childhood meningitis, which saw him hospitalized for six months and left him with permanent damage to his spine, in terms of how it helped shape the person he became.

Naturally music features prominently in his narrative; from what he heard as a child and a teenager to what he appreciates to this day. Any of you punk snobs out there who think you should only be listening to certain music can take a lesson from the diversity of music Lydon listened to growing up and continues to listen to this day. As would be expected most of the music talk is taken up with his life in popular music: the Sex Pistols and PiL.

He talks openly and honestly about everything from his friendship with Sid Viscous, the legal problems he had with Sex Pistols' management (former manager Malcolm McLaren tried to claim ownership of the name Johnny Rotten) and the ever changing line up of PiL. However what's truly fascinating about those sections of the book are what Lydon reveals about himself. It's not as if he is letting anything slip, more like it's just the proper context for him to tell us about his creative process and certain aspects of his character.

As is to be expected from someone who has been as outspoken in his public life as Lydon, he's not afraid of giving his opinions on paper. Life in Britain, New York City, punk rock, California (which he now calls home) the Sex Pistols, PiL, working in television, the music industry and all the musicians he's known and worked with are all talked about with his characteristic forthright bluntness. What was really nice is how much he continues to this day to defy expectations in who he likes and admires and who he has little time for. He makes no apologies for his opinions, but is honest enough to say they're based on his personal experiences and shouldn't be taken as gospel or absolute truths.
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The most refreshing thing about Anger Is An Energy is its complete lack of false modesty. I'm not saying Lydon isn't constantly aware of how lucky he is or grateful for being given the opportunities he has had and continues to enjoy. However he doesn't give us any of the "aw shucks bull shit, I ain't done nothing special" common to celebrity autobiographies. He knows what he has accomplished and is justifiably proud of his achievements.

Even better is the sound of the book. If feels and reads like Lydon is talking directly to you. Perhaps he dictated the content and it was transcribed directly to the page. Whatever the case, it somehow manages to bring the man alive as few memoirs ever do. Reading this book gives you a real sense of the man, warts and all. He neither hides his light under a bushel or tries to depict himself as other than what he is and where he came from.

The irony of Lydon is how he's become an icon for the iconoclastic. He's self aware enough to see the weirdness of this situation and to let us know he knows what's going on. In reading this book it soon becomes obvious his goal wasn't to become either famous or infamous, but now that he is he doesn't pretend not to be enjoying himself. However, he has remained insistent about always playing the "game" by his rules. This may mean he might not have enjoyed the success he could have garnered, but it does sound likes he's a far happier man for it.

Anger Is An Energy is one of those rare autobiographies which is both a pleasure and an education. John Lydon is not your average rock and roll star, and this is not your average rock and roll book. Its essential reading for anyone with any interest in both the history of punk rock and popular culture in the late 20th and 21st centuries.

Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Anger Is An Energy by John Lydon - Johnny Rotten Lives)

January 21, 2015

Book Review: John Lennon The Collected Artwork


It might be hard for those who didn't live through the arc of John Lennon's life to understand the impact this one man had on people around the world. Coming out of the darkness surrounding the end of WW ll and the paranoia of the 1950s, The Beatles were a breath of fresh air; a sound of hope and new possibilities. Today their songs from the early 1960s probably don't sound overly rebellious, but taken in the context of the times it was something new and liberating. Sure there was other pop music at the time, equally good if not better, but they managed to capture the imaginations of young people around the world like few others.

However, it wasn't just the music. Part of their appeal was the irreverent humour they projected in their of public appearances. While they all shared this characteristic, Lennon's humour and comments always seemed to have more of an edge to them than the others. This came to a head with his off the cuff comment about how The Beatles were more popular than Jesus. While this caused the type of backlash you'd expect in certain quarters, burning of Beatles' records, condemnation by fundamentalist Christians (sound familiar?) and warnings of "he better not show his face around here", it did nothing to affect their popularity around the world, proving Lennon right in his assessment.

While many of today's pop stars and celebrities have carefully cultivated images for public consumption, Lennon's public persona was his true face. Mischievous, sometimes caustic and often opinionated, what we saw in his appearances and heard in interviews was who he had always been. You only need to glance through a new book, John Lennon: The Collected Artwork, from Insight Editions, for proof. For the book contains artwork he created from his childhood onwards, and even in some of those earlier drawings we see manifestations of each of those characteristics.
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For those who didn't know, before Lennon was a Beatle he had attended the Liverpool Art School. Although he was unable to complete his studies as his music career took off, he continued to sketch and draw for the rest of his life as time allowed. Glancing through the book the first impression is of relatively unsophisticated line drawings that appear to range from doodles to sketches or cartoons. But upon closer examination you realize the looseness of style was a deliberate choice. One only need look at some of the detailed backgrounds in the work to realize the time and effort which were put into each drawing.

In his text for the book Scott Gutterman makes an effort to put the illustrations into not only a historical context in terms of Lennon's life, but also points out how they reflect on the way he looked at the world. While the first of the book's seven sections is paintings and sketches from his early years, the chapters are not in chronological order. Instead, they have been arranged to give us a sense of who Lennon was as visual artist, and what he attempted to accomplish with his work.

Most of the chapters' titles are self explanatory: "Self Reflection" (chapter 2), "Observations" (chapter 3) or "John With Yoko" (chapter 6). But chapter 4, "Japanese Translation Drawings", is different. After the birth of their son Sean, Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono would make frequent trips to visit her family in Japan. Not only do the pictures in this section depict Lennon's attempts to learn Japanese, they also reflect his study of sumi-e, a traditional Japanese style of pen and ink drawing.
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The work in this section, and many of the pieces created in the years following reflect this new influence. However, we also see why he would have been attracted to the form. For while there are distinct stylistic differences; the lines are more definite and these drawings don't contain the same amount of detail as others, it's still a natural extension of the line drawings Lennon had been doing previously. On a more personal level, the new style of drawing also reflects the changes he went through during his retirement from 1975 to 1980 when he took time off to raise his new son. There's a stillness to them indicative of the changes he underwent transitioning from rock and roll star to his life as a house husband and father.

While Lennon will always be more remembered for his music than his output as a visual artist, the work contained in this book gives us a different view of him as a person and an artist. They may not be the most sophisticated pieces of art, but each of them reveal something of his nature. Whether his sardonic view of middle class values in the work "Squares", or his love for the simplicity of his domestic life through the depictions of his family in the last years of his life. Most impressive is how much he's able to communicate with a few strokes of his pen. It's like he was able to channel his passion or emotions through this very narrow conduit and have them show up on the page where we can all appreciate them.

Of course there's the question of whether or not we'd be seeing these works of art if he weren't John Lennon. The answer is probably not. However, that does nothing to diminish this book's importance as a record of Lennon and his life. Those who knew his work as a musician, or knew anything about him when he was alive, will be reminded of those things they admired in him. Whether or not the pieces will have the same appeal to others is uncertain, as in some ways you'd have to have experienced Lennon the person and musician to fully appreciate them.

John Lennon: The Collected Artwork is a beautifully packaged and presented book. The reproductions of his art are as good as those you'd see in any collection of this kind and the accompanying text does a good job of explaining their history and background. Lennon will always be best known as a musician, but this collection of his artwork provides a fascinating look into a different facet of an intelligent, opinionated and original mind. That alone makes it worth owning.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as John Lennon: The Collected Artwork)

June 18, 2014

Book Review: Spirit Quest by Bob Mackenzie and Sharlena Wood


Over the years humanity's relationship with nature has become sort of twisted. On the one hand we admire the beauty of a spectacular sunset or soaring mountains yet we also think nothing of destroying the atmosphere with poison gases or the water table with toxic waste. Further distorting our view of the world around is how we've come to believe nature is okay as long as it knows its place. Let it interfere with our lives though and all of a sudden it becomes an act of God or some sort of natural disaster. When did we become so self-centred as to believe tornadoes, earthquakes and tidal waves are something to be taken personally? These storms would have happened regardless of our presence.

To be able to see nature as something which exists independent of humanity is not something many of us are able to accomplish. One of the ways we have of bringing ourselves closer to nature is through the work of writers and artists. There's something about seeing things through the lens provided by somebody else's work that gives us a clearer perspective on the world we live in.
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The new book Spirit Quest, published by Dark Matter Press, from poet Bob Mackenzie and visual artist Sharlena Wood is a fine example of how the arts can give us a new appreciation of the natural world. The two artists have created a series of complimentary works; Mackenzie's poems recount visits to Canada's Rocky Mountains in Western Canada he took as a child while Wood's paintings bring the passion and wildness of the region to life.

Wood has not attempted to illustrate Mackenzie's poems. Instead what she has done is provide us with images which capture nature's untamed essence. In some ways they serve as contrasts to Mackenzie's poems of the human experience of nature as seen from car windows, camp sites and family vacations. It's almost as if the two have combined to show us how the world looks from both perspectives. Mackenzie's highly personal childhood remembrances, which say as much about the warmth of his family life growing up as they do about nature, are the ring side seat to the natural world while Wood pulls us right into the wild unchecked beauty which cares nothing for our opinions.

In his poems Mackenzie recreates the impressions of the Rocky Mountains he formed as a child through the filter of his adult memory and opinions. Remarkably he manages, after the passage of time and experiences, to still convey the sense of wonder and mystery they must have instilled in the younger version of himself. In "no visible means", a poem describing mountain sheep's apparent ability to defy gravity in clinging to mountain sides, we see a perfect example of a child's awe filtered through the mind of an adult. "this space overtakes me/as no book ever can/here the gods can be felt/and I feel very small".
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While the sentiments expressed are the amazement a child would feel at seeing the mountains and their sheer size, the vocabulary is decidedly adult. However, the combination of the two is highly effective as it allows us to remember the awe we felt as children when confronted with something beyond our comprehension. By showing us this world through the eyes of his younger self Mackenzie is able to depict nature as the raw force is can be. There's never the impression that it was put there for his family's enjoyment; it exists, is seen and described without editorializing or judgement.

The same can't be said for the occasional outside interlopers into Mackenzie's private world of family and nature. The occasional glimpse we receive of other humans isn't exactly flattering. In the poem "Bears" he describes the interaction between the bears in Banff National Park in Alberta Canada. "tourists come here to meet bears/brown bears so cute in daylight/at night fear bears in the dark/approaching their lamp lit tents/bears are in the camp at dusk/stalk between tent and washrooms/watch campers creep out in fear/make shadow art with their paws". The message we receive is that the majority of people seem to hold fast to the tried and true human opinion that nature is alright in its place, but it needs to know its place.

As Mackenzie uses words to describe the world of the Rocky Mountains in an attempt to capture their magical and wild spirit, Wood's visual creations for the book take us even further into the wild abandon of the region. From stark black and white images which express the power that can be found in the austerity of naked woods in winter to wild uncontrolled swirls of colour which wash across the eye, her work constantly reiterates the theme that nature exists for itself, not for our pleasure. There is a raw power to her work which sends shivers down one's spine as it captures the naked energy of both the mountains and the land around them.
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Anyone who has seen the Rocky Mountains anywhere in North America can't help but be reminded of the fact we are only a small part of the world around us. Most of us go through our lives in a sort of un easy co-existence with the natural world. We live in controlled environments where the rains and winds are at most inconveniences to be avoided and wild life is limited to the birds and small animals in our backyards. Spirit Quest is a reminder that the natural world exists in of itself without care for our concerns or worries. We are all that small person Mackenzie describes in "no visible means" whether we know it or not.

The poems and art work in this book do a masterful job of bringing both the natural world and human interaction with it to life. By showing the world through the eyes of himself as a child poet Mackenzie helps us rediscover the awe it can inspire while Wood's paintings remind us of its sheer unbridled power. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but on this occasion pictures and words have combined to create something which speaks volumes to any willing to listen.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Spirit Quest by Bob Mackenzie and Sharlena Wood)

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.
Cover Hijos de la Selva:Sons of the Forest sm.jpg
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.
Adelina Pusineri:Viggo Mortensen:Diego Villar:Federico Bossert sm.jpg
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 30, 2014

Book Review: Dreams Before Extinction by Naeemeh Naeemaei


It's hard for us in the West not to have misconceptions of what life is like in countries where our perceptions are shaped entirely by what we read in the media. This is especially true of those countries which have attempted to isolate themselves and their populace from what they consider our corrupting influence. I have to admit I have my own prejudices when it comes to Iran. Having seen and read first hand accounts from those who have managed to either escape or smuggle out footage of things which have happened in the country over the last few years hasn't helped. (If you've not seen the documentary The Green Wave about how the unrest in Iran during the Arab Spring was shut down so brutally you should) Then there's the fact I'm also against any kind of theocracy, no matter what form it comes in.

All of which probably makes me as guilty as the next person at being surprised to find out individuals within Iranian society share many of the same concerns we do about the state of the world. With all that we read about the country's political and religious systems it's hard to believe we can have anything in common with those who live and work in such a society. At least that's what we tell ourselves. But why should we be surprised to read that Iran has set aside over 10% of its land for wilderness preservation and species conservation? Did you even know there was an non government organization known as the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation? I didn't.

Like any modern industrial state with a growing population, the major environmental concerns facing Iran are those caused by humans - habitat loss due to human encroachment and pollution and over hunting leading to extinction. It's these concerns which compelled Iranian artist Naeemeh Naeemaei to create the works gathered in the new book, Dreams Before Extinction, just published by Perceval Press. The works were first displayed at the Henna Art Gallery in Tehran, Iran in 2011.
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In his forward to the book, "A Call To Conscience" Kavous Seyed-Emami, Executive Director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, writes about the important role artists have in raising the public's awareness regarding the issues facing wildlife. "Artists have the ability to connect to a general audience on an emotional level and thereby promote awareness of the need for nature conservation". In her comments on her work and what she hopes to accomplish with it Naeemaei is even more specific, "I want to make some changes at least in my own people about their behaviour with regard to nature and the environment. Even for just a bit."

Even a cursory glance at the images in Dreams Before Extinction bear out Seyed-Emami's statement and impress upon the viewer the sincerity of Naeemaei's intent. For while each of the images features either an endangered or extinct species from the region, it's how they are presented which makes the work so powerful. Instead of merely showing them isolated from humans, Naeemaei has created work which forces the viewers to consider the animals as part and parcel of their own world.

She has also made sure the works have social and cultural links to the people they are intended to reach. Many of the pictures have features in them which would be instantly recognizable to an Iranian, and maybe even an Islamic, viewer. While this might be a little bit of a barrier for those of us who aren't familiar with Islamic iconography or Iranian/Persian folk tales, not only has the artist included explanatory notes with for each painting, the publishers have provided us with a comprehensive introduction to the work, "Silence of the Leopards" by co-editor Paul Semonin.

In his introduction Semonin not only provides us with information about the significance of certain details Naeemaei has included in her works, he places her work in a familiar context by comparing it to that of the late Mexican artist, Frida Khalo. Those who are aware of Khalo's work will know the majority of them were highly personal statements about the painter's life and her relationship to the world. By pointing this out to us, and comparing Naeemaei's inclusion of herself in these works to Khalo's self portraits, Semonin reinforces the personal nature of the art in this collection. Khalo would occasionally turn herself inside out on canvass, showing us her internal physical damage. Naeemaei, by including herself or a family member in all these pieces creates the same sort of intimate connection, but with the body of the world instead of her own.
Capsian Tiger by Naeemeh Naeemaei sm.jpg
By making no distinction between herself and the creatures she represents, by giving them the cultural and social characteristics most of her audience would recognize as those belonging to humans, she says these are my family. One of the most powerful pieces in the work in my opinion exemplifies this perfectly. "Caspian Tiger" is an image of this extinct species (last one died in 1959) surrounded by what are obviously women in mourning. The tiger bears bleeding wounds just under his ear and on his visible rear haunch. Two women are huddled together in the foreground, prostrate and holding each other, one leans on the tiger's back hiding her face in the palm of one hand and the last kneels in front of the tiger, head bowed as if in supplication and holding his face in her hands.

While the artist's note about the painting is heartfelt and beautiful ("The last one was killed in 1959, but there was no funeral and no one cried. I don't know where his tomb is to put flowers on it. I can only wail and mourn his passing in my own way") it's only by reading Semonin's introduction we'll understand the real significance of what we're looking at. For Naeemaei has drawn upon a famous painting depicting the martyrdom of the Third Imam of the Shi'a faith for her work. The original painting shows a group of mourning women gathered around the Imam's white horse who bears wounds identical to those seen on the tiger. In Iran there is a national day of mourning for this figure from their religious history. By depicting the Caspian Tiger in this manor Naeemaei, equating his loss with that of such a revered figure, she is telling her audience there should be no difference between the grief they feel for the Imam and the tiger.

Each of the paintings in this book are of equal potency. They make bold statements about how there should be no separation of the species and stress the artist's personal connections with the world around her. One of my favourites, "Silence of the Leopards", shows her in a stand off with a shepherd and his flock while she acts as a shepherd for a flock of leopards. In her comments she says how on the surface it would appear the sheep would be the ones who are in trouble, but the reality is the leopards are in the most danger. Over grazing by ranchers is destroying leopard's habitat, and the more sheep encroach into the wilderness the more their chances of survival are eroded. It's a beautiful juxtaposition which plays on people's perceptions of what is harmless and what is dangerous.

In the West we see Iran as a country of oppressed people whose lives are defined by the very narrow interpretation of a religious code. While there is some truth to this, it does not prevent people from having the same concerns about the world as we do, nor from finding ways to express what they are feeling. In the paintings collected in Dreams Before Extinction Naeemen Naeemaei expresses some of the most strongly "worded" and passionate pleas for the preservation of animal life you'll ever see. These aren't just depictions of endangered creatures, these are images which confirm the intrinsic bond between humans and the species we share the world with. When an animal species dies out it should be as great a calamity as the death of a human, that its not shows how far we have fallen.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Book Review: Dreams Before Extinction by Naeemeh Naeemaei)

January 24, 2014

Book Review: The Silence Before the Whisper Comes by Bruce Kauffman


Why would anyone write poetry? It's not what you'd call glamourous. You're never going to make money at it. The best you can hope for is if you manage to publish a few books of poems you could possibly get picked up by some university to teach a creative writing class or get some work editing for literary magazines. The best poets I've known or read have jobs working in book stores and coffee shops in order to pay the bills. Yet, still they continue to write and produce poetry which only, perhaps, a few hundred people will ever read. Why?

The answer can be found in the poetry itself. When you read work of such sublime beauty that it takes your breath away; when you come to the end of a poem that makes you question your own abilities as a writer because you can't imagine ever being able to write what you've just read or you find your eyes involuntarily filling with tears while reading a scant twenty to thirty words, it becomes obvious why some people write poetry. They really have no other choice. When you can see and hear the world around you like they do, you have to find a means of transcribing what you're experiencing as there's no way it can remain bottled up. Some people become painters to express themselves, but some few take the far more difficult path and paint their images with words.

One of the latter is Kingston Ontario Canada resident Bruce Kauffman. His latest book of poetry, The Silence Before the Whisper Comes, published by Hidden Brook Press, is the third of his books which I've reviewed, and while I have to admit to a certain amount of chauvinism as we share the same city of residence, he has to rank among the top living poets I've had the privilege of reading. While poetry, like all art, is highly subjective in its appreciation, Kauffman's work transcends anything so trivial as its readers likes or dislikes. Like the natural world it quite often alludes to it simply is, awaiting the discerning eye to glance upon it and appreciate the qualities which quantify its existence.
Cover The Silence Before The Whispher Comes sm.jpg
Attempting to interpret another's poetry is often a perilous journey fraught with the minefields of our own prejudices and preconceptions. We can only guess at what somebody was trying to say through the filter of our own beliefs. However, in the case of the gifted poets, no matter whether they use metaphor or analogy, the words on the page do more than simply express some thought or idea. Instead of seeking some hidden meaning within the language, listen to the effect the accumulated words have on you emotionally. A poem should be the perfect marriage of heart and mind, the latter transcribing for the former to articulate its inner workings without ladening it with extraneous baggage or complications.

Kauffman's work in this book is as good an example of a poet bringing that union to life on the page as you're likely to find anywhere. While his poems are full to the brim with ideas and thought, there's no wading through tortured intellectual process to enter the emotional core of the matter. At the same time, he doesn't spell anything out for you allowing the reader to follow their own process until they reach a conclusion. You never once feel like you're being either led by the nose to see the author's point of view or made so confused you literally can't see the forest for the trees.

Considering Kauffman's use of the natural world in his poems as a means of expressing his opinions on the world around him, I guess that's a bit ironic. However, there's also a great deal of truth in it. For while some tend to try and overload their poems with imagery or ideas Kauffman's work reminds us of the beauty of simplicity. Instead of gushing forth a torrent of words in order to impress us with his emotional depth, Kauffman manages to find a way of communicating without overwhelming us. Whether intentional or not, his work is a perfect example of the credo less is more.
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As befits any artist, he doesn't limit himself to a single subject matter. Everything, from the act of writing to describing the scene of an automobile accident are talked about. However, the way he sees, and how he describes what he sees, make it feel while he might walk through the same world you and I inhabit, his vision operates in a different focal range from the rest of us. Not that he attempts to make the world something its not. Rather he directs our eyes to see that which is hidden beneath the obvious. The obscure, the beautiful, the ugly and the pain are caught by the simple act of being in a certain place at a certain time. If you didn't know any better you'd think things were waiting for him to come along so he could describe them.

I'm reluctant to quote from any of his poems in this review, because the words taken out of their overall context will lose their meaning. Even when scouring the longer poems, and some of them do stretch over a number of pages, I find it hard to remove a segment as an example of Kauffman's work. The words feel orphaned when separated from their main body. It would be like showing you an amputated limb and trying to tell you what the rest of the body looks like. Could you tell what a painting looked like if someone cut out a small section from the outer edge, or even the middle? You might get some idea of the artist's technique, but you'd still be none the wiser as to the paintings overall appearance. However, at the conclusion of this review I've included a copy of one poem, hoping that it will give you some indication as to the quality of his work.

It's easy enough to write a poem. What's difficult is writing a poem which offers its readers a chance to experience the world in ways they never would have thought of on their own. Most poets are content with offering you glimpses into their own lives or showing you their reflections in the mirror of their paper. Bruce Kauffman is one of those rare poets who turns his vision outward and then reflects it back onto the page for us to bear witness. This is not only the work of a gifted writer, but of a gifted artist. The Silence Before the Whisper Comes can be purchased from most on line book retailers.

blue rain (by Bruce Kauffman The Silence Before the Whisper Comes Hidden Brook Press 2013 pg.28)

with this page before me
waiting to catch moisture
there are times when words
no longer freely fall
from an
ordinary sky

and on those days i take
the lavender bowl to
the barrel beneath
the corner eve of the house

i draw from barrel's surface
the wet words
floating there

then with tongs
dripping black ink
i separate and pull words
from the bowl
and place them gently
on a page

they
content
to be there

but their heart
is still floating
in yesterday's sky

Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Book review: The Silence Before The Whisper Comes By Bruce Kauffman)

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)

August 9, 2013

Book Review: I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp by Richard Hell


Where do ideas come from? How does an individual up with an idea that starts a whole movement? Does he or she think it up in a momentary flash of brilliance which causes them to have some sort of magical insight? Or is their insight born of a natural progression of events they have experienced up to that point in their lives combined with the environment they find themselves living at the time? Artistic movements don't just spring out of the ground without any antecedents, so the people, or person, who are the motivating force behind them must have come from somewhere as well. What is it about a person, what type of personality does it take, to be the individual who shapes an entire genre of artistic expression?

As it turns out, not very different from the rest of us in the beginning. According to his autobiography, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp, recently published by Harper Collins Canada, Richard Hell had a pretty much normal first few years growing up in America of the 1950s. So how did this guy who was weaned on Howdy Doody and other staples of middle class America stolidity become the person most now credit with founding the look and sound of punk rock in 1974? How did this person turn into the guy behind the short spiky hair, ripped clothes held together with safety-pins and the unbridled anger and irony which was copied so faithfully by punk rock bands and its fans from the early 1970s until today?

According to Hell his life started out conventionally enough. Born Richard Myers in 1949 in Lexington Kentucky, the son of two academics. His father parlayed a PHD into a professorship at University of Kentucky and his mother put off a career to raise her family. Who knows how he would have turned out if his father hadn't died of a heart attack when he was eight years old. For he describes an incident which occurred just a few weeks before his father died. Hell and a couple of buddies were planning on running away to sleep in a cave near by. The plan was they would meet up at midnight. When his father stumbled across his preparations for running away - a stash of cookies and other foodstuffs under his pillow - instead of punishing Hell he made him a deal. He would drive his son to the cave for midnight and if his friends showed up he could stay with them. However if the friends didn't show up he would have to come home with his dad.
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According to what Hell writes his academic career peaked in grade six and it was all downhill from there. Even though standardized testing in grade seven showed him to be one of the smartest kids in school throughout junior high school he was consistently close to failing. Although he would stay up all night in fits of anxiety over not being prepared he still couldn't bring himself to do the work properly. He describes the feelings this evoked in him in words akin to those one would normally use to describe the symptoms of withdrawal from drugs. Even then he resented the authority teachers had over him, and he says he elicited a promise from his future adult self to never forget how arbitrary and unfair adult rules were. He promises himself a life of adventure as an adult. The most important thing to remember as he grow older is to never let anyone tell him what to do.

However tempting it is to dismiss this as the self-fulfilling prophesying of somebody trying to impress readers with how deep his anti-authority roots were planted, he wouldn't have shown us how they were rooted in his resentment of those who were accepted by authority or the anxiety his refusal to bow to authority caused him initially if this the case. The behaviour is in keeping with a lot of kids - resentful of having to do work just because someone has told them to, but being too concerned about the consequences of not doing it to do anything about it. He shared the concerns, but still refused to do what was needed to assuage his anxiety shaping a pattern which was to continue for a good chunk of his life up until he quit music.

When he went onto high school the pattern of behaviour only intensified especially when he found another out cast to partner up with, Tom Miller. This was the beginning of a relationship that would see the creation of the seminal band Television in the early 1970s. Myers and Miller would eventually become Hell and Verlaine and be the founding fathers of New York's punk scene. What I've described is a compressed version of Hell's his early days and meeting with Verlaine. On the surface his story reads rather simplistically. Two young guys, far too smart for their own good, bored out of their minds by what the world has to offer, go looking for something, anything to stimulate their minds and imaginations.

While Verlaine was able to get some satisfaction out of forming Television and trying to perfect it, Hell was a different kettle of fish. Once the initial thrill of creating something was complete, he needed to move on to the next challenge and the next one after that. Of course the other problem with Television was the fact neither of its founders were willing to submit to anybody's authority which resulted in inevitable conflict, If either of them had even a semblance of emotional maturity they might have been able to resolve their problems, but the truth of the matter is both Hell and Verlaine come across as emotionally crippled and completely lacking in the ability to communicate any emotion aside from contempt.

Hell is brutally honest about himself. For while his younger self is busy sneering at those around him, the Hell who's writing the book tells us he was every bit as arrogant and self-serving as those he's busy deriding. We watch as the downward spiral which began in junior high continues to plunge him deeper and deeper into a pit as he descends into the abyss of heroin addiction. What's terrifying is how easy it was for him to go from lost teenager to adult searching for the next great adventure he promised himself as a youngster. It's hard reading about how he would degrade himself and others in his search for adventure. However, there are occasional flashes of brilliance which illuminate the pages and make you understand just what a gifted artist Hell has become.
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It seems like it's almost in spite of himself Hell was able to make an impression on both his peers and others in the music industry. Music critics from local rags to the New York Times raved about his final solo album, Destiny Street, with Robert Palmer of the Times going so far as to name it the best album of 1982. In 1976 Chris Stein, lead guitar player in the band Blondie, showed him a picture of four British musicians saying, "hey these guys all look just like you".

It was the Sex Pistols. Their manager had been in New York in 1974 and had been taken with Hell's look. He'd even offered to manage his career, but Hell didn't want anybody telling him what to do. So Malcolm McLaren went home to London and created his own band based on the template provided by Hell. Maybe punk would have happened without Hell, but he was definitely a major catalyst. No matter how inert he might have thought himself, he was the ingredient the music industry needed to shake itself out of the lethargy it had fallen into after the fall of the hippies.

Hell cuts the story of his life short at 1984, the year he quit music and began the serious quest to stop heroin. As he says there's nothing much more to tell - he's still alive and a writer, and there's nothing really exciting about the life of a writer. You do much the same thing day in day out. Aside for a little trouble at the end of the 80s and in the early 90s he was drug free from that day in 1984. His life of running from adventure to adventure was over. If one didn't know better you could say he had grown up.

While its by no means an easy read, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp is worth every moment spent in its pages. There are moments of sheer poetry among the dirt and grime which shine out like beacons guiding us ever onward in the hopes we will find something redeeming in this story of self-destructive genius. However Hell isn't interested in redeeming himself in our eyes. He concludes by saying if he had died at the point where this book ends, 1984, "there would have been left such scant evidence of me that my life would be mostly just a sad cautionary tale... My life is not different for having written this book - my life only comes into being by having been written here."

This isn't one of those life affirming autobiographies designed to inspire any of us in our own work. Instead its a glimpse into the creative mind pushed to its extreme in its search for stimulation. Anyone who still might have stupid romantic notions about artists and drug use will soon be cured of them after reading Hell's book. It's impossible if you're a creative person of any sort not to identify with at least parts of Hell's story and at some point I guarantee you'll think - there but for the grace of who the fuck ever, go I.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp by Richard Hell)

August 7, 2013

Book Review: Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream by Neil Young


Most celebrity autobiographies I've had the misfortune to read have been self-serving exercises in ego flexing and self congratulations. The worst are the ones where the subject confesses to all sorts of sins in an effort to portray themselves as some of sort humble person seeking redemption for their evil pasts. Not only do these confessionals smack of self-aggrandizing hypocrisy, I usually end up feeling like the person in question is trying to sell me on how brave and heroic they are for having managed to stop behaving like a spoiled rich brat. Who really cares how many and what drugs they took or how many people they slept with?

Thankfully there are some famous people out there who understand they aren't the centre the universe; not their's or anybody else's. The especially aware ones manage to tell the story of their lives as part and parcel of the events going on around them at the time. They may play a major part in the proceedings, but they're not the only player and they can talk about more than just themselves. Even when they do talk about themselves it's only because they want to tell you about somebody else or to try and share some of the wonder they have experienced during the course of their lives.

When I picked up Neil Young's autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream, just released by Penguin Canada in trade paperback after a successful run in hard cover, I was pretty certain it wasn't going to be a typical celebrity autobiography. However, what I wasn't prepared for was how much he would be willing to reveal of himself. Considering what an intensely private person Young is, I was extremely surprised at how casual he was about letting readers in past his defences. I'm not sure if he's even aware of how much he's let readers into his life and how much of his soul he's left on the pages of this book.
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I say this because of the wonderfully casual way the book is written. Reading it is like having a rambling conversation with a close friend. When you pick the book up after putting it down, it feels as if he's been waiting for you to come back into the room so he can pick up where you left off. No matter what he's been talking about it doesn't matter, what matters is the book makes you feel he's talking directly to you. Although he talks about the people, his friends and his family, throughout the book, you still end up feeling like your one of his closest confidants.

Like the best conversations this book covers a lot of ground. It wanders through time and geography from Northern Ontario in the 1950s to Hawaii and California in 2011. One of the first things he tells us is he's stopped drinking and smoking pot. After the surgery to repair the aneurysm in his brain his doctor recommended he stop smoking and he decided to follow his advice. We then learn this is making him a little nervous as he hasn't written music straight in over 40 years and he's concerned with what will happen. So to distract himself from worrying he talks about the various projects he's undertaken over the years which have served to give him a break from music whenever he's felt like he's needed it.

While he's no longer a majority owner of Lionel Trains he still loves the trains the company produces. Occasionally he and you will retire to his train room where he will regale you with details of his set up, the advances in train technology and his dreams for their future. While model trains have been a passion of his since childhood and is something he's quite willing to share with anyone who is interested, it's still something very personal. On the other hand the other two projects, outside of creating music and his family, which take up most of his time have the potential to be much more far reaching.

Lincvolt is the name he's given the project to create a luxury, full sized series hybrid electric car powered by biomass. Using a vintage Ford Lincoln Continental as the prototype he's set out to prove a car doesn't have to be small in order to be safe for the environment. He's perfectly aware North Americans are in love with their big cars and nothing anybody does will convince the majority to give them up. So he's made it his mission in life to sell people on the idea you can have your big car and save the environment too.

Naturally music is very important to him even when he's not making it. His biggest concern these days is the loss of sound quality caused the use of compression technology. The old analog sound we used to listen too when we bought records was much fuller than anything produced digitally. However, instead of just whinging about the good old days, Young is actually trying to do something about it by creating a new type of digital technology called PONO which will offer listeners as close to analog sound as possible with all the convenience they've grown used to from the digital age.
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Of course Young talks about his other plans for the future. Every so often he mentions how he's going to prepare for his next recording with Crazy Horse. He talks about how he and the band are going to set up their gear and spend a year with the music and seeing what they're able to create. However, every time he starts to talk about this he shies away from the subject and diverts off to something else. Eventually it comes out he's worried about over thinking the music. He doesn't like to think about creating, preferring to let it flow naturally.

However, the situation as he's writing the book, having given up pot and alcohol, is making him think more about it than it seems he likes. So every time he starts to become excited by the idea of making a new album, he always manages to change the subject. He lets on he's worried about what will happen but tries to tell us he's happy with what he has. However you can tell he will be devastated if the music is gone. No matter how much he tries to convince himself and us that writing this book is a substitute for creating music, and maybe he'll write more books, or how he needs the other things in his life to keep music fresh, without music his life will be irrevocably changed.

Having been around music as long as he has Young the majority of his friends are in the business. However, this isn't either a name dropping kind of book nor a book about other people. He talks about the people he's loved as friends who've passed on, his lasting friendship with Steven Stills, and occasionally mentions his friends Paul, Bruce and Bob with the same sort of casualness you or I would talk about the people we know. It's not name dropping, these are just happen to be the circles he moves in. These are the people who send him gifts in the hospital when he's recovering from brain surgery, who help him and his wife out when they want to raise money for a school for developmentally handicapped children like their son Ben they have created, and who can understand and appreciate the type of life he leads. There aren't many people who life in the same strata as Young, who have survived this long in popular music, and it's only natural for them to know and respect each other.

Unlike a number of memoirs, Young's book is firmly planted in the present and looking towards the future. Sure he talks about how he got to where he is now, and over the course of his book he retraces his career, but he continually comes back to the here and now. This isn't a conclusion to a life, rather a pause to refocus and evaluate before he starts out on what's next. Young has never lived his life attempting to please others by giving them what they want, one record company actually tried to sue him because his music wasn't enough like what he had done before, and he's still as mercurial as ever.

Waging Heavy Peace is a wonderful trip inside the mind of one of popular musics most enduring figures. He doesn't have any axes to grind - when someone asked him whether his trying to find a way of creating better quality digital music was a declaration of war on Apple his reply was he was waging heavy peace - he just wants to share with us his gratitude for having been able to know some incredible people and being able to do what he wanted to do. If you haven't had the opportunity to read this book yet take the time to spend some time with one of the more intriguing and interesting minds in popular music. You won't regret it.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream by Neil Young)

July 8, 2013

Book Review: Let's Start a Pussy Riot Curator Emely New, Edited by Jade French in collaboration with Pussy Riot


On February 21 2012 members of the Russian feminist performance art group/collective Pussy Riot put on an agit-prop performance in a priests only section of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Accused of religious hatred, two of the members of the group, Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnnikova are now serving two year sentences for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred in separate penal colonies - forced labour camps by any other name. A third member of the group, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was also arrested and sentenced to two years imprisonment, but her sentence was commuted to probation.

The defendants were held without bail from the time of their arrests in March 2012 until their trial on July 30 2012, an indication of how the course of justice is being perverted in this case. The trio claim their performance was not an act of hatred agains any organized religion, rather a protest against the increasing ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and Russia's President Putin. Considering how immediately after their performance in February the Church called on the government to make blasphemy a criminal offence, and it was only after this a criminal case was opened against the band, they have a point.

In Russia, the charge of "hooliganism" is used as a catch all for prosecuting unapproved behaviour. The final indictment of the three women for what was only a one minute performance ran to 2,800 pages. Its rife with statements condemning their blasphemy and corruption of Russian moral values through the importing of feminism and the idea of gender equality. One group, The Union of Russian Orthodox Women, went so far as to warn the population these ideas would inevitably lead to gay overpopulation and Russia vanishing from the world map. The only stumbling block for conservative commentators in their condemnations is the Russian language lacks the equivalent of the slang word "pussy". Which meant television viewers were treated to the site of priests mouthing the word vagina and "mad vagina" as a substitute for Pussy Riot.
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As the Russian government of Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church attempt to turn back the clock to the dark ages, groups and individuals within and outside of Russia have begun the process of trying to secure both Alekhina and Tolokonnikova's release through actions and fundraising activities. One of these fundraising projects is a new book being published by Rough Trade Books called Let's Start a Pussy Riot. As the title implies this is more than just a project to raise funds for the two women still incarcerated, its also a celebration of what the Pussy Riot collective stand for.

Artists from a variety of media and gender have all contributed samples of their work which either reflect support for the cause of feminism or are expressions of their own liberation as individuals not willing to be defined by anyone else's idea's of who and what they are. At issue of course is the continued assault on women all over the world in a variety of situations and circumstances. Whether women being raped as acts of war, subjugated for reasons of religion or just treated as second class citizens in general through the roles their society's designate for them.

In Russia, the United States and other countries feminism is being denigrated as being against the values of respective societies. Who's values? What are they based on? Why are one group of people allowed to stipulate values specifically designed to control the behaviour of another group of people? What gives anyone the right to designate one gender identity more acceptable than another? When we are dealing with something as benign as gender and personal identification what do values have to do with the issue anyway? It's not as if whether a person is gay, straight, bi, female, male, heterosexual, transgendered or whatever is going to affect anyone else's life. The state should take issue with what people do, how they treat others, not who or what they are.

These basic inalienable rights, the right to be yourself, are what each of the artists in this book are defending in their own way. Call it feminism if you wish, but the reality is the fight isn't about equality for women, the fight is for equality period. The fight isn't about women wanting to act like men or becoming men. It's not about gays and lesbians wanting to take over the world and corrupt our youth. No it's about accepting each of them for who they are and letting them be themselves no matter what role they want to play in society as individuals.
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The work in this book has been donated by artists, male, female and transgendered, who are concerned with the issues raised by Pussy Riot. They are concerned at the way simple human dignity is being denied people because of their gender identification. From an essay and interview with Antony Hegarty, lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons, the opening and closing court statements of the three members of Pussy Riot, to contributions from Peggy Seeger, Yoko Ono, Peaches and an amazing variety of artists from across all media and styles, each in their own way are starting a Pussy Riot. Their work will make you think about the issues the collective raises in terms of gender equality and feminism in particular and why the notion that feminism is something whose time has come and gone is a dangerous lie.

Some might be offended by some of the images in the book and not understand what they have to do with the topic at hand. However, you have to remember feminism is about reclaiming control of one's own identity and the freedom of expression that goes with it. The point of this book is to show support for the women arrested and to defend creativity as a means of both protest and an expression of ideas. On page eight appear the words "Call For Action" and they are followed on page nine by a brief explanatory poem/manifesto explaining what the book is about.

"Let's Start a Pussy Riot is a celebration:/A celebration of freedom of speech,/of visibility, of not taking our own situations for granted/Let's Start a Pussy Riot is a creative response:/culture and creativity to form our activism and inform our minds./Writing, painting, singing our opinions in order to get our message heard/Let's Start a Pussy Riot is a call for action:/To use what we have at our fingertips to fight/To show support for those brave enough to speak out/To challenge injustice through dialogue and conversation/To create a response that can say something larger than ourselves."

Supposedly freedom of expression and speech are one of the keystones of democracy. Art in all its myriad forms is humanity's purest form of expression as it allows us to express ideas and emotions realistically, metaphorically and symbolically in ways that stimulate thought and conversation. Once anyone starts to try and limit the means of expression through control of content they are putting limits onto what we're allowed to think and talk about.

Let's Start a Pussy Riot, in supporting the right of a group of women to express dissent, is more than just a book about the rights of women and gender equality. Its an expression of support for everyone who has the courage to stand up and be heard in the face of those who would keep them silent. While the money earned from sales of the book will go towards helping pay the costs of trying to secure the release of the members of Pussy Riot still in labour camps, in spirit it supports every artist around the world.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Let's Start a Pussy Riot - Curator Emely New, Edited by Jade French in collaboration with Pussy Riot)

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)

April 27, 2013

Interview: Augusten Burroughs Author of This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can't


You can't walk into a book store these days without seeing them. Self-help books. Not only is there usually a section reserved for them, they can take up the majority of some store's floor space. It seems like almost everybody with a pulse has the perfect solution for making your life better. There are self-help books on everything from how to lose weight to how to deal with the pain of heartbreak. You can buy a book that will tell you how to find your perfect match and right beside you'll find another book on how to dump him or her when they turn out not to be so perfect.

Normally I wouldn't be caught dead in that section of a book store let alone reading a self-help book. However, when I found out Augusten Burroughs, the man who wrote Running With Scissors, Dry, You Better Not Cry as well as a number of other books had published something people were calling a self-help book I was intrigued. This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can't turned out not to be nothing like any self help book I've ever come across for any number of reasons. The main one being its author appears to not only care about what he's talking about, but you also get the impression even if he's not lived through something he has the empathy and compassion to understand another person's experiences.

So,when I was offered the opportunity to talk with Burroughs, I jumped at the opportunity. However, I ran into a slight hitch, I had a difficult time in coming up with questions. Anything I came up with concerning This Is How he'd pretty much answered in the book. It was that good. Don't despair, I did come up with some question eventually and the result is below. Without further ado - Augusten Burroughs
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You've written very publicly about what some might think are very private matters. How do people react to you when they find out you're the guy behind stuff like Running with Scissors?

They don't react like I expected as they often share something really personal or make reference to something personal. One of the first stores I ever did a reading/signing in was in LA. I looked at the audience and it was full of well dressed cool people, people who I thought would never be my friends in real life. I was really nervous. But afterwards people were coming up to me, and telling me stuff that had happened to them. I'm constantly surprised by what people share. They tell me how much they identify with the books or certain parts of them and that leads them to share highly personal events in their lives. I've had perfect strangers, some of them people you might recognize, come up to me and tell me things. It's actually kind of daunting because I feel a responsibility to them. However, the implicit trust they have in me that allows them to talk to me is a real gift.

Writing has enriched my life in ways I never imaged. When I first thought of being writer I had visions of stacks of books in stores with my name on them, that sort of thing. But I never imagined this would be the reaction. I was just at a book signing in Portland Maine and three young women, maybe in their early twenties came up to me. One of them mentioned she had just lost her younger brother. Then one of the others said they were from New Town in Connecticut, you know where the shootings took place and it turns out all three of them had lost a younger sibling during the shootings. They had come to the signing because they wanted to tell me how much This Is How had helped them deal with their loss. I can't begin to describe how this made me feel

(There was a kind of awe in Burroughs voice as he recounted the details of the three young women, as if he couldn't believe he could have had this kind of impact on someone. I could tell he was still incredibly moved and more than a little awed by the fact they had come to see him just to tell him about the book. This had just happened the night before our interview and I think he might have still been feeling a little overwhelmed by the event as I could still here the wonder in his voice)

What are you hoping/ have hoped to accomplish by telling your stories ?

I just want them to be useful. I think if you're going to write this type of book, a self-help book, you have a moral obligation to the people who read it to make it something that will be of use to them. If you write these books you have to have done the work, or at least gone through something similar, or how can you talk about the experience with any authority? Some might call it a case of the blind leading the blind when it's one person telling you something based on what they've lived through. But if I were blind I'd rather have another blind person leading me around because they know what I'm dealing with and they're experiencing the same things.

You cover a huge variety of topics in "This Is How" where most people seem to focus on one subject. Was there any particular reason for this?

(At this point I interjected to tell him how much my wife had appreciated his chapter on Anorexia as it was one of the few books she had read - even with studying the subject when training as a therapist - which had understood the disease. So we talked a little about that before moving on.)

The chapter on Anorexia was the hardest to write in the book. For one thing I've no personal experience with it. But what I discovered in all my readings about the subject is how little actual work has been done on researching the disease. They still make the girls, and it's mainly girls who still suffer from it, keep food diaries (records of what they eat each day) which just makes them fixate on food even more. There really needs to be more work done on treatment.

There's a deeper commonality running through the book aside from the issues relevant to the individual topics. Honesty with yourself is at the root of pretty much everything I talk about. Take for example if a person feels like they are fat and when they look in the mirror all they see is fat. And they say they want to feel sexy, what a lot of people will conclude is they need to be thin to be sexy. However, they might not necessarily want to be thin - the thing they want is to be sexy - so no matter how hard they try they can't get thin because that's not what they really want. What they have to do is figure out how to be sexy without being thin. It's a process of stripping away everything you think you know to get the actual truth. You have to be ruthlessly honest with yourself, almost brutally so, in order to understand what it is you actually want. It can be expensive to be honest as you won't get certain things you want, because it turns out you only thought you wanted them. Only through honesty can you figure out what and how to get the things you want.

Do you have any expectations, or hopes, for what readers will take away from your books in general and "This Is How" specifically?

I wanted to change people's lives, to give them the tools to allow them to experience really profound changes. In the book I describe the things I've done to change my life. When I first had the idea of writing this book the last thing I wanted was to be associated with self-help books, it's such a cheesy category. Most of them just have people chasing after the ever elusive confidence, and most of the time they end up confusing it with competence, which has nothing to do with it. It's funny, people look at me up on stage giving a reading or a talk and they say how confident I am. There's no confidence involved in what I'm doing - I'm just focused on what I'm doing and not worrying about anyone else. You've just got to stop worrying about what other people may be thinking of you and stay focused on what you're doing in the moment.

When I wrote the book I sat down and thought about the things people have shared with me and the issues they talked about. Weight or finding someone to love and be truly connected to. I then tried to take readers through my thought process. There are too many of these books out there which give people recipes that don't work. I'm trying to not only give them the means to work through things but to show them how to do the work.

I noticed you didn't talk about a couple of issues - repressed memory and flashbacks. Was there any particular reason why you didn't address them in This Is How

They're not something I've experienced so I didn't think I should talk about them.

What do you think of the idea of forgiving an abuser as a means of getting on with your life?
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I don't know that forgiveness is necessary. I don't think one needs to spend so much time on the abuser. It's almost like waiting for an apology from your abuser, you're just giving them too much of your energy. Lets define forgiveness - what does it imply? A form of accepting what's happened. Forgiveness is a very loaded word - it means different things to different people. I'd rather focus on getting on with life. I wouldn't want to waste any of my brain cells on forgiving if it's holding me back. The implication is that you're still actively angry with your abuser and you need to forgive them in order to get over the anger so you can move on. However, if you obsess with forgiveness you're still spending time with the abuser and you won't be getting over the abuse.

For example, take what happened in Boston, with the bombs during the marathon. If I had my legs blown off by a bomb, which would I rather be doing. Finding a way to forgive the guy who set the bomb or figuring out a way I could run the Boston Marathon without legs? I'd be doing the second one. That's not the easy choice - it's easier to stay angry and stuck in the past. It's one thing to react to something, but to stay there is not conducive to healing. You've got to move on.

Then there's also the whole issue of there are just some things that are unpardonable. Forgiveness implies a pardon for doing something unpardonable. I'm not going to waste my energy looking into the eyes of someone like the guy who blew my legs off trying to find a way to forgive him for doing something that horrible when there are way more productive ways I could be spending my life. You've got to focus on moving on.

Why should readers follow your advice or even think you know what you're talking about?

(laughs) Who is this guy anyway? I may not have degrees but I've street smarts. I've overcome a lot - sexual abuse, death of a loved one, bad parents and experienced life. My nature is such I not only survived all this but I have thrived. I've always been psychologically ambitious in that I've never been willing to settle emotionally for anything less then what's needed. I've wanted more then that from life. I've learned how to turn the adversities in my life into enriching experiences. You can actually gain a lot from adversities and they make you the person you are today. You can make almost anything a learning or positive experience. I think I offer a good example of how to make the most out of what life gives you and how to keep moving on.

Which is roughly when his other phone started ringing which meant I had run over my allotted time slot. However, let me say a couple of things before ending this. Reading this over I realize it doesn't really capture Mr Burroughs as well as I had hoped. If you've read This Is How you'll know how much of a good example he is for anybody wishing to cope with whatever it is they want to cope with. Yet what impressed me the most, was how talking to him on the phone made me realize how much of himself he let come through in the book. In the book he comes across as compassionate and honest. In my review I had likened him to a loving and honest friend. Well that's just how he comes across in person.

I go back to when he told me about the three young women who talked about losing their siblings and the sense of wonder in his voice at the fact his work was able to help them. There was a humility about him which you can't capture on the page with the written word. He was genuinely grateful, and a little bit amazed, how he was able to help them. Coupled with the sense of responsibility he feels because of the impact his words have on people, this makes him a pretty remarkable human being.

(Article first published as Interview: Augusten Burroughs Author of This Is How 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.)

April 22, 2013

Book Review: This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can't by Augusten Burroughs


I hate self-help books. It's not just because I feel they are basically about taking advantage of other's misfortune or on the whole useless. No the real reason I hate them is what the words self-help implies. It always sounds as if you don't get better after reading the book it's your fault because you don't want to help your self. Calling a book self-help is like saying to your readers you can cure yourself if you really want to. Which carries with it the cavil of, if the book doesn't help you it's not the author's fault it's yours because you didn't really want to be well. Nothing better than making someone who has serious problems feel guilty about them on top of everything else.

I'm a recovered substance abuser, have dealt with post traumatic stress syndrome brought about by being sexually abused as a child and live with a chronic pain condition. I had lots of help from two therapists, a yoga teacher and a acupuncturist with the first two issues and I see a doctor regularly for treatment of the latter. There was, and is, no quick fix and I might never completely heal. The one thing I never did was consult a self-help book. I read a couple of books by people who had been through things similar to what I had survived, but that was it. They made me realize others in the world had had similar experiences and had found ways to recover.

All of which might make it sound strange I would be interested in Augusten Burroughs' latest book, This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can't, being released by Picador Books Tuesday April 23 2013. However, in spite of it being promoted as a self-help book, all that I knew and had heard of Burroughs made me suspect it wasn't going to be anything like the "I can cure you if you do exactly what I tell you to do" crap lining the shelves of every book store in the world. I didn't even have to get through the first chapter before I knew my suspicion was right: this is not a self-help book at all.
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What it is is a book for people interested in really helping themselves instead of looking for some sort of band aid which will make them presentable to the world. I knew I my first impression of Burroughs was right when he made the claim so called positive affirmations do more harm than good to people with low self esteem. I've never believed standing in front of a mirror telling yourself a lie in the hopes it will convince you to feel better about yourself would benefit anybody. Burroughs not only agrees with this, he quotes a peer reviewed scientific study which proved affirmations actually made people with low self esteem feel worse about themselves. The only people affirmations actually work for are those who already have a high self-esteem. The rest of us only feel like failures when we can't live up to the lie the face in the mirror is telling us - which doesn't do anything for our self-esteem.

Burroughs rips through the New Age gobbledygook pop psychology bullshit that has been permeating the airwaves since some moron said "I'm OK, Your OK" back in the 1970s and passed it off as a cure for what ails us. He shreds jargon with humour and compassion and dispels the myths we have been conditioned to believe about how we're supposed to feel and what our relationships should be like. Along the way he talks about love, death, illness, dieting, addictions, child parent relations and almost every other hot topic you can think of. However, don't come to this book looking for platitudes or expecting to find ten simple steps to a happy life. What you will find are some very simple, basic, common sense truths which might not make you happy, but will certainly make your life better or, at lease more fulfilling. However, be prepared to face another truth, they're might not be anything wrong with your life at all and dealing with that might even be harder than anything else.

Unlike most people who write one of these books Burroughs doesn't have a plan for you to follow. Instead he addresses each of the topics mentioned above individually and head on. He doesn't mince words or sugar coat anything when he gives his opinions. Instead he dissects everything about the subject and lays bare some very simple but breathtaking truths. If you've been dieting for twenty years trying to lose twenty pounds maybe it's time to question your obsessive behaviour? Or as he puts it "If you spend twenty years trying to get something and still don't have it, is it admirable to keep trying. Or did you pass admirable several miles back and it's getting close to straightjacket time" (Burroughs, Augusten -This Is How Picador, New York NY 2013 p. 31)

If dieting hasn't worked after twenty years isn't it obvious by now its never going to work? His suggestion of stopping dieting and just eat what you want and accept the results may not be what people want to hear. However, the reality is you'll be a lot happier and healthier. As he points out once you allow yourself to eat whatever you want (as long as there are no health issues etc involved) you will first get bored with overindulging and second, your body will take care of itself. The reason, he says, diets don't work is because we only want them to work, we don't need them to work. You must want to lose the weight more than you want the comfort you derive from eating.
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Of course this applies to almost anything. If you want to stop drinking, if you want to stop smoking, if you want to stop whatever, you must want to more than you want what ever pleasure you derive from the thing you're trying to stop. It's in this chapter on dieting he says one of the things which convinced me Burroughs knows what he's talking about. "If willpower is required to achieve this goal, that's how you know you don't want it enough on a deep, organic level. Mechanical failure will eventually occur." (ibid. p.35) I've been able to give up drugs and alcohol because I wanted to more than I wanted what they had given me, but I've not been able to give up cigarettes. Willpower got me through the first few months a few times, even a couple of years once, but each time the need for the comfort they provided has sent me running back to them.

Burroughs throws truths like this up in our faces all through the book. Sometimes it makes it extremely uncomfortable to read because, whether you know it or not, you start looking at yourself in the mirror he holds up. However, what's wonderful about this book, is you never feel like you're being judged. Its filled with humour (I now know the two things you never say to an Italian man about members of his family and they both make my wife laugh until she pees), but most of all you can feel his genuine compassion in every single word. Reading this book is like having a conversation with that friend who has never been afraid to tell you the truth but always does so with love in their hearts.

Burroughs doesn't have any letters before or after his name nor does he make any claims to having some great mystical insights (thankfully) into the mysteries of human behaviour. What he does have is a seemingly innate ability to draw upon personal experiences and observations of other's behaviour and distill from them carefully thought out conclusions. Occasionally he backs up what he's saying by quoting a scientific study, but even without substantiation you can't help trusting what he says. Best of all, while he's a firm believer in individuals taking responsibility for their lives, he never once makes you feel inadequate or in any way to blame for your circumstances.

We live in a world of instant gratification. Financial empires have been built around the reducing of human emotions to a commodity sold and packaged on day time talk shows by modern day snake oil sales people. Public self flagellation is not only encouraged, its rewarded with Andy Warhol's fifteen minutes of fame. So when someone like Burroughs comes along and says what he has to say many will not want to listen. Of if they do, won't like what they hear. However, for those who are willing to listen they won't find a more understanding and compassionate voice anywhere. No one book will instantly make your life better, and neither will This Is How. However, it will point you in the right direction so you can begin whatever journey you feel you need to take. Which makes it worth its weight in gold.

(Article first published as Book Review: This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can't by Augusten Burroughs on Blogcritics.

March 28, 2013

Book Review: Tripping With Allah by Michael Muhammad Knight


The idea of using drugs in order to achieve some sort of spiritual enlightenment has been around for probably as long as humanity. Whether looking for answers to great mystical questions or just on a personal quest for enlightenment the use of external stimulants cut across all lines of race, creed and colour. However, there's also a lot of bullshit associated with the whole take drugs and see god line of thought. First there's the whole one man's sacrament is another man's criminal offence or sacrilege. Then there are those who will look for any excuse to take drugs and pass it off as looking for god in an attempt to justify their actions.

Complicating matters is the fact there seem to be just as many ways to achieve hallucinations without drugs as with. Is a vision more valid because you starved yourself until you were out of your mind instead of ingesting a peyote button? The intent is the same after all. You're trying to enter an altered state of conscience through artificial means. Of course, you also have to ask why does a person feel they need to have some sort of vision about their god. Are they looking to make themselves important because they've received some great communique to spread among the masses? If not that, what is it people are looking for when they try for these visions? They must feel like something is lacking if they are so desperate to talk to god they're going to put themselves through any of these ordeals.

It was with all this in mind I read Michael Muhammad Knight's book about drugs, Islam and his continued attempts to define his place in the world Tripping With Allah, published by Soft Skull Press and distributed by Publishers Group Canada. Knight writes about himself with an honesty that borders on public flagellation. However, unlike most of those who write about themselves it's never his intent to either garner followers or his reader's sympathy. If he ever ended up on Oprah instead of her her audience of repressed middle class housewives' feeling all warm and cuddly from hearing about someone else's suffering, their world view would be so shattered they'd probably wind up trashing the studio before heading home to castrate their husbands.
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Okay, maybe that's a little over the top, but you get the idea. Not only do his books expose things about himself most people wouldn't admit even to their shrinks for fear of being strapped in a jacket whose sleeves face the wrong way, he also has a nasty habit of reminding white Europeans that most of what's happening in the world is as a direct result of actions carried out in their names. Whether it be our colonial history coming back to haunt us or our current form of colonial oppression in the form of global markets and the exploitation of developing nation's natural resources. What's even scarier about Knight is now he has a Harvard education, he can map out the patterns clearly enough, with examples, anybody can understand them, and then cite sources confirming what he's talking about. Examples in this book range from how the desire for sugar cane in Europe led to decimating the population of West Africa via the slave trade to how the colonial powers in Rawanda sowed the seeds of discontent between peoples which resulted in genocide.

So what the hell does any of this have to with drugs and Allah? Well, Knight looks at the world in terms similar to that of chaos theory. What are the ripple effects of him, and others like him, ingesting a drug. What's the history behind a drug's availability in the West and what's had to happen in order for this drug to end up in his hand? Then there's also the whole question of the cultural implications of a white guy taking a drug whose origins lie somewhere in the depths of the Amazon rain forrest and the indigenous people of the region. Doesn't this just make him another one of those New Agers with more money than sense? Taking some indigenous people's tribal rite and by turning into a commercial commodity (pay X amount of money for a weekend retreat with Shaman and drug and see god) make it impossible for them to afford it any more.

Of course there's also the whole question of whether or not there's a role for drugs to play in Islam. In spite of the myths about assassins and hash eating and tales told by the Beat generation of ingesting drugs in Muslim countries, much of mainstream Islam takes the lines in the Quran prohibiting prayer while intoxicated as the final word on the matter. The good scholar he is Knight collects and compares all the arguments for and against using drugs to aid in receiving messages from Allah. While there appears to be some wriggle room depending on interpretations and traditions followed, its really only the mystical Sufis who talk openly about utilizing drugs to achieve enlightenment.

Of course all these arguments and discussions are presented in Knight's own unique style. He flips between scholarly dissertation and free association/stream of conscience without skipping a beat or losing his thread. He circles around his primary subject matter of drugs like a bird of prey hovering over its target until he finally drops out of the sky and brings us smack dab into a moment. However, just as we settle into what are expectations have caused us to anticipate, as he brings us through his experience and their impact on his life, he slams on the brakes and begins to deconstruct the book your holding in your hands.

He had set out to write a book about drugs and Islam in the style of his early novels but Harvard University and academia wouldn't allow it. He worries aloud how and what his university education and studies have done to him. What happened to the wild and crazy voice which spoke to a generation of disenfranchised young Muslims? Has schooling doomed him to the world of footnotes and cited sources? Yet when he looks back on the days when he was the anarchist/punk author, describing the physical, mental and emotional abuse he put himself through, you wonder what he's missing.
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Yet in the midst of this furious retracing of his path he also has what I think is the most important revelation of the book. His drug of choice, his addiction if you like, is writing. He talks of those he's met who say they are writers yet have somehow never managed to put pen to paper. While he, on the other hand, can't stop writing. He's stayed up late into the night abusing his body writing, he has a variety of incomplete manuscripts stored in his desktop computer and he has his clearest visions through the spilling out of words on paper or into his keyboard. Other drugs have proven to be hit and miss in their effectiveness, but writing is the one he always comes back to and the one which always seems to deliver.

Knight is at his self analytical best in this book. For all his apparent flailing in different thematic directions he is carefully guiding us through his personal process. He has travelled the byways and highways of North America, Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia visiting shrines, holy sites, mosques, mosh pits, Seven-Elevens, punk clubs,gyms and wrestling rings looking for his truth. He has read the work of Islamic scholars dating back to the early days of the religion, the writings of Elijah Muhammad and listened to the wisdom of Clarence 13X who would become Allah, the founder of the Five Percenters, via the words of those in the movement today.

The voice he is so worried about losing is strong and clear - it is the culmination of all his experiences. He is a reflection of everything he has seen, been, experienced and prayed for and this book is both a summarization and conclusion to the journey he set out on when at the age of seventeen after reading the autobiography of Malcolm X he converted to Islam. Out of the chaos that has been his life, highlights of which are included in this book, he has come to the calm of acceptance. He's dealt with his personal demons and is now ready to move on to whatever awaits him as an artist, an academic and a Muslim.

Tripping With Allah may not be the great Islamic drug book he set out to write. Instead, Knight has treated us to a kind of post modern Portrait Of An Artist As A Young Man. It now seems he's ready, as James Joyce put it, "to go forth to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his people". Don't come looking to this book for the answers to your own questions. What you will find is one of the more vivid descriptions of the artistic soul taking the next steps on its long road of creativity and one man coming to terms with himself and his beliefs written with passion and truth. It might not always be a pretty picture, but its always thought provoking and intelligent.

(Article first published as Book Review: Tripping with Allah: Islam, Drugs, and Writing by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)


December 26, 2012

My Ten Favourite Reads Of 2012


As another year winds down we folk who review things bring out our lists of those things we deem the best of the year gone by. Realistically these lists are of no real value to anyone as they're incredibly subjective and reflect the views of the person writing them and nothing more. However, they're fun to put together and a good way of reminding yourself there were somethings of quality released along with the dross.

For all the claims people make about traditional publishing being in trouble or a thing of the past, there were a number of quality books released from various houses. While the news of the proposed merger between Random House and Penguin Books generated more doom and gloom predictions regarding the traditional book industry, authors are still writing and presses are still printing. Unlike previous years where I was hard pressed to find enough books to fill a top ten I could easily have filled 15 places. Oh and none of the books were self-published.

Of the books I read published in 2012 the following were the ones to leave the strongest impression. Some are from big publishers while others from small presses but no matter who published them they all made my life more interesting. For all the modern technology at our disposal and the ever increasing options available for amusing ourselves, I'm still happiest curling up with a great story. Nothing anybody's invented yet comes close to stimulating the imagination or taking you out of yourself for hours on end. You don't need any special tools or appliances to experience a book - just your mind, enough light to read by and you're off.

William S Burroughs Vs. The Qur'an by Michael Muhammad Knight. Continues the author's examination of the various manifestations of Islam in America. In this book he looks at those members of the Beat movement of the 1950s who claim to have embraced Islam and tries to find ways in which he can relate to them. Another fine work of scholarly introspection on the nature of faith and religion and the history of Islam in America.

Tough Shit: Life Lessons From A Fat Slob Who Did Good by Kevin Smith. Smith is irreverent, rude, crude and probably offensive to any number of people. However, he also has more to intelligent things to say about the nature of art and what it takes to be an artist than any of his contemporaries. Scatological and brilliant in equal measures.

Throne Of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. For those who are tired of lily white fantasy heroes and swarthy villains battling in worlds based on Western myths this book will be a wonderful tonic. A great story filled with wonderful characters set in a world filled with djinn and other beings from Middle Eastern/Northern Africa mythology. First book in what promises to be a great series

The Modern Fae's Guide To Surviving Humanity Edited by Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray. A wonderful anthology of quirky, sometimes scary and often funny tales about how the fae are getting by in the modern world. Whether a transgendered werewolf living in the East Village in New York City or the Unseelie Court running a chain of discount department stores (putting a glamour on their "greeters" so they can get through a shift without killing anyone) they're doing their best to blend but not always with the greatest of success.

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account Of Native People In North America by Thomas King. It's the land stupid. Not really a history of Native people, more a history of what's happened since Europeans came to North America. They wanted land and had to figure out what to do about all those people who were already inconveniently living on it. King recounts the various methods used to separate the indigenous population of North America from their land. From massacres to removal the policies may have changed over the years, but the goal still remains the same today - get those Indians off the land they aren't putting to "proper" use.

Sacre Bleu by Christopher Moore. The art world will never be the same. One of Moore's best books in years is set in Paris during the late 19th century. The impressionist movement is taking the art world by storm, and its various artists are being targeted by the mysterious colour man and his beautiful accomplice. This wonderfully wise and comic tale is part mystery and part exploration of the nature of art. Populated by a mixture of fictional and some colourful characters from art history Moore's latest shows why he is one of best comic writers of his generation.

Forge Of Darkness by Steven Erikson. What do you do for an encore after writing a brilliant ten book epic fantasy series? Why start writing a new series set in the first one's pre-history of course. After bringing The Malazan Book Of The Fallen to a successful conclusion, Erikson hasn't wasted any time in finding new aspects of the universe he co-created to life. Equal parts fascinating and frightening, readers of the previous series will run into some familiar characters, but in totally new circumstances as he delves into the history of the enigmatic Tiste Andi, worshippers of Mother Dark. Another brilliant piece of world building from this master story teller - Erikson is the gold standard against which all fantasy work should be measured against in the future.

Except The Queen by Mydori Snyder and Jane Yolen. The number of women writing fantasy seems to be few and far between these days. (I don't count the romance novels with vampires and werewolves they call paranormal romance as fantasy - Harlequin with fangs doesn't fantasy make) Mydori Snyder and Jane Yolen have always been two of the best and this latest co-authored offering shows why. Not only do they have splendid imaginations they can also weave a wonderful web mixing the exotic and the mundane. Their talents are on full display here as they tear the fabric between our world and fairy allowing them to intermingle with startling results.

Blood and Bone by Ian C Esslemont. While Steven Erikson delves into the past, Ian Esslemont continues to recount events occurring during the time of the Malazan Empire in the world they created together. Here Esslemont takes us to a part of the world which up until now has been shrouded in mystery. A dark and dangerous continent ruled by strange magic and haunted by a cataclysmic past is the sight of a convergence of a variety of forces. Will history repeat itself or can those involved manage to find what they're looking for without destroying themselves and the continent in the process. A great adventure filled with characters who will both frighten and delight you.

The Art Book: New Edition by Various Editors. One of the great pities about North American society is how we've managed to make the fine arts inaccessible to the majority of the population. What great works of art we have are stashed away in galleries which seem more designed to intimidate than welcome most people. Even when collected into books they are out of most people's reach due to cost. The Art Book: New Edition not only provides readers with the chance to see quality reproductions of great works of art at a remarkably affordable price, it does so in a far less intimidating manner than any other collection of its kind. While art historians might be put off by the work being arranged in alphabetical order according to artist's name, the rest of us can revel in the joy of seeing examples of modern and medieval art side by side. With each piece accompanied by a short explanatory note explaining the significance of the work, this book serves as a great introduction to the wonders of the visual arts.

(Article first published as My Ten Favorite Reads Of 2012 on Blogcritics.)

December 23, 2012

Book Review: With Robert Lowell and His Circle by Kathleen Spivack


I've written the occasional poem, but under no circumstances would I ever consider myself a poet. There's a world of difference between writing a poem and being a poet. However, trying to articulate exactly what separates poets from the rest of us, from other writers even, is not the easiest thing in the world either. In her latest book, With Robert Lowell and His Circle, published by the University Press of New England (UPNE), poet and author Kathleen Spivack, has managed to pull the veil back on this mystery through her look back on her years with the great 20th century American poet Robert Lowell.

In 1959 Spivack received a bursary to study with Lowell in Boston in lieu of her senior year at university. Through the process of recounting her days as first his student and then friend and confidant she not only paints a picture of this great, and greatly disturbed artist, but introduces us to the other brilliant minds she came in contact with as a result of her relationship with Lowell. From her fellow classmates in that first year's seminar, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, to other lessor known but equally gifted artists, each of them are lovingly remembered as both individuals and as poets.

Initially we see these great figures through the eyes of the nervous and insecure student who finds herself alone in a strange and cold city. Boston, Harvard University, Boston University and New England are characters of equal, if not greater, significance than many of the individuals she meets. Intimidating, cold, rigidly bound by its conservative class structure and rabidly misogynist attitudes (as late as the 1980s Harvard University would boast it would rather face law suits than give equal opportunities to women) the atmosphere wasn't one guaranteed to set a young woman at ease. When combined with showing up in Boston only to find her teacher "unavailable" due to having suffered a nervous breakdown, it didn't make for a very auspicious start to her dreams of being a poet.
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Even when classes finally start she finds herself at sea. Lowell isn't what any of us would call a typical teacher. Our initial impression is of someone who is as far removed from reality as we can imagine. He obsesses about the meaning of a single line in a poem asking "What does it mean" over and over again. However it appears he's holding a conversation with himself as almost none of his students dare to interject. He also appears to be incredibly judgemental, asking whether some poet is "major or minor" with the answer being based on criteria nobody else is quite able to fathom. Imagine being a young and almost painfully shy student even daring to bring her own work to this class and having it put through this type of analyses in front of you.

However, Lowell, for all his eccentricities, does take her in hand and introduces her to those he thinks will be of help to her. In this manner Spivack is brought into the circle of poets who are both his students and associates. Through her meetings with Sexton, Plath and other female poets we are introduced to the horrors societal pressure can wrack upon a creative woman. The picture Spivack draws makes it clear how much the New England disdain, and especially Harvard University's, for women led to their downfall.Trying to conform to the dutiful housewife image expected of them by the society they found themselves in must have been bad enough. Compounding this was the indignity of seeing men of no greater talent receiving the recognition denied them through publication and acceptance. This must have been an incredibly bitter pill for them to swallow. Maybe both Plath and Sexton would have taken their own lives in the end anyway - Sexton seems to have had a fascination with suicide - but the circumstances they found themselves in couldn't have helped.

Of course it wasn't just the women who suffered. As we watch Spivack get to know Lowell over the course of the years, from 1959 until his death in 1977 from a sudden heart attack, we learn the breakdown he was suffering from when she first arrived wasn't an isolated incident. A manic-depressive, Lowell was in and out of institutions for most of the time Spivack knew him. Learning to recognize the symptoms of an approaching breakdown she would deliberately start to distance herself from him when they started to manifest. His behaviour, erratic at the best of times, during these build ups made him unbearable for her to be around. Ironically once he was committed, her house was one of the few places considered safe enough for him to visit on day release.

If Lowell was obsessive in his analysis of others work, it was nothing compared to the rigours he subjected his own writing. Spivack tells of knowing of upwards of 200 drafts existing in the case of certain poems. Even after a poem's publication Lowell would continue with his revisions, searching for the absolutely perfect word and line. Yet it wasn't necessarily the search for perfection that was so harmful. Like his contemporaries among the women poets the need to conform to society's expectations of gender played havoc on Lowell and other male poets of Spivack's acquaintance. Men were supposed to be hard drinking, stoical and above all unemotional beings who followed manly pursuits like hunting and definitely didn't do anything so effete as become poets.

While the men might have had the support of the academic establishment and those behind the scene in the literary world, they were still expected to be "men". Is it any wonder Alan Ginsberg wrote "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness" in his great poem Howl? Men and women poets, people with minds beautifully tuned to the rhythms of the universe like nobody else, were slowly driven mad by having live almost dual lives. Those among them who were homosexual suffered even more, but it was just as bad for the straights as well. Poets were all in the closet as they were forced to hide sensitive natures or steal seconds in which to write the poetry that allowed them feel alive.
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Spivack was blessed, and is wonderfully honest about admitting this, with being in the right place at the right time. Initially I was rather disconcerted by the fact the book seemed more autobiographical than about those whom the title suggests its about. However, as the book progresses and we see how the lives of these amazing poets come to interweave with her own I began to appreciate her decision to take this approach. Many of the figures in this book are known to us only through poems in anthologies or through dry academic biographies. Meeting them through Spivack's memories not only lifts them out of the books and off the page, it turns them into people of flesh and blood.

It also has the wonderful effect of breathing life into their poetry. After reading about the sweat and blood they would pour into each of their creations I want to go back and read their work again. For when I do, they won't just be words on a page anymore written by some anonymous person whom I'm supposed to admire because history tells me to, they'll be poems by a real person. Somebody whose kitchen I've sat in, who I listened to as they agonized over whether a line or even a word was right and who laughed and cried like any of us, but then had the bravery to attempt to put those feelings down on paper.

Spivack does the extraordinary of making the poets in her book both ordinary and special at the same time. Ordinary, in the fact they are her friends whom she sees on a regular basis during the 1960s and 1970s, and special for the legacy of brilliance they have left for us. Lowell, who mentored Spivack and other writers, suffered and struggled to overcome the antipathy the world around them had towards his passion not only managed to produce works of genius but take others in hand and help them fulfill their potential.

Spviack's portrayal of Lowell in particular, but the others as well, is both heartfelt and honest. Unlike an "official biographer" who is boringly objective in their depictions, she has no qualms about letting her affection for her subjects shine through or letting us know how much she admired somebody. However, she's not blind to their faults either and is unstinting in her honesty when listing them. At the same time she doesn't try to hide the fact these are her impressions of these people. She does give us indications of other people's impressions of them, Lowell especially, by including quotes from her contemporaries at the end of almost every chapter which address an aspect of their character.

While this book is by no means a definitive study of the work and lives of the poets you'll meet within its pages, it provides an even far more valuable service. It allows us the chance to look behind their reputations and the myths that have grown up around them to see them as the complex and interesting people they were. This book is probably the best introduction to the world of American poetry in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s you're liable to read.

Article first published as Book Review: With Robert Lowell and His Circle by Kathleen Spivack on Blogcritics.)

December 16, 2012

Book Review: House Of Cash: The Legacies Of My Father, Johnny Cash by John Carter Cash


As the only child of the marriage between two music icons, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash John Carter Cash grew up in what must have been a rarified atmosphere. When your parent's house guests range from Billy Graham to Bono and you spend much of your early childhood on the road it's fair to say that your upbringing isn't going to be what anyone would call normal. However, your parents are still your parents no matter who they are, and you see them differently from the way anyone else does. Seeing them before they have their morning coffee or at home out of the spotlight gives you a far different perspective.

Since Cash's death in September 2003, only four months after his wife, Carter Cash has been combing through the family archives. As the release of four compilations of previously unreleased Cash material in the form of multi-disc sets through the Legacy label show he has proven to be a careful and meticulous caretaker of his parent's memory. The musical treasures he has unearthed have reminded the world of not only the diversity of Cash's musical interests but the depth and breadth of his world view.

Now in an attempt to shine a light on the man he knew as his father, Carter Cash has opened the family vault a little wider. In a new book, House Of Cash: The Legacies Of My Father, Johnny Cash, published by Insight Editions, he has combined his memories of his father with an intriguing collection of Cash's personal papers and photographs to bring the man behind the myth to life.
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You might wonder what there left to tell about Cash's life. What with him having written two autobiographies, a movie having been made about his early life and courtship of June Carter and him always being so open about his struggles with addictions and the other demons in his life it's hard to imagine there's anything left to add to the story. If you're reading the book in the hopes of finding some startling revelations or unearthing new tidbits about Cash then you will be disappointed. However, this is a son's view of a very public figure, and as such we see the man from a far different perspective than any that's been offered before. In of itself that lends the book a validity it would otherwise lack if it were merely another biography looking to mine already overworked material.

Over the course of the book the picture Carter Cash draws of his father shows that in spite of his complexities, contradictions and celebrity he was still very much the down home country boy. In spite of living in fancy houses and being driven around in a limousine he still would go squirrel hunting and cook them up for supper. On Valentine's Day he might buy his wife fancy jewellery, but he'd also always make her a rough hand made card each year as well. A family shopping list included in the book reads much like any household's, including such staples as white bread, bologna and lard. True that would change latter in life as he and his wife became more health conscious (among the items included in the book are family recipes for among other things the Cash family version of a vegetarian burger) but that doesn't change the fact he seemed to make a special effort to keep his family life as home spun as possible.

Part of that attempt at keeping his family life grounded in the common place was both his and his wife's refusal to become attached to material items. While some might say the trappings of celebrity don't mean much to them, in the Carter Cash household those weren't just words. They would do things like sell their classic Rolls Royce in order to pay for a trip to Israel for their employees and their families. After his wife died, Cash started giving away everything he owned. He had always claimed she was what was most precious to him, and once she was gone nothing else seemed to have much value for him anymore.
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Of course things weren't always idyllic in the Cash family home. In the early 1980s Cash fell back into drug addiction again and Carter Cash tells about fearing his parents would end up divorcing the fights at home were so bad. One of the letters included in the book is a copy of one Cash wrote to his son from the Betty Ford Clinic during this time. He doesn't try to apologize or explain himself to his son. Instead he tells him what his days consist of, including how he attending a lecture on meditation and that's he learning how to meditate. He then goes on to define meditation as the listening half of prayer adding the codicil of "Isn't that neat?"

As you might expect from our public knowledge of Cash and his wife their faith played a very large role in their lives. While they were good friends with Billy Graham and Cash was never shy about stepping up and "testifying" about his beliefs, his son also remembers his father being completely without judgement about other people's beliefs and practices. When his eldest daughter, Rosanne, from his first marriage, was interested in astrology instead of disapproving he told her to read as much as she could and find out all about it. What comes clear in this book is that while Cash might have been a devout Christian he believed in every individual's freedom to find their own way.

No matter how much success Cash achieved musically he continued to remain an outsider and something of a rebel. Without a record contract in the 1990s and looking to record again he was reluctant to work with established Nashville producers. Which was when Rick Rubin walked into his dressing room and said, "Come into the studio with me and make the music you've always wanted to make. Sit in front of the microphone and sing your songs they way you want".

According to Carter Cash nobody had ever offered his father this opportunity before. When one of the resulting recordings, Unchained won the 1996 Grammy award for best country album without any support from Nashville or country music stations Cash and Rubin took out a full page advertisement in music magazines. Featuring the infamous "finger photo" the copy read "American Recordings (Rubin's label) and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville Music Establishment and country radio for your support".

Aside from his own memories of his father, Carter Cash has also solicited others close to his father for their recollections of his dad for inclusion in the book. These include friends of the family, Cash's daughters from his first marriage and friends like Kris Kristofferson and others from the music industry. Each of them comment on Cash's generosity and kindness to both them personally and others. While this was never something Cash spoke about when he was alive, both he and his wife dedicated themselves to helping others as much as they were able. Unlike others who might see these types of acts as photo opportunities, they did these things because they were in a position to do them. From giving a drunk on the street a 100 dollar bill to visiting sick people in the hospital it was all one in the same thing to them.
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The memorabilia included in this book, ranging from copies of everything from song lyrics in Cash's hand writing, examples of his home made Valentines for his wife to samples of his photography and his dabbles in painting and sketching, are more than just curiosities. Each of them, no matter how seemingly trivial, are another little piece in the overall picture that was Johnny Cash. They also add to the highly personal flavour the author has created by telling the story of his father's life as seen through his eyes growing up in The House Of Cash.

From the small boy who see's his father as a giant to be worshipped, the slightly older boy worried about the wonderful world of his father and mother falling apart for reasons he doesn't understand, to the young man and adult who realizes the amazing lessons his father taught him. Each stage in their life together is examined with honesty and while Carter-Cash never lost his respect for his father, he isn't blind to his faults. In fact it says more about Cash than anything else, that in spite of his flaws and the hard times he put them through, his children still can love him unconditionally.

Cash's legacy as a musician has long been established. In his new book about his father's life Carter Cash lets us know more about the man and the parent behind the guitar and out of the limelight. What comes clear is there wasn't really much difference between the two. What we saw on stage, for good and for bad, was Johnny Cash. As it turns out, while there were some hard times, the good won out in the end. As Carter Cash puts it so succinctly in describing his parent's marriage "Their life was not necessarily 'happily ever after', but rather 'happy after all'. Life isn't always easy and isn't always glamourous, but its what you do with what you have that makes it worthwhile. Carter Cash shows us how his father always did his best to make life for both hims and his family worthwhile.

Article first published as Book Review: House Of Cash: The Legacies Of My Father Johnny Cash by John Carter Cash on Blogcritics)

December 9, 2012

Book Review: The Ponderables by Tom Jackson


Almost since we climbed down out of the trees humanity has been trying to define the universe and our place in it. Gradually we developed methods by which we could codify and analyze the information at our disposal in order to formulate answers. At first these took the form of simplistic superstitions based on a myriad of belief systems and myths. However as the years passed and our knowledge grew we developed methods which allowed us to come up with answers based on facts. This in turn created a body of information common to all humanity independent of individual belief systems. It hasn't always been smooth sailing especially when discoveries have flown in the face of accepted wisdom or contradicted the teachings of powerful religious bodies.

For some reason people are more afraid of rational explanations and scientific facts than they are of mysticism and unfounded beliefs. Even today religious fanatics of many faiths not only refuse to accept proven scientific theories, but are insisting their individual beliefs be given equal status in spite of there being no proof as to their validity. One of the reasons they're able to get away with this is the majority of people know almost nothing about the various rational means used to define the universe. For some reason most of us see these areas of study as completely inaccessible and assume they can only be understood by a few people. A new series of books by British science author Tom Jackson, The Ponderables goes a long way towards refuting that sentiment. In fact, judging by the first three volumes; The Elements: An Illustrated History of the Periodic Table, Mathematics: An Illustrated History of Numbers and The Universe: An Illustrated History of Astronomy, this series will not only help demystify science it will remind people of just what an amazing and magical world we live in.
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Each of the three books shows how our awareness and knowledge of its subject matter has developed over the course of human history. However instead of merely recounting dry facts and figures Jackson manages to bring the individuals responsible for some of the world's great scientific breakthroughs to life by not only recounting their discoveries but telling us the story behind them. Divided up into a hundred great milestones in each area's history we are able to witness the growth of awareness and knowledge from the time of ancient Greece to the present day. Each book also comes with a handy dandy 12 page pull out timeline that can be used for quick reference. On the reverse side you'll find twelve pages of information specific to each subject. Seasonal star charts in The Universe, great mathematical enigmas in Mathematics and a chart of elements in their atomic order in The Elements

Aside from talking about the various individuals and their discoveries, each section not only contain illustrations which help to explain their significance, Jackson also includes explanatory notes ensuring readers won't have any trouble understanding what's being discussed. While this is not some simplistic "science made easy" type of book, Jackson has the ability to make the material accessible and interesting. Not being a person with a significant background in the sciences I was pleased to see he doesn't make any assumptions about his reader's knowledge. Yet at the same time not once do you have the feeling that he's talking down to you. It's like having a well educated and personable tour guide through the history of each subject.

Of course it doesn't hurt that he includes such historical events like Hennig Brand (a 17th century German alchemist) being the first on record to discover a new element. Boiling his urine down he watched as it began to glow in the dark and named the resultant powder phosphorus. But it's not just elemental scientists who know how to have fun, mathematicians are no slouches either. The Russian Ladislaus Bortkiewicz developed one of the main tools used in statistics in 1898 when he computed the odds of a Prussian cavalryman being killed when kicked by a horse. Or did you know astronomers have come up with a term for the opposite of The Big Bang which created the universe. They call it the Big Crunch - but don't worry they figure we've got a few billion years until all of matter collapses in on itself.
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Those unfamiliar with the history of science might also be surprised to discover that Astronomy has proven to be one of the most contentious issues down through the ages - at least in the Western world. Starting with Aristotle in ancient Greece it was believed the earth was at the centre of the solar system and everything, including the sun, revolved around us. This fit in nicely with the Catholic Church's view of the world and anybody who disagreed with them ran into all sorts of trouble with the Inquisition. In spite of being able to offer conclusive proof that the earth, and the other known planets revolved around the sun, Galileo Galilei, facing jail time and potential burning at the stake for heresy, was forced to recant his theories. It wasn't until 1992 the Vatican apologized for its mistreatment of Galileo.

Of course that wasn't the first time he had gone against conventional wisdom. There was also the incident with the two canon balls of different sizes which he dropped off a building and observed they both hit the ground at the same time. Up until then accepted doctrine was the larger object would fall faster than the smaller one, but Galileo's simple proof showed how gravity doesn't care about size and exerts the same amount of pull on all objects.

Watching human knowledge grow over the centuries is both fascinating and revealing. For not only do we grow to understand how its a cumulative process, we also realize that most of the information was there for anybody to discover, it was only a matter of observation. As our technology has become more sophisticated so has the equipment we use for making our observations. We've gone from watching the night sky through simple telescopes to high powered observatories to finally the Hubbell telescope in orbit. The observation of particles has graduated from microscopes to electron-microscopes to super conductors.

However, what I find most impressive about Jackson's books is how they manage to convey the wonder and magic of the universe we live in while showing there are rational explanations for all that we see. Knowledge helps us to understand the world around us and in the process deepens our wonder as we realize how special and rare it is. The Ponderables series introduces us to some of the most important people and events over the course of humanity's history who have been responsible for unveiling the world's mysteries. After reading them you can't help but be excited by the magic still waiting to be revealed.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Ponderables by Tom Jackson on Blogcritics.)

November 13, 2012

Book Review: The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account Of Native People In North Americaby Thomas King


That Thomas King is sure one good writer. He writes those funny stories about Indians. Not funny ha-ha, even though sometimes they are that too, but funny that's kind a weird funny. Like his Indians aren't Indians like you know them right. I mean some of them are doctors, some of them are lawyers, some are university professors, some are professional photographers and there's even some who are private detectives on the side. Hardly any of them ride horses or wipe out pioneers or hunt buffalo and they all talk really good English. Weird huh?

Still they're good stories, even though sometimes they're hard to understand. Sometimes he gets things mixed up like the way he has white people cheating his Indian characters or the way the government will try to pull a fast one on Indians by destroying their land with damns. I think he needs to read his history again so he can get his facts straight. Especially now after I read his latest collection of stories published by Random House Canada, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account Of Native People In North America
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Whew, that's one long title that one, but the book sure is curious. For he goes on and on about the ways in which white folks have mistreated Indians. First of all there's not much that's funny about this book, that's for sure. Second of all there aren't really any stories in it. When you read it you'll see what I mean about how he needs to read his history books again though, cause the version of events he tells isn't what we've been told in movies or books that we read in school. I'm sure he's not meaning to tell things differently. I mean it's easy to be confused by history as its usually about things that happened a long time ago. But, I wonder how he could have come up with such different versions of events. Or there's other stuff he talks about I'd never read about or seen in a movie.

Okay, maybe that kind of reaction is unfair. However, from New Age bookstores, movies, history texts, memorial plaques and baseball stadiums you'll find Native Americans - or First Nations people as we say in Canada - being misrepresented, stereotyped and sometimes outright lied about. How many reading this aren't going to understand what's wrong with making a team's mascot a Native? You don't have to look very far to hear somebody say "We won didn't we - they should be glad of anything we give them and stop complaining".

King's book deals with the very specific history of what government after government on both sides of the 49th parallel, he doesn't even attempt to talk about the situation in Mexico, have referred to as "The Indian Problem". First it was a problem of what to do with them because they were on land that we wanted for settlers. Then it was the problem of what to do with them when the land we gave them was discovered to have valuable natural resources under them. Now it's a problem of what do to with them period. They didn't have the decency to die out when we tried to kill them and then they had the nerve to reject all the advantages we tried to force on them through residential and boarding schools.

There are those who say Indians should stop living in the past and forget what happened and concentrate on making a bright new future for themselves. Of course most of the ones saying things like that are those who would prefer they not learn the lessons of the past thus leaving themselves open to being dispossessed of what little they have now. King takes a look at this argument and shows why its so disingenuous and dangerous. The problem is, no matter how governments on both sides of the border word their policies, they still have the same goal as the ones implemented two hundred years ago. Instead of trying to figure out how peacefully co-exist with the original inhabitants, everything is still based on eliminating the "Indian Problem".

Instead of trying to kill Indians with bullets or forcing them to assimilate by locking their children up in the equivalent of jails being passed off as schools, governments are now trying to eliminate Indians legally. In both Canada and the United States there is an official government designation that qualifies a person as an Indian. In order to live on a reservation or be considered a member of a band one has to have that official designation. If there were no people with that designation there would be no need for reservations on either side of the border. So, why not just gradually eliminate the designations?

If you think that sounds highly unlikely consider this. King quotes Census figures from both America and Canada which show as of 2006 only about 40% of the Native population in North America are considered legally Indian. He then goes on to outline how both governments are now proposing new legislation, which if enacted, would work towards reducing that number even further and eventually to zero. The long term goal being the complete elimination of anybody who is a member of a band that signed a treaty giving them control over land.
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It's the land stupid. It's always been about the land. Which is why it's so important to look at the history. As King points out you don't even have to go too far back in history to find proof of that. As recently as 2006 real estate developers in Ontario Canada started selling and building a housing development on land that was claimed by the Mohawks of Grand River. It was on land given them by treaty, appropriated by the Ontario Government with the promise of it being returned, and then sold by local town council to developers.

That dispute ended with the government awarding a compensation package of $20 million dollars to, drumbeat please, the people who bought houses, the developers and local businesses for the inconvenience caused by Native people blockading the highway protesting their land being stolen. As for the treaty negotiations in regards to the disputed territory - well they might get around to them sooner or later.

So the easiest way to make sure this problem never happens again is to ensure there is no one around to make any legal claim to the land. Oh sure they're couching the policy in the same old paternalistic language they've always used when talking about Indians. It's good for them. The great White Father in Washington/Ottawa still knows whats best for those childlike savages. Think of how much happier they would be in the real world where they have all the opportunities the rest of us have. So what if they have no education, no capital and no desire to live like that. So what if they think they have some sort of sacred connection to the land. So what if that's not what they want, we know better. Anyway, what are they doing with all that land except letting it go to waste? Give them the opportunity to sell it at fair market value and see how quickly they learn to love our way of life.

Of course when Indians have the nerve to try and buy up land at fair market value, why that's another matter all together. King recounts what happened when a band in Arizona began using some its profits from their casino to buy land around the city of Glendale. Local politicians acted like they feared they would be scalped in their sleep or they were in danger of having flaming arrows shot down their throats because a few hundred acres of land were sold to Indians.

As somebody else said earlier, that King is a good story teller. Here he's not telling stories, he's telling history. A history that's not going to be everyone's liking as it runs contrary to most people's idea of Indians. Unfortunately its far more accurate than any version Hollywood has told them, the one being sold in New Age book stores or that which is offered in text books. While at first you might feel like King is softening the blow somewhat by injecting his dry humour into the proceedings, the more your read the more you realize its the type of laughter that's closer to tears than anything else.

For as King points out the war against Indians isn't over, only the battlefield has changed. Spin doctors have taken the place of generals and uranium tailings and tar sands' waste product the gatling gun and cannon. As far as our governments and business leaders, the ones who see no problem with exploiting and raping the land for everything its worth and not caring what condition they leave it in for those who come after them, Indians are every bit as inconvenient now as they ever were. For in spite of everything we've "done for them" they still insist on trying to retain their own belief systems and defending what few rights they have left to them. They just don't know when they're beaten.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious History Of Native People In North America by Thomas King on Blogcritics.)

November 6, 2012

Book Review: The John Lennon Letters Edited by Hunter Davies


Ever since Paul's Epistles to the Corinthians we've been fascinated with the idea of reading famous people's mail. Perhaps it's our innate voyeurism coming to the fore or the usual obsession with celebrity, but over the years countless books of letters have appeared on the market and found many a willing reader. All kidding aside, some of these have provided fascinating insights into both the character and creative process of many brilliant minds. Reading the collected letters of someone like Virginia Wolfe or the correspondence conducted by Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller is every bit as enthralling as most works of fiction.

A good collection of letters should not only satisfy our idle curiosity about the person who penned them, hopefully it will give us some hitherto unknown insights into their character and what made them tick. However when you're dealing with a figure who was in the public eye as much as John Lennon was and continues to be, you have to wonder what, if anything, new there is to bring to light. Even before he was gunned down in 1980 he had lived most of his adult life in the glare of the spotlight with almost every breath he took recorded and dissected. So, what, I wondered, could The John Lennon Letters, published by Little, Brown and Company, and edited by long time family friend and author of the only authorized biography of The Beatles, Hunter Davies, offer to complement our picture of him?
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Even more pertinent, perhaps, is the question as to whether Lennon even merits this type of treatment? Sure he was a prolific songwriter, sometime poet and never afraid to voice his opinion. However, there's no record of him ever engaging in an exchange of letters a la Miller and Durrell with anyone to think there would be sufficient material out there for a book. In his introduction Davies cedes this point by admitting a great deal of the book's content are not in fact letters from Lennon to anyone. He also admits that many of the letters are in fact a few words scrawled on the back of a postcard or short messages posted in reply to requests for autographs by fans.

Now after having read this introduction I have to admit to being a bit wary of what was to follow. However as the book was okayed by the guardian of all things Lennon, Yoko Ono, I knew it couldn't just be an attempt by the editor to cash in on a famous name. You can say what you like about Ono, but her love for her late husband can't be denied and she would never give her blessing to something without some worth. I was also impressed by the effort Davies had gone to in gathering the material collected here.

For over the years Lennon memorabilia has gone from being collectible to being spectacularly valuable. Many of the seemingly innocuous pieces of paper that ended up on the pages of this book have passed through numerous hands since they were written, and I'm sure there are countless others secreted away in vaults and safety deposit boxes around the world slowly accumulating dust and value. The twists and turns involved with tracking down some of the material reads like an agent following a paper trail in a John Le Carre novel.

Wisely Davies elected to lay out the book in chronological order and divide it up into short digestible segments. From childhood all the way through to his final days in The Dakota apartment complex in New York City the book's 23 parts follow the turbulent path of Lennon's life. Even more important is the fact Davies has to gone to a great deal of effort to place everything in its proper context. So instead of simply reprinting what looks like a child's standard thank you letter to an aunt for Christmas presents, we find out who this aunt was, what she meant to Lennon and what the letter signified about his relationship with Mimi, the aunt who raised him.
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While there has been lots made of the fact that Lennon was raised by his aunt, the various letters to cousins and other relatives he wrote over the years reveal the unhealthy influence this woman had on him. While Lennon almost never says a word against her things he lets slip give a picture of a woman who belittled him and attacked his sense of self worth his whole life. One of her constant refrains was he "got lucky" implying as Lennon says in a letter written in 1975 to his cousin Liela "i.e. I have no talent". We also learn Mimi went out of her way to run down both Julia (Lennon's mother) and his father Freddie. When John did manage to reconnect with his father he hid the fact from Mimi for as long as possible.

Not all of his relationships with his family were so negative, but there seems to have been a great deal of underlying tension. As he says in another letter to Liela "Stranger still that my (our) family should always (nowadays) seee mee in terms of $ and c....tho before I guess they saw me in terms of "problem child"... or an orphan of sorts. TO ME....I'LL ALWAYS BE.....ME" (misspellings and punctuation copied from original letter). From his letters and other references his fondest family memories were of an aunt and uncle in Scotland. He makes numerous references to missing Scotland and will sometimes even attempt to write in a Scotts "accent".

Of course anyone reading this is going to want to know what the book reveals about his relationship with his fellow Beatles (If you don't know their names I doubt you're reading this review, but for posterity's sake they were Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Richard "Ringo Starr" Starkey) While nothing new is really revealed, it's obvious he remained very friendly with both Harrison and Starr while relations with McCartney never really recovered from the termination of The Beatles. Some of this seems to have stemmed from disagreements about who should be handling the business affairs of Apple. Paul wanted to use his first wife's (Linda Eastman) family and the other three became dissatisfied with their handling of matters.
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When McCartney wanted to release his first solo album the other three had the record company push back its release date so it wouldn't conflict with of Let It Be. As a letter they sent him shows, they didn't ask him, they just told him they had done so after the fact and they hoped he would understand. While there's no indication as to who instigated the request to the company, it's not hard to imagine McCartney thinking Lennon was behind it. Business aside the two men hadn't been getting along personally as letter from Lennon to and about McCartney show. Part of it seems to stem from McCarney and his wife's attitude towards Lennon's new wife Ono and how much their apparent rejection of her hurt him.

Anyone the least bit familiar with Lennon's writing will know he was fond of both sarcasm and nonsense writing. This tendency was established early on in his life as can be seen in the reproduction of the parody newspaper he produced in grade school called The Daily Howl. As you read through the book and the years pass by you gradually realize how little he changed as he aged. The grammar and spelling might have improved somewhat (although as Davies points out it's sometimes hard to tell whether mistakes are deliberate or not) but the same sort of childish humour continued to prevail throughout his life. In some ways this is funny, but in other ways it shows a disturbing tendency to not mature.

While The John Lennon Letters might not offer any startling revelations into the life or character of Lennon, what it does do is provide as comprehensive a biography, or autobiography, of the man as we're likely to ever see. Davies is not only able to place each note, no matter how insignificant it might appear, into context, his comments on them are both informed and insightful. Unlike others who have to rely on second or third hand sources for their information, Davies was a friend of Lennon and is able to base his opinions on first hand knowledge of events described. However, this doesn't prevent him from including dissenting opinions from those who disagree with Lennon's accounts of circumstances.

While individually most of these notes and cards are fairly meaningless, collectively they work together to confirm the image we've always had of Lennon as the complicated Beatle. Always outspoken, always witty, sometimes almost cruel, but always interesting, 30 years after his death he continues to fascinate us. This collection of letters can only add to our fascination of this rare and witty man.

(Article first published as Book Review: The John Lennon Letters, Edited by Hunter Davies on Blogcritics.)

September 28, 2012

Book Review: The Art Book: New Edition Various Editors


When I was attending university there used to be these things called survey courses. They provided an introduction to a subject without going into a great deal of depth giving students enough information to let them decide whether they wanted to investigate the subject further. They were commonly used in Art History departments as a means of introducing students to a particular period. So you could take survey courses in everything from Gothic to Modern art.

While I understood the purposes these courses served academically I also found them boring. I mean who wants to spend week after week looking at paintings which all look the same? I like Impressionism as much as the next person, but there are only so many I want to see at once. If I'm going to look at paintings I would prefer to see as wide a variety of work as possible. Juxtaposing art by different painters from different eras may not make great sense academically, but I think it would be a far more interesting way to introduce somebody to the world of art. The contrasts alone would at least keep them intrigued as to what they might see next.
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All of which explains why I'm a big fan of Phaidon Press' The Art Book: New Edition scheduled for release October 1 2012. Containing over 600 full colour reproductions the book offers readers an opportunity to experience art from the Medieval period to the work of contemporary artists. However instead of organizing them by era, genre, style or any of the other ways this type of book is usually laid out the work is listed alphabetically by the artist's last name. Which means you have the opportunity to see paintings side by side with ones that probably wouldn't normally be hung in the same building let alone on the same wall. Some might find that unsettling but I think it ensures each new work is a surprise and keeps you interested and on the edge of your seat. Tell me when's the last time you heard anyone say that about going to an art gallery or opening up an art history text book?

Now of course these aren't just random samples of various artists plunked down into a book. There's been careful consideration given as to which artists are represented and the paintings chosen to represent each artist. No one editor or curator is listed as compiling this book. Instead it seems like the entire editorial staff of Phaidon Press was involved in the process. In the video clip below Amanda Renshaw, editorial director of Phaidon talks about how The Art Book came together.

Of course the paintings aren't just baldly placed in the book with no word of explanation. Each one comes with a brief biography of the artist, a description of the work, what the artist was attempting to accomplish and, as applicable, something about the period or movement the work represents. As some of the terms used in art history aren't ones most of us are used to hearing in our day to day conversations, the editors have also included a complete glossary of terminology at the end of the book.
They've also included a complete index of all the painters in the book and a listing of the galleries where the original works are hung, installed, displayed, or the means by which they now can be viewed. The last in that list is important as some of them were transitory in nature or too large to be contained in a building. Examples of this include; Francis Alys Paradox Of Praxis(pg. 14) which involved the artist pushing a block of ice through the streets of Mexico City until it gradually melted, Marina Abramovic's
The House with the Ocean View (pg. 4) an installation piece where the artist lived in the gallery for twelve days in three specially designed rooms elevated on platforms and Weiwei Ai's monumental sculpture Template(pg. 8) found outdoors at a German art festival.

However the majority of the works are at least traditionally housed, if not traditionally displayed, in galleries. But that's the beauty and diversity of the visual arts. They can be so many different things to so many different people. Just by looking through this book at the way tastes in style, form, and subject matter have changed down through the years is an indication of the way artistic expression has evolved. From the religious paintings of the Byzantine and Medieval periods which were completely flat and lacking in perspective to the introduction of the horizon line and depth of field in the Renaissance. Of course events don't follow a sequential pattern in this book, but in some ways that makes the way the art of painting evolved even more obvious.

Just seeing Salvador Dali's Lobster Telephone (pg. 136) side by side with Charles-Francois Daubigny's pastoral landscape, The Lock at Optevoz (pg. 137) tells you just how much the world of art can change in less then the hundred years that separate the creation of the two works. The same could be said of any two pages in the book, although not all of them are so extreme in their differences. Although the differences between Frans Hals Young Man With A Skull (pg. 240) painted in c1626/8 and Richard Hamilton's Pop Art collage Just What is it That Makes Today's Homes so Different, So Appealing? (pg. 241) from 1956 come close. On the one hand is a fairly standard 'Old Master' type portrait of a young man holding a skull while on the opposing page the artist has arranged a variety of imagery cut from contemporary popular magazines to form the interior of a living space. Of course with nearly 400 years separating these works perhaps it's not so surprising to find such radical differences. However, I wonder if Hals could have ever imagined a time when someone would have created art without using paint or brushes?

That's what I find so wonderful about The Art Book: New Edition. Aside from containing a wonderful collection of art work from almost every tradition imaginable and covering nearly a thousand years of human history, it encourages the reader/observer to use their own imaginations. You can't help looking at the pieces and comparing them to whatever is on the adjacent page no matter what it might be. While this sort of process might be off putting to some purists, for the rest of the world it will delight and astound you to compare Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Marat(pg.140) of the neo-Classical school of the late 18th and early 19th centuries with the cubist influenced Stuart Davis' Egg Beater No. 4 (pg. 141) from 1928.

Maybe it's something of a stretch to think people will be able to find common ground between two such wildly divergent examples of the visual arts. However, by simply placing the works in alphabetical order by artists' last names, the editors of The Art Book: New Edition give readers the opportunity to form their own opinions on the merits of each based on the work, the explanatory text accompanying it and free of the constraints of classification. While it's true no work exists in a vacuum, the pieces selected make enough of a statement on their own to ensure they can stand on their own two feet. At the very least, like the best survey course, readers might find themselves discovering something new that they wish to explore in further depth. That in itself makes this book an invaluable resource for any household.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Art Book: New AdditionEdited by Various on Blogcritics.)

August 31, 2012

Book Review: Rolling Stones 50 X 20 Edited by Chris Murray


There have perhaps been other groups who were better, other groups who were more controversial and others more inventive, but year in and year out, for fifty years now, there has been no group who have epitomized the culture of rock and roll like the Rolling Stones. From the beginning they were always considered the rebellious ones. Their blues influenced sound was rougher and rawer than the polished pop sounds of The Beatles. Parents might not have been sure about John Lennon, but they damned well wouldn't want their daughters coming home with Mick Jagger. Not only wasn't he as cute as any of the Beatles, even in the earliest years he was too blatantly sexual to make you feel safe handing your daughter over to him.

The hint of danger that surrounded them was only exasperated by the mysterious death of original guitarist Brian Jones in the late 1960s and members of the band's drug habits. Even when they became firmly entrenched as members of the pop culture establishment selling out football stadiums the world over on their concert tours, they've never lost that edge. While they might have aged physically over the years, like Peter Pan's Lost Boys they've somehow never become adults either. While others their age might be calmly settling into retirement, they continue to thumb their noses at what's respectable and play rock and roll with an exuberance and sexual energy few bands can match. With age might have come a certain elegance and style, but underneath the fancier clothes and jewellery lurks the jeans and switchblades of the tough kids who made parents nervous in 1964.
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A new book from Insight Editions, Rolling Stones 50X20, edited by Christopher Murray, founder of the Govinda Gallery of photography, offers a pictorial history of the band's first fifty years as seen through the lenses of twenty photographers. Even a casual perusal of this book's pages reinforces everything you've been told or thought about the Rolling Stones. From the staged photographs for album covers, concert footage, candid photos to sittings for studio portraits, the pictures in this book offer not only a pictorial history of the band but show how even through death and line up changes their essence has remained unchanged.

Each of the twenty photographers has written a blurb about their experiences working with the Rolling Stones. While some of them were members of the rock fraternity in their own right, they worked for Rolling Stone Magazine, some of them are simply portrait photographers hired for studio shoots. However, no matter who they were, or where they were taking the pictures, the only remotely negative comment anybody has about the experience was to relate how Keith Richards said "Oh I don't really want to do this, do you? I've been photographed with them for thirty fucking years and it's really fucking boring". But as it was said without malice, more self-deprecating than anything else, you don't really see it as a negative.

Mark Seliger, he was shooting publicity stills for Rolling Stone before the band went on tour to promote the album Voodoo Lounge when Keith made that comment. His portraits of Richards and Mick Jagger included in the book from that shoot are absolutely amazing. Simple black and white head shots can be some of the hardest pictures to take for both the subject and the photographer. However Seliger's shots are works of art comparable to those Karsh took of people like Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein. You feel like you're being given a unique opportunity to really see these two men in a way you've never seen them before. There's a repose in both of their faces that lets you see something of the inner strength that has allowed them to endure being in the spotlight for so long and yet still manage to love what they do.

Richard's fight with addictions has been well documented and this pictorial history lets you see how harrowing the journey must have been at times. Looking at his shy almost innocent face in shots taken by Bob Bonis, their first American tour manager, back in 1964, slowly have the life ebb out of it in the 1970s could be heartbreaking if it weren't for the fact he comes alive again in the 1990s. The pictures of him and Ron Wood playing together from the 1990s until the present make you understand why they call it "playing". A shot of the two of them together taken by Fernando Aceves in 2002 captures the simple pleasure the two are taking in doing what they obviously love.

Of course Mick Jagger has to be one of the most photogenic people in the world. The irony being is he's not either classically handsome or good looking. However, even in repose he exudes personality and energy on level nobody else approaches. The only person who might have even come close was the late James Brown. A photograph taken of the two by Bonis in 1964 shows them leaning into each other in idle conversation. While your eye is first caught by Brown, actually his pompadour is what really grabs you, even casually dressed in jacket and slacks, Jagger more than holds his own in the picture. Of course it's also fun speculating what the two are talking about.
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While the book includes iconic shots like Baron Wolman's shot of Jagger on the set of the film Performance holding a Polaroid camera, a good deal of the book is made up of shots not as well known. Some of the ones I appreciated most were those from the middle sixties by Gered Mankowitz, Jan Olofsson and Eddie Krammer. An out take of Mankowitz's from the photo shoot for the album Between The Buttons from 1966 has the band huddled in overcoats against the fog that leaves them blurry and ghostlike against the haunted background of Primrose Hill. Olofsson's shots are all taken on the set of the British pop music show Ready Steady Go. There's one he's taken shooting up at the band from below the stage which catches Jagger in mid vocals and the top half of a seated Brian Jones playing sitar. Not only didn't I know the Stones had ever used sitar in their music I had no idea Jones had been such a virtuoso musician. For one of Mankowitz's pictures of the band shows him playing cello.

Krammer of course is better known as Jimi Hendrix's recording engineer than a photographer. However he got into the habit of keeping a camera by the sound board and would take pictures of whomever he was recording when he had a chance. So when he was hired to engineer Beggar's Banquet in 1967 he took a couple of candid shots of the band. One of them is a beautiful shot of Jones leaning back with a light behind his head giving him a near halo. Of course being Hendrix's sound man there's a picture of Jagger and Hendrix together backstage at Madison Square Garden in 1969. Both men are smiling and laughing and looking completely at ease with each other - it's just a nice simple shot of two friends hanging out and taking the time to enjoy each other's company.

While both Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman appear in any number of the photos in this book, they are the quintessential rhythm section. You only notice them when they make a mistake. Always the glue holding together their more mercurial front men, the two are constant stolid presences in every group photo of the band. It's interesting to note how very few of the pictures of the band taken after Wyman left them in the early 1990s include a bass player and one of the few that do, taken in 1995, doesn't identify the band members. It's almost as if after he left the decision was made to reduce the band to four permanent members, although they have employed the same bass player, Darryl Jones, for recording and touring ever since.

When Kris Kristofferson wrote "Blame It On The Stones", he was poking fun at people's reactions to the band's dark reputation. Blaming all of society's ills on the Rolling Stones is of course more than a bit of a stretch. However, compared to the wholesome, clean cut image The Beatles were projecting in the early 1960s the Stones came across as scruffier and a little bit dangerous. The fact of the matter was they played, and continue to play, blues based rock and roll that reflects the rebellious nature inherent to the music. The photos included in Rolling Stones 50 X 20 not only capture what it was about the band that established that reputation, it is a wonderful pictorial history of both the band and popular culture. While the text included by the various photographers, editor Chris Murray, Richard Harrington's forward and Chris Salewicz's afterword don't contribute much new to the story of the band, the collection of photos are superlative and tell you more about the band than any text could hope.

(Article first published as Book Review: Rolling Stones 50 X 20 Edited by Chris Murray on Blogcritics.)

May 17, 2012

Book Review: Tough Shit: Life Lessons From A Fat Slob Who Did Good By Kevin Smith


You know a book by Kevin Smith, a guy famous for making movies about "dick and fart jokes", is bound to be crude, lewd and rude. However what might surprise most people, especially those who believe he makes movies about dick and fart jokes and never look further than that, is beneath the bluster and foul mouth of a twelve year old boy from Jersey are a brain and a heart. As he himself says in his latest book, Tough Shit: Life Advice From A Fat Lazy Slob Who Did Good published by Penguin Canada, as an overweight kid from Jersey he had to find a way to prevent himself from being made everybody's favourite punching bag. If people are pissing themselves laughing it's much harder for them to beat the crap out of you. So in many ways he's never stopped being that twelve year old kid trying to make us laugh.

Now most people who pick up a book by Smith already know what he's about and aren't about to be offended by anything he's got to say. The thing is that a lot of people who pick up this book in the hopes that's it just like the movies he used to make are going to be somewhat disappointed. Oh sure there's more use of the word pussy not in reference to the family cat than in most works of non-fiction and not many people dedicate their books to their wife's sphincter, yet even excesses along those lines aren't gratuitous. The book is exactly what the title claims it is, except just like his movies there's far more to it than you'd expect. As with the majority of Smith's work it's up to you what you take away from it. With his movies it was laugh at the puerile jokes, enjoy the gross out moments and appreciate the overall anarchy as epitomized by Jay and Silent Bob, or you can go a little deeper and dig his love for the misfits up on screen and the statement that makes.

Of course Smith would have you believe he's the biggest misfit of them all; an overweight, lazy dude from the armpit of the nation who managed to make it as an outsider in the ultimate insider industry. The thing is he's right. For all intents and purposes this is not somebody who should have been able to make a career in movies. His first movie was shot on a shoestring budget with a cast made up of friends and local community theatre actors. Clerks should have disappeared without a trace and Smith with it. However through sheer balls and faith in his own work he managed to secure a screening for it at Sundance which led to a distribution deal with the then kings of indie cinema Miramax. Maybe it was a case of being in the right place at the right time, but if he hadn't had the chutzpah to make the movie in the first place, to risk it all on a dream, none of it would ever have happened.
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As you read through Tough Shit and listen to him recount the various stages of his career and what he considers the important turning points in his life, you're struck by the size of the risk he took in each of the incidences he describes. The other thing you realize is no matter how many self-depreciating remarks he might cast his own way, this is a guy who has great faith in his own abilities and the huge amount of courage required to bring his dream of doing what he loves to make a living come true. Of course he also has his own unique context which helps him keep things in perspective.

The opening chapter of the book is about his dad and three lessons that were to influence Smith junior's life. The first being the freaking miracle that out of all the sperm from his dad that ended up inside his mother, it was the one with his name on it that survived. The way Smith figures it winning that race with the odds so strongly stacked against you means you've already won half the battle. The second was his dad hated his job with a passion. Now most people would have accepted that as their lot in life and followed their old man's example of taking a job they hated to put bread on the table. Not Smith, he looked at how unhappy his dad was and thought there has to be something better, why can't you do what you love for a living? The final lesson he learned from his father was from how he died. His father died screaming in pain having a massive heart attack. The lesson Smith took from that was if that was his dad's reward for years of self-sacrifice and hating his job, than he might as well make as much a paradise for himself in this world as he can.

While that might sound like a sure fire recipe for self-indulgence, and maybe some can't see the difference between that and a life dedicated to self-expression, for Smith it provided the motivation for keeping as true to himself as possible. During the course of the book he describes what happened when he let his life drift off that path. The worst of those experiences was directing Bruce Willis in Cop Out. While it earned him the respect of executives of the studio he did the film for, and led to more offers of directing work, he realized that even if he never had to work with a prima donna like Willis again, simply directing somebody else's material wasn't for him. It would eventually turn into a job he would hate, or at least resent, and that's not what he had set out to do when he embarked upon finding a way of making a living doing what he loved.
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Smith is nothing if not honest. Throughout the entire book he's upfront with readers telling them there's nothing easy about the course he's chosen and if they want to emulate what he's doing they're in for a hard slog. This is the tough shit of the title, "Security, normalcy, convenience, protection, and identity are opiates you've gotta wean yourself off before you can be an individual. You can't stand out if you're blending in." Now that might sound easy but it has to be the hardest thing in the world to actually follow through on. He's talking about giving up everything from normal relationships to anything else you can think of that all of your friends will be doing.

Maybe that's why he's dedicated the book to such a specific part of his wife's anatomy. He goes into details for you in the chapter talking about her, but that's just his way of making the real point. Which is that he's been incredibly blessed not just because as he puts it "she's way out of my league" but because she willingly gave up her career as a journalist to join forces with him. That she allows him to be who he is warts and all and accepts that he won't change for anyone is a miracle and he knows it. Being an artist is an incredibly selfish endeavour and to find somebody willing to go along for the ride with you is fucking amazing cause they know they're never going to be first in your heart, they might tie for top spot but will never come out on top. If they asked you to chose between them and your art you'll either chose your art or hate them for the rest of your days.

The great thing about reading a Kevin Smith book is its like having a conversation. True it might be a bit one sided as you're hard pressed to get a work in edgewise when dealing with a book. Anyone who has ever listened to any of the commentary Smith includes with the DVDs of his movies, watched a DVD of his speaking tours, listened to any of his podcasts at Smodcast.com will understand what I'm talking about. He doesn't belabour a point or come across all heavy and intellectual, but still manages to make more sense and talk more intelligently about art, movies and life than ninety percent of the called self-help gurus out there. His recipe for happiness might not be right for everyone, but for those who are willing to give it all for their dream, it's a damn good one to follow.

(Article first published as Book Review: Tough Shit: Life Advice From A Fat Lazy Slob Who Did Good by Kevin Smith on Blogcritics.)

May 2, 2012

Book Review: William S Burroughs Vs. The Qur'an By Michael Muhammad Knight


I had a really strange experience while reading William S Burroughs vs. The Qur'an, Michael Muhammad Knight's latest book published by the Counterpoint Press imprint Soft Skull Press. I was almost finished the book and all of a sudden came across my own words staring back at me from the page. It was surreal to find myself being quoted in somebody else's work to begin with, but even weirder to see how the words dovetailed with Knight's theme.

The quote was from my review of his book Journey To The End Of Islam and I had said something along the lines of how if more people were as brave and honest as Knight was in discussing their religion the world would be better off. He freaked out. "The brave and honest porkshit is artistic and spiritual sabotage. When someone puts that psychic poison on you how can you ever write a word?" That might sound like he's being ungrateful, even petulant, but in the context of the book it actually makes perfect sense and I get where he's coming from. For while his books have been all about telling people all about his quest to find himself within his religion, people have started looking to him as if he's the answer to that question for themselves.

In William S Burroughs Vs The Qur'an Knight details how his search for his place in Islam inevitably lead him to an earlier generation of white Western converts to Islam. In particular he tells of his attempt at writing the definitive biography of his Anarcho-Sufi hero and mentor Peter Lamborn Wilson, also known as Hakim Bey. The first part of the book is taken up with his recounting his times spent with Wilson and excerpts from the biography he's destined never to finish. We learn that Wilson's Islam has its sources in both the experiences of Burroughs and other Beats (Paul Bowles, Alan Ginsberg and the rest) in Tangiers during the years of the International Zone and the Moorish Science Temple of America founded by Noble Drew Ali of Chicago.
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While I can understand Knight's attraction to the idea of an Islamic lineage with white American roots, the more he begins to detail Wilson's life and experiences the more I began to wonder whether he was clutching at straws looking to this guy as any sort of spiritual guide. From his experiences with LSD guru Timothy Leary to his wanderings through India he seemed more intent on discovering his capacity for ingesting drugs than any sort of spiritual advancement. It isn't until he ends up in Iran in the 1970s that he even settles to any sort of apparently serious spiritual advancement. Even that is tainted by the fact that the group he joins, The Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy, is described by Knight as "a politically ambitious mystico-fascist cult" whose purpose seems to be give the then Shah of Iran the veneer of spirituality.

However, while his association The Academy raises some doubts in Knight's mind, it's not where or who Wilson studied with that's important. It's how he studied and his experiments with various sects and forms of Islam that Knight identifies with. Then there is the whole issue of lineage. In Islam a spiritual teacher's credibility is increased by those he sites from previous generations as being the sources for his wisdom. Wilson traces his lineage back to Medieval times and the leader of the alleged drug crazed sect notorious in the West known as the Assassins, Hassa-i Sabbah, via William S Burroughs. The sect were famous for their doctrine of Qiyamat which cancelled all religious laws which according to Wilson was a call for all Muslims to realize the "Imam of his own being".

For Knight this more or less says each of us our are own god, the basic tenet of the African American Islamic group The Five Percenters who he identifies with. However there's a twisted secret buried at the heart of Wilson's Islam that makes it impossible for Knight to see him in the same light anymore. Although a good part of the book shows us his attempts to find a way that Wilson's writings endorsing pedophilia are merely some sort of shock tactic or an allegory of some kind (after all the great mystic Rumi wrote a poem about two women who had sex with a donkey), he can't escape the fact that his mentor sees nothing wrong with an adult man having sex with a child. Knight even goes to the extent of writing his own homo/erotic Islamic science fiction story (of which excerpts are included) in an attempt to see if he can see a way of justifying his mentor's disturbing writings.

Over the balance of the book, amid segues into excerpts from the above mentioned story, Knight describes among other things, his horror at discovering he's becoming a mentor figure to young Muslims who have been reading his books. They've taken his descriptions of his struggles with identity and his fiction as instruction. They write to him for advice and thank him for being a role model. In a sort of fit of desperation to find direction he heads off to the backwoods of West Virginia to his late father's "Unabomber" shack and creates his own personal mosque amidst the squalor. Living on tinned tuna he experiments with using the cut-up writing method espoused by Burroughs as the way of finding a text's hidden meanings on the Qur'an. This involves literally cutting up a work's text and then putting it back together randomly.

Reading this book within the context of lineage and mentors I have to wonder if its not a deliberate attempt on Knight's part to scare people away from looking to him as a mentor figure. While he's written about other periods of his life when he felt lost, specifically when he returned from studying in Pakistan and rejected the fundamentalist values that his teachers there had attempted to instil in him, he has never seemed so insecure in his faith before. However there's a certain amount of ambiguity as to when the events described in the book took place. The only real clue as to the time frame it represents is at the end he is talking about whether or not he will write the recently released Why I Am A Five Percenter or vanish from the pages of mainstream publications into the world of academia.
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Perhaps the most telling point in the book is his description of an impromptu gathering with some friends. Gathering together at a basketball court they sit around and talk about their faith, what it means to them and how they try to "live" it. Knight ruminates on how maybe this group should form their own "sect" but concludes it was the very spontaneity of the gathering that allowed them the freedom to express themselves. Any attempt at formalization, even to arrange times for them to get together and talk again, would begin to encroach on that freedom and lead to the creation of a hierarchy and rules, all the hallmarks of an organized religion. It puts his balancing act of being a Muslim and his rejection of the structure religions by their nature impose on their followers into stark relief.

A person can spend all the time in the world searching for mentors and gurus or reading the collected works of every mystic and Imam whoever put pen to paper in an attempt to justify how you practice your beliefs and it won't matter. It all comes down to trusting yourself and be willing to accept your beliefs can exist independent of any structure. Knight doesn't tell anybody they should follow his lead, this is what works for him. While he takes obvious pleasure in studying the words and teachings of both the Sufi saints of the past and current groups like The Five Percenters, it seems like its more for the sake of the knowledge he acquires through the study than in the hopes he will find a place where he fits in.

Michael Muhammad Knight is a liar and a coward. Michael Muhammad Knight is honest and brave. What difference does it make. His writing will either offend or inspire you, and in places it might even do both. But no matter what, he will always make you think for yourself, force you into having an opinion and reach your own conclusions. Knight might reject the idea that he has anything to offer in the way of guidance, but he does offer his readers one something few other do - he never once tells them what to do or leads anyone to believe he has the solution to whatever ails them.

(Article first published as Book Review: William S Burroughs Vs. The Qur'an by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)

November 8, 2011

Book Review: Tomorrow Is Another Song by Scott Wannberg

If there was any justice in this world Scott Wannberg would never have been able to leave his house without being hounded by the press. He would have been under a constant spotlight, his every move scrutinized, his every word pored over for controversy and his picture would have shown up on tabloid covers every week. Unfortunately poets in our society don't have the status of celebrities. In another time or another culture his abilities with words might have made him famous, or at the very least infamous. In the courts of the Chinese Emperors civil servants, or mandarins, were judged as much on their ability to compose poetry as their ability to draft policy. Unless obfuscation is considered an art form, times sure have changed.
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All of which means that outside of a relatively small number of people who were blessed with an awareness of his work, Wannberg lived out his live in obscurity. He was fifty-eight when he died on Friday August 19 2011 at his home in Florence Oregon. Suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease he had moved there from Los Angeles upon the closing of Dutton's bookstore, where he had been a fixture for twenty-five years, in 2008 for health and economic reasons. According to friends quoted in his obituary in the Los Angeles Times Wannberg was constantly writing poetry, whether off the cuff introductions for associates as they entered the store or more traditionally with pen and paper; it was as natural to him as breathing is to most of us. Poetry, according to one friend, allowed Wannberg the chance to formalize his natural inclination to speak in a kind of ongoing stream of consciousness narrative about the world around him.

On September 30 2011 Los Angles based independent publisher Perceval Press released Tomorrow Is Another Song, the second collection of Wannberg's poetry they have published. One of the first impressions I formed upon reading through it was there was a sense of urgency pervading his poetry that was absent form earlier work. I don't think it was any sort of prescience on Wannberg's part concerning his death, it was more like he felt America had been given a very small window of opportunity with the election of Obama, and he could feel it closing almost even before it had been opened.

In earlier poetry he had taken great pleasure in railing against the Bush/Cheney administration and everything they had represented. In biting satires which directly referenced them or in his advocation of things they opposed, he took great pride in describing a vision of America far different from the one they espoused. For Wannberg, like Carl Sandburg and e.e. cummings before him, was quintessentially an American poet. He loved the potential the country represented and hated how it was failing to live up to it. In poems encouraging people to find their own song and and not being afraid to hide their light under a bushel basket, or in others where he questioned what kind of world had they created where teenagers attempted to commit suicide, he critiqued the loss of love and hope he saw around him.

I don't know what I expected from this collection of his poems, but I don't think it was, "Everybody says they want to be loved/The say it over and over and over/As soon as they finish hitting me over the head/I will get up and love them." ("Earful Of Sun") However, that was the genius of Wannberg. He was always so far ahead of us in describing what he saw that our expectations couldn't keep up with him. Anyway, why should he live up to anyone's expectations? Why should he all of a sudden start writing about sweetness and light just because the names at the top changed? Maybe, unlike the rest of us who have grown disillusioned with Obama for failing to live up to our expectations by changing the world simply by being elected, Wannberg understood the only way change can happen is if we are willing to change. With all of us yelling "What about me?" at the top of our lungs, we're never going to hear anybody else or understand it's not just the other guy who has to change, we have to as well.

Wannberg spoke/wrote in a voice most Americans (and North Americans from above the 49th parallel) will recognize. His poems are filled with cultural references we are all familiar with and he espouses the core values we all claim to hold so dear. That doesn't mean he mouths platitudes about freedom and independence. What it does mean is his poetry celebrates those who are truly independent and the freedoms nobody wants to protect. It's amazing how so many people yell about their rights to own weapons and the freedom to say how much they hate somebody because of the colour of their skin or their sexual orientation and nobody thinks twice about it. Yet those same people don't believe in a woman's freedom of choice or an individual's right to hold the job of their choice no matter who they are.
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It's that hypocrisy that comes under attack in Wannberg's poetry. Unlike others he very rarely attacked individuals or their beliefs (the only exceptions are politicians and the political personalities for whom hypocrisy is a way of life) as he is genuine in his belief that we really could do a better job of being nice to each other. "The stupid angry people smash, gouge, cut, kick, and bite./They do it for love and God and country."("The Angry Stupid People") There are so many voices telling us we shouldn't enjoy ourselves, or that we should be worrying about the state of the world all the time, Wannberg had a better idea. Whether directly or indirectly his poetry encouraged us to celebrate being alive. Embrace the messy, emotional condition of being human. What other choice do you have anyway, might as well enjoy it while we're here. This was from a guy who for the last few years of his life had to travel around with an oxygen tank, yet his poetry was still filled with calls to all of us to find our songs and dance like crazy.

There is music in the American idiom he says,/and wipes his face for the last time,/and begins to think about going up to bed./Tomorrow is another song./Tomorrow will be other patients and/words to discover and stories behind such words/ that illuminate./The game, after all/is one of discovery./The day you stop finding out things/is the day/you might as well/turn yourself in for good." "The Dancer Steps Forward" Scot Wannberg

It's easy to become cynical in the face of so much bullshit. It's easy to throw rocks at those you don't agree with and it's really easy to pretend you don't care. Scot Wannberg cared and wore his heart on his sleeve for all to read. He dug deeply into the soil of America, because like all poets he knew where the bodies were buried. But he was looking to do more than just exhume its dirty secrets, he wasn't merely looking to spatter others with the dirt that flew from his shovel, he dug and dug in order to remind us of the beauty of the heart that's been submerged by two hundred odd years of rhetoric spouted in the name of politics and expediency. One person can't scrape off that much accumulated rust and corrosion, but he can give us a good idea of how to go about getting the job done. For those who have eyes to see and ears to listen Wannberg's poetry provided all the tools necessary - we just have to remember how to use them.

(Article first published as Book Review: Tomorrow Is Another Song by Scott Wannberg on Blogcritics.)

November 5, 2011

Interview: Author, Michael Muhammad Knight

American author Michael Muhammad Knight's has been referred to as everything from controversial to outrageous. Some have even gone so far as to call him the Hunter S. Thompson of religious writing or something along those lines. Why is it whenever somebody has the bravery to speak from their heart and be as truthful as they possibly can we always refer to them as controversial? Why do we never say, wow this person is really brave,? How about, it sure is refreshing to hear somebody doing their best to be straight with us for a change?

Nope, we always have to look at them as if they were doing something really out there. Of course that says more about us, and that's the big us society, than it does about them. Have we become so unused to people speaking straightforwardly from the heart that those who do are considered something of a freak and maybe even a little bit dangerous? I don't know about anybody else, but I find it a wonderful break from the mindless drivel that passes for entertainment these days to read something where I know the writer has not only put a lot of thought into what he's written but has also been as honest as possible.

Recently he very kindly agreed to answer some questions I had about his most recent book, Why I Am A Five Percenter, his writings in general and religion. His answers are as straightforward and thoughtful as everything else he writes and reading through them I can't see anything outrageous or controversial about them. Integrity and self-awareness are two characteristics noticeably in short supply theses days, which could explain why people have such a hard time recognising them when they see them, but Knight doesn't seem to know any other way of being.

1) As you have written extensively about your early years (Impossible Man) we can skip over most of the biographical stuff I usually start interviews with. However I think its important to talk about your decision to convert to Islam as a teenager. Can you briefly describe the reasons you gave yourself back then for converting?

I converted because I thought that I had found the ultimate truth of the universe.

2) Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight and increased self awareness, do you now discern reasons that you weren't aware of, or didn't want to admit to, at the time?

I don’t think that anyone has ever converted to a religion for purely religious reasons. The average age for religious conversion, across the board, is fifteen. I was fifteen when I found Islam. I was going through the things that some fifteen-year olds go through, and my brain was a fifteen-year old brain. Cognitively and socially, that’s where I was at.

3) This is probably over simplifying but roughly speaking you've described yourself as passing through various stages in your belief: at first you were close to fanatic, second you experienced severe doubts and finally taking it into your heart, but not blindly obedient. Through all these stages, and over the years, what is there about the religion that has enabled you to continue having faith in it. For you, what is it that makes Islam more true than any other religion?

That’s like asking what makes English more true than any other language. The only thing that’s more true about English for me is that I understand it. English is the language in which I think. That’s how I feel about religion. I don’t speak the language of Hinduism, but that doesn’t mean I see it as less legitimate for those who speak it. I have a couple languages that I speak; I speak a few variations of Islam, I speak the Five Percent, and I grew up speaking Catholic so maybe I can remember some of that language too.

4) In Aatish Taseer's book Stranger To History, where he describes his journey through the Islamic world looking for his own sense of identity, he describes a conversation with one Muslim who says something along the lines that Islam is the best religion because its the only one that provides you cut and dried answers to all questions. As long as you follow the word you'll never know doubts again. I find that kind of blind certainty terrifying, be it from the mouth of an American nationalist or an Islamic Cleric - yet isn't that the point of religion - to offer its adherents a way of living and the ideology to walk that path?

Lots of people will say that about their religions, but it’s not what I’m doing with mine. I don’t know what the point of religion might be, but I wouldn’t say that religion has to have the same purpose for every single person who takes part in it. Simply defining the word “religion” is hard enough; there are scholars of religious studies who argue that we shouldn’t even use the word because if you look across cultures and historical contexts, it doesn’t reliably describe anything.

5) As a follow up to that, if not following the strict letter of the law, how can a person say they are part of a specific group, be it Christian, Jew, Muslim or anything for that matter? Why aren't these all or nothing things?

It’s against the law to smoke weed. If I break this law, or disagree with the principles of that law, would it mean that I can no longer claim to be American?

More importantly, religious laws can change, depending on how you read them. Religions aren’t “all or nothing” things because they can’t be. Religions aren’t made of stone; they’re made of water. We like to imagine a religion as this unchanging entity that exists outside of history and remains eternally consistent, always saying the same thing, no matter what is happening around it. Both Muslims and non-Muslims will do this with Islam, saying that Islam came fully formed with the Prophet Muhammad, and has remained intact through fourteen centuries. That’s the crisis that people are imagining when they say, “How can Islam exist in the modern world?” as though Islam has never changed or adapted to anything until after 9/11. This kind of thinking is not rooted in any historical reality.

Or, if people are willing to admit that Islam has changed and taken different shapes, they will argue that these new shapes are somehow less authentic than the original or “real” Islam. They imagine that they have a direct line to the “real” Islam, that it exists somewhere and we can find it if we just look hard enough at scripture or the early history. I don’t take that seriously. You can’t ask me, “What does Islam say about women?” or “What does Islam say about violence?” because these are impossible questions. Muslims say all kinds of things, but Islam says nothing. We can look at Muslims in a particular time and place and examine what they said, but there’s no Islam beyond that.

6) In your most recent book, Why I Am A Five Percenter, you spend a lot of intellectual energy trying to find a bridge between Islam and Five Percenter ideology. What was it about the Five Percenters which attracted you initially and why do their practices continue to exert such a pull on you in spite of the differences between them and even the most progressive elements of Islam?

The Five Percenters gave me a statement on whiteness that spoke to my experience as a white American. I went heavy into the white-devil mythology. I couldn’t buy into it as something rooted in genetics, because “white people” don’t exist as a biological reality. But white people do exist as a political reality, a social reality; so thinking about whiteness as a concept that exists only as a power strategy, a justification for the mistreatment of people, then yes, whiteness is devil. It’s nothing but devil. Spending time with the Yakub myth really gave me something that I could use.

The Five Percenters also provided a critique of religion that spoke truth to me. I was coming from a place of dissatisfaction with organized religion. The basic message that I got from the Five Percent was that it’s all about me; whatever wisdom I pull from the Qur’an, whatever jewels I can retrieve from a particular story, and the meanings that I assign to my tradition, it’s all in me. You can take that idea of Islam as “I Self Lord And Master” and build your own path. Be Muslim, be Christian, whatever, and just know that the religion is in your hands. Make the story what you need it to be, because there’s no one on this earth with any kind of transcendent supernatural power to hang over your head.

7) The Five Percenters, like the Nation Of Islam, were founded by African Americans, specifically for African Americans, in reaction to their treatment at the hands of the white majority in America. While it's one thing to be philosophically aligned with them, doesn't the lack of a shared history make it extremely difficult for someone outside that specific community to be fully appreciative of their goals and objectives?

There’s not a lack of shared history. I got into the Five Percent’s commentary on whiteness because we absolutely have a shared history. It’s our shared history that qualifies a movement of mostly African-Americans to speak about white people. The history of oppression is not only the history of oppressed peoples; it’s also the history of oppressor peoples. Part of my engagement of the Five Percent was coming to grips with that history and thinking seriously about how much that history still writes my reality today.


8) In Why I Am A Five Percenter you stand the whole outsider/insider aspect of race in American society on its head with your description of the level of acceptance you've managed to obtain within them. Your conversion to Islam removed you from the mainstream of American society and now your interest in Five Percenters is making you an outsider in the religion of your choice. Being an outsider seems to be something you fall into, whether consciously or not. What are you searching for that finds you in that position?

It’s just my luck. Being Five Percenter puts me out of the Muslim mainstream; being Muslim puts me out of the Five Percenter mainstream. And I don’t meet anyone’s checklist of required beliefs.

Some people want religion to be that all-or-nothing, clearly defined set of beliefs and behaviors. Get enough of those people in a room together and you have a community. But if it’s all or nothing, then falling out of line isn’t that hard. I don’t see any community, Islamic or otherwise, as answering every one of my needs to perfection. There are things that I love about various Islamic cultures and traditions, but I don’t feel that I have to align with one tradition or group and forsake all others. The Five Percenter lessons taught me to take the best part for myself and leave the worst part behind.

9) You spend a great deal of time in Why I Am A Five Percenter upon the metaphysical aspects of Islam searching for a way to combine the Five Percenter credo of there is no "mystery god" with the Muslim belief in a "Supreme Being". You then relate how when you took this information to Five Percenters they reminded you that their founder told them not to have anything to do with religion. It seems to me like its an either or choice and you can't be both Muslim and a Five Percenter. How do you deal with that issue?

People will tell you that you can’t be both Muslim and Hindu, or Hindu and Roman Catholic, or Muslim and Marxist, but I can show you individuals or even communities that have done all of those things. To me, there’s actually no such thing as “Islam” or “Christianity” or “Hinduism.” I can talk about Muslims a lot easier than I can talk about Islam. Religions are just made-up labels, and the differences between them exist only because enough people believe in the differences, and people build up institutions that reinforce the differences. Religious identity is like racial identity in that way; apart from the power of social constructions, none of it’s real.

That said, not all Five Percenters object to being called Muslims. Most do object, and I understand why. These symbols, stories, and ideas are being used to build an identity, and when you call that identity “Muslim,” then it puts the symbols, stories, and ideas under the domain of Muslims. To think of the Five Percenters as Muslims automatically turns them into an heretical fringe sect that lacks authenticity in relation to the so-called “classical tradition.”

My reality is that I’m coming from a Muslim background, and Muslim-type things are meaningful to me, and I’m married to a Muslim woman with a Muslim family and we share a sense of Muslim community. So my engagement of the Five Percent is going to negotiate with that reality. I don’t personally feel a need to erase that part of myself.

As for reconciling theologies: it’s not really so hard because there are such wide spectrums of thought among both Five Percenters and Muslims. I can find Five Percenters who sound like they believe in a mystery god, and Muslims who sound like atheists, and I have my own thought, in which one tradition actually becomes my portal into the other. The question is whether doing comparative theology just cuts you off from real life and locks you up in your own nerd-world. The lessons warn against wasting trillions of years on those pursuits.

10) I really liked what you had to say about race and the arbitrary nature of who is considered white and who isn't. Would you say it is more of a state of mind than anything else, or is it a combination of things.

It’s not only a state of mind, because that state of mind has produced real effects in the material world. It’s not only a state of mind when there is economic power, political power, and so forth. That’s the trap that white people fall into when they imagine that they’ve ended racism just because they don’t think of themselves as belonging to a race. For me to realize that race isn’t biological doesn’t mean that I stop being white. I wish that it could be so easy.

11) My wife and I come from two very different backgrounds which gave us entirely different outlooks on life based on expectations and privilege. When it comes to your position within the Five Percenters how much has the differences in your background from those of the majority presented difficulties for you?

I realized that to a large extent, whatever I do, I’m doing in my own house. I’m at peace with the Five Percent. I have a lot of friends in the community, I visit the Allah School and it’s all love. Some call me a Five Percenter, and that’s fine, but I don’t try to put myself over as a card-carrying member. I respect that it’s not my territory, and I think that’s what actually makes my friendship to the community possible.

12) Where do you see your search to find a place for yourself in Islam taking you next?

When it comes to my place in Islam, I’m more or less settled. There’s always room for me to grow as a human being, and I approach that process as a Muslim; but I know what I can reasonably expect from a religion, and I don’t ask for more. One alif is all I need, like Bulleh Shah said.

13) What made you decide to first write your works of fiction, (Taqwacore and Osama Van Halen) and then make the switch to the more autobiographical works that have followed.

I’ve bounced around a little. I first wrote a novel (The Taqwacores), then a nonfiction work (Blue-Eyed Devil), and then started my non-fiction memoir, Impossible Man, while also writing my history of the Five Percenters, and then wrote my second work of fiction (Osama Van Halen). The publishing history can make it look as though I deliberately shifted from fiction to non-fiction, but that’s not my writing history. I have a manuscript on my laptop right now, and I don’t even know whether it should be called fiction or non-fiction. If the story ever comes out, I would have a hard time assigning it a category.

14) What have you hoped to accomplish with your writings, and who do you hope reads them?

I started out with wild swings in the dark, writing about Muslim punk rockers and pretty sure that all of my obscure references and unacceptable ideas were just going to alienate everyone. I came from a punk rock ethos, and also a certain kind of Muslim ethos, that made it cool to be ignored and alone on the margins. Now that I have something of a readership, I’ve started to have more questions about what I publish. I mean, I write about Islam from where I stand as an American Muslim, and there’s nothing wrong with that; but my stuff might read differently in Europe, which is a whole other political climate when it comes to Muslims. My books have been translated into European languages, and it sometimes makes me uncomfortable, because I’m travelling into all of these new contexts for which I wasn’t prepared.

15) You have a new book coming out early in 2012, William S Burroughs Vs. The Qur'an. That's a very intriguing title and I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about it in general terms.

In general terms, I’d say that it’s about heroes and hero-worshipers, fathers and sons, ego and spiritual authority. More specifically, it’s about Sufism, Iran, Hassan-i Sabbah, race, gender, America, science fiction, writing as a spiritual quest, an unfinished biography of Hakim Bey, an unfinished novel, wahdat al-wujud, Supreme Mathematics, 1960s hippie religion, Tim Leary, Henri Corbin, and I guess William S. Burroughs is in there, and also the Qur’an. For its sense of balance and what it ends up doing, it might be the strongest book that I’ve ever written. It’s also possibly the weirdest book that I’ve ever written, but weird in the right way. My novel Osama Van Halen with the Muslim zombies and psychobilly jinns and kidnapping Matt Damon was pretty weird. William S. Burroughs vs. the Qur’an could be just as weird, but a better kind of weird.

I'd just like to thank Michael Muhammad Knight for taking the time our of his busy life to answer my questions. As is often the case, we were only able to do this via email, so I sent him my questions and what you've just finished reading were his answers exactly as he wrote them.
(Article first published as Interview: Author Michael Muhammad Knight, of Why I Am A Five Percenter on Blogcritics.)

October 31, 2011

Book Review: The Complete Record Cover Collection by Robert Crumb

Those of you whose primary experience with recorded music has either been with CDs or downloads will understandably probably not share previous generations' appreciation of album art. Even the name, album art, hearkens back to an era when music was released on long playing (LP) records made of vinyl. Instead of the 5 inch by 5 inch covers that now adorn CDs, designers would have a canvass of approximately eighteen by eighteen inches when creating the art for an LP. There was nothing quite like the experience of walking into a large record store whose walls were adorned with years and years worth of record covers. Sometimes you'd go into a record store merely to flip through the bins of LPs and revel in the diversity of artwork and design.

While a sizeable percentage of covers were made up of pictures of the bands striking some kind of pose or another, even some of them could be interesting, or at the very least informative. I used to be able to get a pretty fair indication of whether I'd be interested in the music on offer from the way in which a band displayed itself. However, it was albums with artwork on their covers that would have a better chance of capturing my attention. First of all they were a refreshing change from pouting rock stars trying to look dangerous and secondly some of it was genuinely fascinating. There were quite a few occasions where I would buy an album without knowing anything about the band simply because I liked the art work so much. What was amazing was how many of those recordings I ended up liking. While there were a few which didn't live up to the promise of their art work, most of the time if the cover art appealed to me so did the music.

Cover art has also been a pretty accurate reflection of the overall state of the music industry, especially when it comes to popular music. From the early to the late 1960s as the music became freer and more expressive the cover art became wilder and more experimental. From Andy Warhol pop art on Velvet Underground covers to Peter Max's art work for the Beatles' Yellow Submarine it was a period where almost anything went. Of course this explosion of freedom of expression wasn't just limited to popular music, it was in all the art forms.
Cover The Complete Record Cover Collection by R. Crumb.jpg
Famed American underground cartoonist and illustrator Robert Crumb said in a recent interview how he had given up being a commercial artist in 1968 and was amazed he could get his crazy comics published in the so called underground press at the time. There might have been little or no money in it at the time, but it was total freedom of expression in his chosen medium. While Crumb is best known for his comic work from that time, it was also when he made his first contribution to the world of record cover art when he was offered the then princely sum of $600.00 to do the cover for Big Brother & The Holding Company's album Cheap Thrills. While he probably could have parlayed that cover into more jobs for record companies, Crumb has never been a particular fan of popular music, except for rock and roll from the mid 1950s to around 1968, and lost interest in it altogether by 1970.

However a new collection of his artwork, The Complete Record Cover Collection, being published by Norton Books in the US on November 7 2011 and Penguin Canada October 25 2011 reveals a side of Crumb that many will not have been familiar with - his passion for recordings made in the early part of the twentieth century. Contrary to the book's title, cover art for records is only one component of Crumb's music related art works as the book is replete with everything from illustrations of musicians from various parts of the world to logos and business cards he's designed for a variety of independent record companies and stores. As you look through the book the first thing you'll notice is not only the wide range of projects he's taken on over the years, but how much more incredibly diversified he is as an artist than is commonly realized.
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Crumb is probably best known for the rather flamboyant and exaggerated style of his comics; a style that is highly reminiscent of cartoons of the early part of the twentieth century. Looking at his illustrations, or even many of his comics, you can almost hear that old time cartoon music playing underneath them. You just know the characters would have a bounce in their step as they walk jauntily down the street to the sound of a ragtime band if they are happy and if sad trumpets would roll out long mournful notes echoing their disconsolation as they sob their hearts out. While the cover for the Cheap Thrills album and some of the other art work in the book utilize that style, you'll see how he's able to gradate his style between the over the top cartoon work and realism as requirements and inspiration dictate.

While I've heard any number of people dismiss cartoons or illustrations as something of a lessor cousin to painting when it comes to the visual arts I've never agreed with that assessment. You only have to look at what Crumb is able to communicate with some of the work in this collection to come to appreciate that while what he does may not be framed and on gallery walls, his work has a validity of its own that makes it the equal to much of what is categorized as "serious" art. Even at its most exaggerated and cartoonish his cover art not only captures something of the nature of the artist who is being represented, it also gives you some insights into the time period the music is from.
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However for pure artistry nothing beats the portraits of various musicians scattered throughout the book. Some of them, Frank Zappa, Woody Guthrie, Lighting Hopkins, Merle Haggard and George Jones are of famous folk, others are of obscure country and blues players and a third group are of anonymous musicians from various parts of Europe. Yet no matter who they are each of the pictures captures some intangible quality of the person that stimulates your imagination in such a way you find yourself either remembering what details you know of the person's life or trying to imagine something about them - what their life was like and what playing music meant to them. While for some of them he's used old photographs as his source material, Crumb's illustrations imbue what were obviously posed pictures with far more life then the original portrait could possibly have contained.

While the book appears to be laid out without any discernible order, record covers and logos for vintage record stores share pages and musicians from the 1920s stand shoulder to shoulder with others from the early part of the twenty-first century, that actually adds to the fun of scanning through the book. Not only does it mean that each page contains examples of Crumb's diversity as an artist, but it makes looking through the book that much more interesting because you're never quite sure what to expect as you flip from one page to the next.

This is the time of year when publishers are flooding the shelves with coffee table books of various sorts in anticipation of the upcoming present buying season. The shelves of your local bookstore are going to be filled with collections of photographs of everything from the glamorous to the infamous, buildings and cute animals and of course the obligatory photo album of the Royal Family and the new Royal Couple. In a crowd like this The Complete Record Cover Collection by Robert Crumb stands out like a speck of gold in a sea of nickel. If you're going to buy one coffee table book this season make it the one with a spark of life and subversive enough to bring some much needed spice to the season. In an age of conformity and homogenization people like Crumb are needed more than ever. His artistry is as unique today as it was when he first started out and its high time for him to receive the recognition he deserves.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Complete Record Cover Collection by Robert Crumb on Blogcritics)

October 14, 2011

Book Review: Why I Am A Five Percenter by Michael Muhammad Knight

The supposed rule of thumb for avoiding controversy in polite society is not to have conversations about politics or religion. Apparently there aren't many people who can be rational or calm with either topic. Which could go a long way towards explaining why so many people, even those who nominally share his religious beliefs, have problems with Michael Muhammad Knight's books. Of course the fact that he converted to Islam as a teenager is probably off putting to quite a number of Americans, but his work is controversial in the Muslim community as well. It seems not many approve of the fact he openly questions those aspects of the religion he doesn't agree with and his willingness to explore teachings alternative to mainstream Islam.

Although his fiction, The Taqwacores and Osama Van Halen are perhaps more well known to readers at large, it's his non-fiction; Journey To The End Of Islam, Impossible Man, The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip-Hop and the Gods Of New York and Blue Eyed Devil: A Road Odyssey Through Islamic America which have probably caused the most consternation among those of his own faith. Oh, sure the fiction books are filled with enough bad behaviour to make most parents think twice about sending their children to university no matter what their faith. However, because they're fiction they can be ignored and not taken seriously. It's another matter all together when Knight starts into both the autobiographical stuff of Impossible Man and his analysis of various different Islamic philosophies around the world and throughout history.
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Like most converts to anything, Knight went through a period of attempting to be more Islamic than thou followed by a brief period of disillusionment. (Which, judging by what he's written about that period, seems to have stemmed more from his own issues rather than his religion) It was when he truly began to settle into his faith, that he began to delve deeper into its history and philosophies. While this included travels through Africa, the Middle East (including making a pilgrimage to Mecca) and South East Asia it also involved delving into the uniquely American versions of Islam which developed among African Americans. For even though his education in Islam had been in first a mainstream mosque in America and continued in a madrassa in Pakistan, it had been the writings of Malcolm X that had attracted him to the faith in the first place. However, the Nation Of Islam, of which Malcolm had been a member until his split with them shortly before his assassination, he was soon to discover, is considered misguided at best, or a heresy at worst, by the majority of Muslims.

While the Nation of Islam might have been bad enough, it's an even more heretical group who Knight focuses on in his soon to be published Why I Am A Five Percenter, from Tarcher Books a division of Penguin US on October 25 2011 and Penguin Canada on October 13 2011. Knight delivers a concise and intelligent history of the The Five Percenters, also known as The Nation of Gods and Earths, and their philosophies, while dispelling many of the myths surrounding them - they have been accused of everything from wanting to kill all the white people. a front for gang warfare to a terrorist organization. However, as in previous books, his primary concern is to further his very public discourse on Islam and his place in it. To this end he leads readers on a fascinating discussion on the nature of race and religion and a survey course on Sufi mysticism and Islamic studies as he attempts to reconcile his Five Percenter inclinations with his mainstream Islamic beliefs.

The issue of race is a major factor in Knight's personal journey. As a white American convert to Islam he was doted over by his teachers in Pakistan. For while it was fairly common for African Americans to convert, whites were few and far between. However, both the Nation of Islam and the Five Percenters were created by and for African Americans and make no bones about the fact they see white society as the biggest obstacle in the way of their community's advancement. It's especially problematic among the latter who teach self-empowerment and self reliance by denying the existence of any "mystery god" and insisting every black man has the potential to be their own god. The answer to where does a young white dude fit into this is another question - what exactly is white? The definition has changed legally over the years in the US from where it used to exclude Irish, Italian and other non-Anglo Saxon Europeans in the 1800s to now where anybody of roughly European stock is considered "white" by all save for white extremists.

In actual fact there is no such thing as a white race genetically or any other way people would like to think.The only Caucasians in the world are a somewhat swarthy group of people, including many Muslims, who live in Eastern Europe in Georgia and other Baltic states. According to Knight, being white is more a state of mind than anything else. Now that may sound like he's justifying his position, but he freely admits that he's as capable of being as white as the next person. It's a question of privilege. As a white male he is far more liable to be accepted by society as a whole than somebody of colour. Anytime he wants to he can walk away from his beliefs and be welcomed with open arms by the world at large - something none of the other Five Percenters, the majority of whom are poor people from Harlem and inner cities around America, have as an option.
Michael Muhammad Knight A La Cart.jpg
How many of them can go to Harvard University to study? How many have the luxury to spend hours studying obscure Sufi mystics when they have to put food on the table for their families? Sure there are a lot of poor people who aren't African American, but history, the history that automatically granted a poor white person higher status than an African American no matter how wealthy or educated, isn't easily forgotten by anyone and colour still designates something. As one of the scholars Knight quotes in the book says, the only people who can afford to be colour blind are those whose colour has never been used against them.

You may or may not agree with Knight's assessment of race, ( I do) but you can't help but admire his ability for being honest with himself. He spends page upon page analysing the writings of Islamic scholars and mystics and a seemingly endless number of interpretations of the Qur'an attempting to find a way for the Five Percenter's rejection of a "mystery god" to be accommodated by Islam. However when he presents his ideas to a couple of Five Percenter gods, the elder one reminds him of one of their basic precepts. It's not just belief in a "mystery god" that allows for oppression and injustice, it's also the time wasted looking for proof of its existence. Five Percenter's teach that despite every attempt by society to degrade you and push you down, the universe is yours and you can accomplish anything. You are your own god.

Why I Am A Five Percenter is by turns fascinating, intelligent and funny. While Knight occasionally meanders into what appear to be exercises in religious and spiritual hair splitting in his examination of what he calls nine thousand pages of Sufi mysticism, which he then refers to as so much naval gazing, even that section of the book has its value. Too often Islam is represented as being a single minded monolith, but here we see the diversity of thought and belief which has developed over the hundreds of years of its history. However, that is only a sideline to his main focus; Five Percenters, the history of Islam among African Americans and his appreciation for the former.

Along the way he manages to touch on topics as diverse as race, the nature of religion and the role each of us plays in shaping a religion. He isn't trying to convince you that his way is the right way, only to tell you about it and why it appeals to him. It's possible the questions he has struggled with are ones readers might recognize as ones they've asked themselves, but he doesn't pretend his answers will be applicable to anyone but himself. He tells you why he is a Five Percenter, in as much as he can be, but never advocates it or any creed as the answer to anybody's problems.

Somehow Knight manages to blend scholarship and personal memoir and in the process of teaching us an important part of American history and telling us about his own quest to find a place in the world. All in all, for a book about subjects we're not supposed to talk about in polite society, a remarkable achievement.

(Article first published as Book Review: Why I Am A Five Percenter by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics)

October 12, 2011

Book Review: Every Picture Tells A Story - Baron Wolman The Rolling Stone Years

Once upon a time in the city of the Golden Bridge by the edge of the Pacific Ocean, there lived many happy people who dressed and acted differently from the rest of the land. People would flock from all over to point, look and wonder. In this magic land there lived smaller groups of people who had been blessed with the ability to make wondrous sounds. Taking strange and other worldly names like Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Big Brother and the Holding Company, they would perform at large ritual gatherings for the inhabitants of the magical kingdom. Among those attending there would be some who would ingest strange substances and then dance with wild abandon. It was a time of innocence and joy.

Okay, so maybe it wasn't really like that in San Francisco, but there are times when you read about the heyday of the Bay Area music scene from around 1964 to 1969 it sure sounds like some sort of fairy tale. There's no denying it was a centre of creative energy whose influence spread far beyond the borders of not only the city but the state. One could easily make the argument that the Woodstock Music & Art Festival on the other side of America in Bethal New York, was as much a part of the San Francisco music scene as the free concerts in Golden Gate Park. So it's not surprising that the first magazine devoted solely to the popular music of the time, Rolling Stone was born in that city in 1967.

In his wonderful new book, Every Picture Tells A Story: Baron Wolman, The Rolling Stone Years published by Omnibus Press, photojournalist Baron Wolman recreates for us those early years at Rolling Stone. In a combination of text and photos he recounts the history of the magazine's first tentative issues. From his original meeting with founder/editor in chief, the then twenty-one year old Jann Wenner, through his three years of photo shoots for the magazine, Wolman's descriptions of events captures both the pure magic and the pathos of the times.
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Wolman describes himself as something of an outsider to the pop music scene. While he and his wife lived in the Haight Ashbury district which was the nexus for the scene, he was thirty years old and not that familiar with either the music or the musicians he was being assigned to shoot. However that didn't stop Wenner from reaching a deal with him that saw his photographs appear in the magazine in exchange for stock in the company and Wolman retaining all rights to the material. While at the time it meant that Wolman would also have to hunt down paying gigs while shooting material for Rolling Stone, he obviously has no regrets about the arrangement and is honest enough to say the deal has worked out very well for him.

One thing you find out very quickly is Wolman is from a different era then the one we live in today. He wasn't like one of the hordes who now stalk celebrities in the hopes of catching some indiscretion on film. It was also long before promotional videos, branding and image creators. Wolman would typically accompany the writer assigned to write a story to the subject's home and take his photos on location. There were no make up artists, no wardrobe changes and no lighting effects. He would shoot Janis Joplin in the basement of her Laural Canyon home shooting pool with members of her band, Frank Zappa lurking in caves or playing on construction equipment behind his house, or Tiny Tim beaming with delight over the bouquet of daisies just presented him by Wolman and the writer.

These aren't candid shots obviously, but something of the person's real character shines through unlike so many of today's carefully sculpted arrangements. Wolman talks about the difference between then and now and puts a lot of it down to being a matter of trust between the subject and photographer. "They trusted me...and the rest of us... not to make them look like fools." For Wolman the biggest change was when studios started to become involved and began dictating what they wanted and pushed the photo shoots further and further away from being a one on one interplay between photographer and musician. With the advent of MTV image became far more important then it once was and according to Wolman bands were no longer happy with simply being photographed - they wanted to look a certain way and wanted photographers to achieve it for them.

As a photojournalist Wolman had learned how to capture moments on film that would tell a story. In his photos for Rolling Stone the subject was usually the story. So whether the shots were in a recording studio, backstage or on stage, each one of them tell us a little bit about the person in question. Even those he took in his studio at home, with lights and posed in front of a seamless background still reveal something of the person's story. Sometimes even Wolman was surprised at what his photos showed. He remembers puzzling over a photo of Jerry Garcia he took in his home studio; wondering how Garcia was able to contort one of his fingers so that it looked like it was missing, until realizing it was actually missing. It's a beautiful shot of Garcia smiling into the camera and holding up the hand with the missing finger as if caught waving. What Wolman didn't know until much later was that it's also one of the only photos Garcia ever allowed to be taken where he wasn't hiding the fact the finger was absent.
Baron Wolman With Jimi Hendrix Picture.jpg
Looking at the pictures, both scattered through out the book and those in a separate section comprising some of Wolman's favourite shoots, you can't help but be struck by how intimate some of the shots are. Even some of the caught in performance shots capture moments on stage when the performer is turned inward and is in the process of vanishing into the music. Of the galleries of Wolman's favourites shoots the ones of Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin which I personally found the most interesting. Wolman makes no secret about his love of shooting Hendrix whether on stage or off and it's obvious from the photos. Hendrix may have been a shy person, but Wolman's camera captures the life in his eyes even when he's sitting and relaxing.

Miles Davis must have existed at the opposite end of the universe from Hendrix. The intensity of his stare, even when he's relaxing at home with his wife, is enough to burn a hole in the page. Looking at shots taken of him in a gym shadow boxing are like looking at a coiled spring releasing and snapping back into place again. Wolman mentions how Davis seemed filled with anger so much of the time, and that certainly comes through in the photos. However, nothing matches the pictures of Janis Joplin for poignancy. Maybe it's because we know about her sad end, but looking at the shots of her smiling face are enough to break your heart. It's far sadder to see the potential for joy that lived inside her and know she very rarely had the chance to experience it than to look at those which show her sadness.

As the book's title so aptly says every picture can tell a story, and while you may purchase the book for its pictures alone, do not ignore the text. Wolman tells the story of his time photographing the great and famous among popular music's pantheon in refreshingly honest prose. Candid about what he sees as his own deficiencies as a recorder of musical history, he readily admits to knowing little or nothing about the people he was shooting or their music prior to his assignments, he doesn't offer any critiques about anyone's place in history, he simply speaks of them as human beings. Much like his pictures reflect the individual as much as the rock star, his text humanizes, and thus makes them more real, each of those he saw through his viewfinder.

From free concerts in Golden Gate Park to the blackness of Altamant and, after leaving Rolling Stone, the Concerts on the Green in Oakland in the 1970s, Baron Wolman and his camera captured most of pop music's royalty. While he might have regrets for the pictures he didn't take, we can only be grateful for those he did. After reading Every Picture Tells A Story - Baron Woman The Rolling Stone Years you'll find yourself believing in the fairy tale of San Francisco of the 1960s and perhaps even wishing we could somehow turn the clock back to those more innocent times.

(Article first published as Book Review: Every Picture Tells A Story - Baron Wolman, The Rolling Stone Years by Baron Wolman on Blogcritics)

August 30, 2011

Book Review: Storm of the i: An Artobiography by Tina Collen

Over the past ten years the market has been flooded with an outpouring of memoirs from people who think the rest of us want to hear their tales of woe. While some have been written from a genuine desire to assist others struggling to come to grips with their own recovery, far too many have been self-serving attention seeking grabs for a flicker of celebrity. Unfortunately the numbers in the latter category have come to so outweigh the former many of us cringe upon hearing yet another "brave story of one (insert gender here) struggle to overcome past" has been unleashed upon the public. All of which means those few voices which might have something of value to say, aren't receiving a fair hearing.

Personally, I'm one of those whose instinctive reaction upon receiving a press release containing anything close to the "brave story" phrase is to hit delete and move on. As a survivor and a writer I find most of them either tedious or downright offensive. Having gone through years of therapy and dealt with my own shit, frankly I've little interest in wading through other people's manure, especially when they have nothing new to say about the subject at hand. That's especially true about those who are looking for their Oprah moment by telling the world about how miserable they were as a child. What are you trying to accomplish by spilling your guts to the world without putting it into any sort of context beyond self-pity and the confessional? No matter what anybody might say to the contrary there is nothing "inspirational" in reading somebody's tale of woe. What would be inspirational would be for you to have the courage to go to a therapist once a week and deal with your problems, but that makes for pretty boring reading and won't garner you any headlines.

So to say I was surprised to find myself intrigued enough to not only read the entire press release, but to request a review copy of Storm Of The i: An Artobiography by Tina Collen, published by her own Art Review Press, is a bit of an understatement. However, there was something about the attitude expressed in the release, and the outline of the concept for the book, that intrigued me. That the kiss of death "brave" catch phrase was nowhere to be seen and the author, a visual artist and graphic designer, was unabashedly proud of her other work, implying she was anything but the victim type, helped convince me this might be a story worth reading. However the real clincher was the fact you could tell that Ms. Collen, in spite of whatever her story was, had never lost her sense of the absurd and was still able to laugh at the world in spite of what it may have done to her.
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As a graphic and visual artist Ms. Collen has elected to tell her story utilizing the skills she is most comfortable with as well as the written word. (Hence the sub-title "An Artobiography") Having grown tired of the standard format of both biographies and autobiographies, with their written equivalent of the talking heads in a documentary movie telling a person's story and passionless listings of events in neat chronological order, even somebody daring to consider an alternative was exciting. It was the obvious question of how she would do this which first sprang to mind. However the answer wasn't anything as neat and tidy as I thought. Instead of the book being filled with images either reflecting her emotional state during the process of recovery or recently created works that looked back on her life telling the story in hindsight, she has done something far more revealing.

Any creative person, but especially one working in the visual arts, tells their own story through their work whether they are aware of it or not. No matter what the subject matter part of who they are and how they are feeling at the time they worked on a project can't help but being communicated in the finished result. While Ms. Collen had always known her relationship with her father was a source of grief in her life, it felt like everything she did, from dating to having children, angered him and that he was constantly belittling her, it was in her work that the true impact of their relationship was manifested. Looking at various pieces she had created throughout her life she began to notice recurring themes of emptiness. The void inside of her created by her father's apparent lack of love that she had repressed and carefully hidden from herself and the world had been on display for all to see if they, and she, had only known what to look for.

Even more frightening, in some ways, was coming to the understanding her ability to lose herself in her work, to become immersed in whatever she was working on, was in fact a means of running away from dealing with the issue. While all artists lose themselves in their work to the extent they can block out the world around them if their focus is sufficient, some of the examples of Ms. Collen's pieces included in the book border on obsessive in their need for attention to detail. She created a truly brilliant and witty series of works where she painstakingly created very realistic pictures of flowers by using body parts cut from pornographic magazines as the material. (For more on these works check out the Fleurotica section of her web site)

To the world she exuded confidence and bravado, always able to make those around her laugh and delight in her creativity and intellect. But she was crippled by back and neck pain and swamped by tidal waves of guilt, remorse and grief that began to manifest in debilitating as periods of depression so deep she wouldn't want to leave her bed. But this is not solely a tale of woe, its also a celebration of a life filled with creativity and a zest for experiences. Unlike other tell all confessions filled with self-abasement, recrimination and negativity, Collen doesn't leave you feeling like you're on a guided trip of the nine circles of her personal hell. In creating this map of her journey she details the whole process not just the negatives. She even owns up to having taken pleasure out of her life, not something you'd expect to find in this type of book.

One thing, and I was ever so grateful for this. she doesn't claim to have are the answers. She's very careful never to cross the line between telling her story and telling people what to do with their situations. While she does talk about the various therapies she has attempted in her search for relief, she refrains from becoming an advocate for any particular one. Even her description of attending an intensive seminar/lecture series whose methods very obviously don't work for her, makes sure to point out how it works for a number of the participants. What she does make clear is that no matter what therapy you use, recovery from any type of early life trauma is ultimately dependant on whether or not an individual is willing to be completely honest with themselves and do their own work. A therapist is only a guide, they can't change your life for you, only you can do that. Not only does Collen make that clear, she also makes it obvious that each of us are different and that her story isn't to be taken as any sort of guideline for recovery.
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So what was her purpose in writing this book if it wasn't for that reason? She's honest enough to even tackle that question. At one point she wonders out loud if the process of writing this book. with all its little intricacies and design features, isn't just another means of escape. However, she doesn't try to justify its writing by saying things like, I hope my story will inspire others or some such crap. She's doing it because she needs to, it's part of her process. She's a creative and intelligent person who thrives when making pieces of art. This book is simply one more of her creations, this time it just happens to be a very realistic, multi media, self-portrait. While other artists might have painted out the wart on their chin, she's more inclined to follow in the footsteps of people like Van Gogh who had no fear of showing the world their true state when putting their own image onto canvas.

Some of the reviews for this book I've read warn this style of memoir might become a trend, with people publishing scrap books of their lives in an attempt to tell their stories. All I can say is I sincerely hope not. In the hands of an artist gifted with the honesty, humour and integrity of Tina Collen, this book works. While some might find its lack of traditional book structure - one page might be pictures of events in the past with little written explanations of the events depicted while the next deals with something completely unrelated - confusing because its not divided up into neat chapters nor told in what appears to be a chronological order. Yet, if you think of it as a really large canvass made up of the multitude of experiences that exist inside her brain right now - after all we are inherently cubist as everything we have ever done lives on somewhere inside of us making us all multifaceted whether we're aware of it or not - you'll realize you've actually been given more of a complete picture os a person's life than either an autobiography or biography would normally supply. Like a collage it's all laid out in front of us to look at and absorb as individual images and ideas catch our attention.

Tina Collen has taken the staid and boring world of biography/autobiography and blown it wide open. While you may never have heard of her and her work before, with Storm of the i she has created something both remarkable, for its bold and fresh approach, and worth taking note of as a piece of art. In a digital age with the Internet at her disposal, she has chosen to utilize two of humanities oldest means of expression and combine them in ways that both challenge and engage the reader. Asking what purpose does it serve is no more relevant than asking what purpose any painting, novel, song, dance, opera or sculptor serves. Remember all art has its roots in the autobiographical, this work is just a little bit more obvious about it than others.

(Article first published as Book Review: Storm of the i: An Artobiogrpahy by Tina Collen on Blogcritics)

August 1, 2011

Book Review: Dancing Barefoot, The Patti Smith Story by Dave Thompsom

I was recently asked a question regarding the story of a person's life that gave me serious pause for thought about the reasons for writing biographies in general. The question was, what is there about this person's story that people will be able to identify with? After I had answered the question regarding the person under discussion to the best of my ability, it led me into thinking about why it is people would want to read about another person's life in the first place. If you've walked into a book store recently you can't have helped noticing non-fiction sections are awash with books about the lives of so-called celebrities. Rock stars, reality TV stars, movie stars, wives and husbands of movie stars and so on stare back at you from display tables and book shelves asking you to shell out your hard earned bucks to.... to what?

Some of them are obviously extensions of the type of coverage you'd expect from the celebrity gossip columns and television shows that pass for journalism or entertainment reporting these days. Collections of photos and filled with the titillating tid-bits aimed at perpetuating whatever myth has grown up around the subject matter. There are also the "My life with so and so" type, which are a version of the tell all book that involves ex-wives, husbands, butlers and pool-boys attempting to cash in on their relationship with the subject by telling the world how they were abused, under tipped or what was involved in a post pool party clean up. A little further up, or lower depending on your point of view, the food chain are the more in depth tomes tracing their subject's life from infancy to death based on interviews with such credible sources as friends of a friend of the guy who drove the ice cream truck through their neighbourhood. Unsubstantiated should be blazoned across the cover of these books rather than the ubiquitous "Unauthorized" as the pages are filled with "he (or she) said" followed by "he said" of quotes that can be neither proven or discredited as the author has gone to great pains to protect his or her sources anonymity.
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Candy floss books like those are people looking for to get the same fix of outrage and envy they receive from reading about "celebrity scandals" in their magazine of choice. Anybody who already buys a tabloid devoted to the antics of "Teen Moms" aren't going to be the most discerning or demanding of audiences and will be more than satisfied with anything that gives them more of the same but in a fancier package. However, what about biographies about the non-celebrity; the world leaders, the history makers, the great scientist and the brilliant artist? What are we looking for when we pick up a biography of someone like Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, Stephen Hawking or Pablo Picasso? These are people who have left an indelible stamp on history and I think its natural there will be curiosity as to what made them who they were and how it came about. How is it this person became so much more than the person sitting next to them in school? Was it they were simply smarter, did they catch some sort of lucky break or were they driven by some burning desire or ambition that propelled them to the pinnacles they obtained? But I also think we want more than just a person's what when we read a biography, we want to gain a deeper understanding of who they are.

We've seen their lives from the outside, but people are more than a collection of actions. It also seems the greater a person's accomplishments, the more interesting and complex they are, and some clue as to who that might be is something we're all naturally curious about. Maybe its just because we hope to find something of ourselves in the pages of their story and in the process some way of personally identifying with them and feeding that small part of ourselves where dreams live with "if they can do it why can't I"? Naturally each individual is going to have different variations on the above motivating their curiosity about the subject of a biography, and depending on who and what the person is known for, there's no saying it will have to be the same reason each time.

When I picked up the new biography of poet/musician Patti Smith, Dancing Barefoot: The Patti Smith Story, by Dave Thompson being published by the Chicago Review Press on August 2 2011, I was already fairly familiar with what her life and career have consisted of and was interested in seeing if the author would be able to provide any more insights into who she was. For while its true Smith recently published her own in depth autobiography,Just Kids it was primarily concerned with her early life in New York City and her relationship with her dear friend Robert Maplethorpe. The other major piece of biographical material available is the ten year in the making documentary by Stephen Sebring, Patti Smith - Dream Of Life, which, although it contains extensive footage of Smith and is remarkably moving in places, I found left me wanting to know more about her.
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Thompson was exhaustive in his research for this book and its not lacking in facts and information. Not only did he conduct extensive interviews with those who knew Patti at various points in her life, he seems to have read nearly everything ever written about her in both the press and other people's writings. However, even more promising as far as I was concerned, was his mentioning in the introduction how he tried to turn to her words and writings whenever possible for information. While the majority of the latter turned out to be interviews she had given at various points in her career, it also included her poetry, lyrics and even Just Kids and whatever other autobiographical writings he was able to access. Thompson also had the benefit of having been there himself when her career took off during the heydays of punk rock in the mid 1970s. (In fact portions of this book previously appeared in one of his earlier works, London's Burning:True Adventures on the Front Line of Punk 1976 -1977) which should have enabled him to bring his own emotional memories of the time to bear upon the subject.

The book traces Smith's life and career from pretty much her birth right to 2010. While a great deal of this was covered in Smith's Just Kids, Thompson switches the focus away from her relationship with Maplethorpe, although as that was such a formative part of who she is he can't ignore it, and focuses instead on those aspects of her life more directly related to her career. While there is still quite a bit of overlap between the two books, his emphasis on how her career was being shaped by those events distinguishes his work from hers. We also hear from those who knew Smith and Maplethorpe during this time, and their observations at least offer a different perspective on things Smith described in her book. While at times it feels somewhat strange to read these third person accounts it does help to explain how Smith was able to begin establishing herself as a force to be reckoned with in the artistic community of New York City in the late 60s early 70s.

There are also details, like Smith's fascination with Jim Morrison of the Doors, which she had barely touched on in her own book, that Thompson recounts. With descriptions of things like Smith standing at Morrison's grave in Paris for two hours in the pouring rain hoping to receive some sort of communion from beyond, he makes a case for Morrison's combination of rock and roll and poetry as one of the bigger influences on her career. While he never comes right out and says it in so many words, the fact that Thompson keeps bringing him up time and time again in relationship to Smith's work is an indication of the importance he places on it and his ability to cite her own references to the late rock and roll singer gives the suggestion credence. Personally I never thought that much of Morrison, so my own personal prejudices made it difficult to accept that Smith's work would have been inspired by someone whose work was, what I'd consider, far inferior to hers, but he does present a very convincing case in support of the theory.
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Thompson's meticulous research pays off for the reader in his recounting Smith's near fatal accident during a performance in Tampa Bay Florida when while dancing on stage she tripped over a monitor and fell over the edge to the concrete below damaging vertebrae in her neck. While rumours have circulated as to the cause of the accident the truth was as the opening act on the tour they were forced to work around the headlining group's gear and the monitor was not where she thought it would be. I'd never even heard of this incident, it's not mentioned in either her book or the movie, so was shocked to discover how serious it had been. For a while after the accident there was not only doubt as to whether she would ever perform again, but if she would ever walk again. Smith was part of the reason the fall was downplayed so much, as she was never aware how serious the problem was. Unused to pain medication she would cheerfully answer fine to people's queries as to how she was feeling. So unless you were actually in the hospital room to see her immobilized, you'd not have known the risk she was at.

While these and other facts are interesting and Thompson has done a fine job in organizing and relating them in a neat chronological package, I came to the end of the book not feeling like I had come to know the person behind the facts any better then I had before I started. Perhaps that's because I'd read her own book, own a copy of Sebring's movie and its accompanying book and have watched a number of interviews with her where she has discussed both herself and her career and was already familiar with her. Perhaps my expectations outstripped what is possible to accomplish within the format of a biography, but still I felt there has to be more to someone's life than the mere recitation of what happened to them and when. Thompson's background in journalism shows in his unwillingness to stray too far from laying out facts and very rarely expand upon them in an effort to give us more of a sense of who Patti Smith is. Don't get me wrong, that's not his fault, it's, at least as far as I'm concerned, one of the inherent flaws in the biographical genre. They reduce flesh and blood people down to facts and in the process remove the passion in their lives which made them so fascinating in the first place. You'll learn all about Patti Smith and her career by reading Dancing Barefoot, The Patti Smith Story but you won't know her any better after reading it then before you opened it.

(Article first published as WORKING GH Book Review: Dancing Barefoot: The Patti Smith Story by Dave Thompson on Blogcritics)

January 12, 2011

Book Review: Canciones De Invierno/Winter Songs by Viggo Mortensen

When the snows come the world becomes a different place. Even in our big cities we notice how the first fall of the year mutes the sounds of everything from traffic noise to people's voices. It's almost as if there is a collective holding of breath, an age old instinctive response to winter and its potential for danger that overtakes us as we wait to see what are we going to have to cope with. For winter never used to be something we are occasionally mildly inconvenienced by but a time when survival could not be taken for granted. A blizzard didn't just meant travel plans were jeopardized, it meant the possibility of freezing to death if you were caught out in the open or starving to death if you hadn't enough food put by.

Like the other creatures around us humans would spend the rest of the year preparing to survive winter. Spring, summer and fall would be for: planting, nurturing and finally harvesting of crops; either fattening up animals for slaughter and smoking in the fall or hunting and salting meat to be used over the winter; and chopping the wood needed for heating and cooking. Once the winter came you just hoped you had stored enough aside to see you through and were lucky enough to augment your stash with occasional fresh meat from hunting. As the days shortened and the cold deepened, activities would be limited, and hours on end would be spent indoors huddled around fires to keep warm.

It's no wonder many of North America's indigenous people came to associate winter with introspection and the process of travelling inward on the voyage of self-discovery. It was also the time many nations reserved for the telling of stories and reflecting on the life lessons they contained. Winter was a time for finding safe paths through both the external landscape and the internal as well. In his latest volume of poetry and photography, Canciones De Invierno/Winter Songs published by Perceval Press, Viggo Mortensen has brought together works which capture both the raw beauty of the season and the ancient imperative to travel within it has been known to inspire.
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Those at all familiar with Mortensen's poetry and photography will know of his ability to capture moments in time with both. Whether an instant of emotion shaped in words or a piece of the world caught and immobilized with the click of a shutter he has the uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time to see, hear and record what others often miss. We can all look at the same vista or think the same thoughts, but it's what we are able to do with that information that separates the artists from the rest of us. Some might choose to shape our opinions of what is in front of their eyes by the use of certain words or shooting a scene in a specific way. Others, like Mortensen, will allow us to shape our own thoughts on what they have recorded, and of the person doing the recording.

While we've come to expect a certain baring of the soul from poets in their declarations on love, beauty, nature and whatever else captures their fancy, Mortensen's work has always been somewhat different. While he does not shy away from emotion, he's not inclined towards sentimentality, the standard avowing of eternal love or raptures on the beauty of nature. Instead these are honest attempts to describe what is in front of him, with either representations of actual physical reality or abstractions brought to life through symbolism and imagery, woven together with a thread of introspection. At first glance, or on a casual read, his poems might appear to be no more than descriptions, but listen to the words as you read them in your head and you will hear what he feels. It's how he chooses to describe something that provides the editorial. He has no need to do anything so obvious as proclaim at the top his lungs, when every word he speaks resounds with his feelings.

In the poem "Libertad/Freedom" (each poem is in both Spanish and English) from this collection, he attempts to reassure an unnamed partner. "It's not/so you'll accept/and agree/it's not/to lose you/or let you go/that I give you/what I love" he concludes after detailing the various means he has of ensuring that she enjoy what he loves, "Freedom", and reassuring her that it doesn't mean he wants to be rid of her. "It's not/that I don't hear you/or believe in us/it's not/because I tire/or surrender/that I show you/a door". While some might not understand how his listing of the various ways he would give her her freedom is a love poem, I've yet to read anything proclaim trust for another as much as this piece does, and trust is the most heartfelt avowal of love I know.
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Ever since somebody wrote down that God gave humans dominion over nature we've been either screwing the world over or, just as damaging, sentimentalizing nature as something beautiful that was created for our pleasure. Those of us who live with winter are given yearly reminders of just how little control we actually are able to exert over nature and how there's nothing remotely cute or cuddly about her. While not all the photographs in Winter Songs are of nature, the majority of the work is taken from two series of images Mortensen has been working on for a couple of years: The Road, shots I imagine that were taken while on location for the movie of the same name, and Forward. Previously I had been struck by his ability to capture the primordial essence of the forest in his work. Here he takes us beyond the woods to give us work that is unstinting in its depiction of nature as a force not only beyond our control but way beyond our understanding.

Of course there is beauty to be found, how can we not be awed by a full moon caught swelling in all her splendour behind the stark silhouettes of tree limbs or a radiant sky of oranges, whites and deep sapphires? However it's difficult to suppress the shiver that runs up your spine when you look at these and other images as their beauty hints at a wildness which cares nothing for our wants or needs. This is driven home with even greater firmness in those images where the human element intrudes as they only serve to emphasize the elements' indifference to our presence. Winding roads travelling through the middle of nowhere in snow dusted landscapes with distinguishing landmarks hidden or blurred by snow, fog and mists are a reminder of how little we matter. No matter how beautiful the image may look sitting static on the page of a book, try and imagine yourself being in that landscape and see how you feel.

Look long enough and hard enough and you might begin to have some idea of what winter must have meant to people who came before us. While they were able to appreciate the wonder of a snow covered glade shining blue in the night, the atmosphere responsible for creating those conditions could also spell their death. Respect and admiration go hand in hand in Mortensen's photographs ensuring his vision isn't coloured or impaired like so many other shots of nature by the need to tame them for human consumption.

Winter is a time when the world around us slows down and takes the rest it needs to come forth rejuvenated for another year. The dormant period where the old dies away in order to prepare the way for new is essential for ensuring life. At one time humans understood this by equating it as a time for introspection and learning in order to prepare themselves for walking in the world around them when it came back to life. In Winter Songs, through his poems and photography, Viggo Mortensen exemplifies the spirit of that belief. Spend some time leafing through the book, pausing to gaze at an image or absorbing a poem, over the remaining months of winter and see what happens. We may no longer be allowed to hibernate and reflect for the winter, but within the pages of this book some of that experience will come to life for you.

(Article first published as Book Review: Canciones De Invierno/ Winter Songs by Viggo Mortensen on Blogcritics.)

December 31, 2010

My Favourite Reads Of 2010

I don't know how many books I read over the course of a year; especially when you include the ones I re-read, so for any title to stand out sufficiently for me to remember it from one end of the year to the other means it has to be something pretty special. Some years I've not been able to come up with ten books, and, others I'm hard pressed to chose among them, when putting together a year end list of favourites. This year sort of fell in between as after reading through the list of reviews I'd written over the course of the year and jotting down the titles of those which stood out, it just happened to turn out that I had picked exactly ten.

Any who have read my reviews in the past will be well aware of my liking of epic fantasy, and this year is no exception, but there are also a couple of non-fiction titles and a couple that might even be referred to as straight fiction. I know there are still those who would look down their noses at what some refer to dismissively as 'genre' fiction, but as far as I'm concerned it's there you'll find the closest we have come to continuing the oral tradition of storytelling that began with Homer and Valmiki. We may no longer rely on stories to explain away the workings of the world or the peculiarities of our gods, but they do provide us with the means of stretching our minds in ways we might not otherwise. Hopefully reading this list will encourage you to at least follow the links back to reading my full review of each title, and maybe even to read one or two of them as well. So, in order of when they were read over the course of the year, here are the ten books which were my favourites in 2010.

Dust Of Dreams by Steven Erikson. The ninth book of ten in Erikson's Malazan Book Of The Fallen series finds the world apparently on the brink of blowing apart at the seams as the schemes of gods are starting to fall into place. All that's seemingly protecting the world are what seems to be a pitifully small force of mortals, remnants of the once proud armies of the Malazan Empire. This near the end of a series most authors would have probably been content with simply continuing the story where it left off from the last chapter, but not Erikson. He has a whole world of beings to draw upon who are going to want to have their say in how things turn out, and be they living, undead, god, mortal or something in between they will be heard. Amazingly, one never feels confused when reading Erikson's work as the multiple plot lines and myriad characters always find a way to fit into the overall picture he is creating. It might take some time to see how a particular piece fits into the puzzle, but half the fun of reading is finding that out. Dust Of Dreams is another wonderful instalment in Erikson's epic tale with the only disquieting note being the realization there's only one book left after it.

Voices Of A People's History Of The United States by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove. Most histories that you read will tell of the big events from the point of view of the generals, politicians and other larger then life figures who have somehow been designated as the movers and shakers shaping them. The majority of the time we are asked to take somebody else's word that what we are being told is what actually happened. In their history of the United States Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove have decided to let you have the opportunity to hear from people who actually participated in events throughout the years and let you form your own opinions. Instead of reading about generals and their great victories you'll hear from the soldier who fought in the trenches in the form of a letter home. This collection of speeches, letters and other writings from down through the years provides the reader an opportunity to hear from those whose voices don't usually make it into history books and provides a totally different perspective on events that you thought you knew so well. In these days of misinformation and spin, this book is a refreshing change of pace as we are able to read first hand what people actually said, not what somebody else wants you to think they said.

Motorcycles & Sweetgrass by Drew Hayden Taylor. Somewhere in the backwoods of Ontario the old ways and the new world are having a head on collision. Ojibway novelist and playwright Drew Hayden Taylor creates a wonderful vision of what would happen on a modern day reservation if the trickster, Nanabush, from his people's legends, were to show up and try to liven things up a little. Nobody knows what to make of the stranger who roles into town on the back of a classic Indian motorcycle for the funeral of one of the town's oldest inhabitants, but they know there's something not completely right about him when the local racoon population are all so set against him. Funny, yet at the same time realistic in its depiction of life on a reserve, Motorcycles & Sweetgrass might not jibe with people's image of the noble savage or the drunk welfare bum Indian, but it does show how traditions can live on comfortably in the modern world. Pickup trucks may have replaced more traditional modes of transportation and computers and cell phones are as common here as anywhere else, but that doesn't mean you forget who you are and the stories that shaped your people.

The Good Fairies Of New York by Martin Millar. Technically speaking this book probably shouldn't be on a list of books released in 2010 as it originally came out a number of years ago. However as I only read it for the first time this year I decided to include it. Martin Millar has always had a wonderful sense of the absurd and this is a shining example of that at work. How else would you describe a book featuring a massive battle between two fairy armies in Central Park, two Scottish fairies who've decided to go against tradition and play punk versions of old fiddle tunes and the ghost of the late New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders searching for his lost Gibson guitar? I guarantee you haven't read another book quite like this one, and not only will it make you laugh out loud, you'll never look at fairies in quite the same way again.

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay. Guy Gavriel Kay has the incredible ability of being able to pull a reader into the world of his story right from the opening lines of his book. Before you've even read more than a few pages into one of his creations you've become so immersed in the world that no matter what the setting, its as familiar to you as your own. Under Heaven is no exception as he takes you into the subtle and dangerous world of 8th century China where sophisticated political minds, warrior societies and mysterious magical forces co-exist. As the story slowly unravels the combination of intriguing characters, twisting plots and intricately described world make this a fascinating and compelling read. This is historical fantasy as it should be written; most anything else is just a pale imitation.

Just Kids by Patti Smith. Smith's recounting of her formative years as a young artist is as much a love story about her relationship with Robert Maplethorpe as it is an autobiography. A beautiful and honest recollection of both individuals coming of age as people and artists, Just Kids distils the innocence and excitement of two children discovering themselves and leavens it with the realities of living poor and struggles with sexual identity. As honest and unstinting a work as anything Smith has ever produced, this fearless book is not only her story, it also manages to evoke its era with everyone from Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, William Burroughs and Allan Ginsberg making guest appearances in its pages. I don't normally like autobiographies or biographies for that matter, but if you read only one book this year - let it be this one. It will break your heart and lift you higher than the moon - a work of art by a brilliant artist.

The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight. The book that started it all. This was Muslim convert Knight's first book set in the fictional world of Islamic punks and the inspiration for the real life imitating art tour by Knight and various Muslim punk bands captured in the documentary Taqwacores: The Birth Of Punk Islam. In some ways the book is about the immigrant experience in America as second generation Islamic children try to find their place in a society where they are outsiders. Like other teenagers away from home at collage they explore sex, drugs and alcohol while trying to learn about life. What separates this from other coming of age stories is the underlying tension between the characters' religion, which they continue to practice and respect, and their attempts to reconcile it with their behaviour. Full of the noise and confusion of youth spreading its wings The Taqwacores manages to put a human face on Islam like few other works of popular fiction.

Curse Of The Wolf Girl by Martin Millar. This is Millar's second appearance on this list, this time though for a book published this year. The sequel to his Lonely Werewolf Girl picks up where he left off with the adventures of Kalix, the banished werewolf princess, still trying to get her act together. Helped and hindered in equal parts by her human and fire elemental friends, hunted by family members and werewolf hunters, she faces her sternest test yet - remedial English and Math classes. This book was eagerly anticipated in my household and unlike many other sequels it not only lived up to expectations, but even surpassed them. Millar refused to take the easy way out by repeating the formulae that worked in the first book, and he has not only sustained the world he developed so well, but taken his characters and expended on the groundwork he had laid earlier. Is it possible for a near suicidally depressed teenage werewolf with an addiction to laudanum to be happy? Maybe, maybe not, but Kalix, bit by bit (and bite by bite if the truth be told) is taking her first steps towards independence and despite her occasional habit of ripping out throats of those who upset her, at least finding something close to peace of mind. A wonderful book in its own right, Curse Of The Wolf Girl is a must read for fans of Kalix and her buddies. If your sick of the whole romance story/vampire thing going on right now - this is the perfect antidote - I can't see any of those little whiners lasting more than a second or two in Kalix's world.

Pirates Of The Levant by Arturo Pedro-Reverte. It's long been a tradition among fighting men that when things get a little too hot for comfort at home, one takes to the seas for relief. After saving the king's life one would think that Captain Alatriste and his ward Inigo wouldn't have a care in the world. Unfortunately they managed to piss off a lot of well connected people in 17th century Spain in the process, including members of the Inquisition who could make life very hot for them. Which is how they find themselves cruising the Mediterranean as part of the Spanish fleet preying upon the enemies of Spain. Off the coast of North Africa and Southern Europe that can be anyone from English privateers to Turkish merchant ships loaded with slaves, gold and perfumes. As usual Reverte has not only managed to capture the times the book is set in perfectly, his characters are so full of life they nearly leap from the pages. Combined with his ability to take you into the heart of a battle, with each sword stroke and musket ball described in such detail you almost feel the breeze they create stir your hair and scorch your skin, this makes for not only a great adventure, but a sobering contemplation of the wastes of warfare and the depths humans can sink to when in peril. This is the sixth book in the Alatriste series translated into English so far, and hopefully they'll be plenty more to come, as any other book of a similar type just pales in comparison.

Stonewielder by Ian C Esslemont. The year started with a book set in the world of the Malazan Empire, so it seems only fitting that it should end that way as well. Esslemont has published two previous works set in the world he and Steven Erikson created, and in Stonewielder he picks up with the characters he's introduced us to previously. Esslemont, like Erikson, has the ability to not only recreate the great sweep of events that make epics such a wonder to read, but to create characters who are so real that we experience what it's like for everyone from the foot soldier, the supreme commander of an army and the gods themselves to live through them. With each characters' perspective coloured by their own self-interest we are offered a variety of views of the same events and are left to decide on our own what's right and what's wrong. While Esslemont's books work fine as a stand alone series in their own right, taken in tandem with Erikson's they raise both up to a higher level. Remarkable books by remarkable writers make for great reading, and that's the case with this book and any book in this series.

(Article first published as My Favourite Reads of 2010 on Blogcritics.)

October 8, 2010

Book Review: The Tree by John Fowles

Humankind doesn't have a very good record when it comes to the way we deal with things we either fear or don't understand. More hate based wars have been fought because of them than probably anything else. In fact, throughout our long and rather bloodthirsty history the majority of our worst crimes against ourselves and the world around us have been brought on by our inability to overcome just how much we fear what we don't understand. What we don't destroy we seek to control or beat into submission in order to make sure it is unable to challenge us.

While not generating quire as strong feelings of antipathy, those things which seemingly have no intrinsic value, or use, manage to risk our ire to nearly the same extent. So woe betide anything or body which manages to not only have no apparent use, but that also confuses and scares us. In his treatise The Tree, first published thirty years ago and now re-printed by Ecco Books, an imprint of Harper Collins, the late British author John Fowles (1926 - 2005) postulates that for the majority of us the natural world, and, by dint of what the two have in common, the spirit of creativity, fall into that category.

According to Fowles one need look no further than our relationship with forests in general, and trees in particular to find proof of this sentiment. Even before the Christian church began its campaign against earth based religions by spreading the belief that evil dwelt in the dark places of the forests, we were turning against the untamed world around us when we made the switch from hunter gathers to a more agrarian trade based society. Early civilizations were just as inclined to see nature as a force to overcome and be controlled as later day ones. Supplications were made to gods and goddesses in order to ensure bountiful crops and men enacted rituals binding them to the land so their divinity over it was ensured.
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It was the industrial revolution of the 19th century which combined our fear of the dark and unknown with the utilitarian attitudes we hold today that completed our separation from the natural world. Up to then the majority of people still looked to the land for their living as we were primarily an agrarian society. With the coming of industry and its need for raw materials, any thought of nature existing merely for the sake of existing went out the window. If something wasn't of use, if it couldn't feed the maw of industry in some manner, it had no purpose at all and was deemed extraneous to our needs.

Interestingly enough, Fowles points out, until the 19th century nature hadn't made much of an appearance in the arts. Although he confines himself to writing and the visual arts, he makes a very strong case for his argument that until then the majority of the arts had depicted nature either as a backdrop against which human activity took place or which expressed our need to exert control over it through pictures containing formal gardens and tales describing the evils existing in a forest's dark places. It was only with the Romantics and the Impressionists of the 18th and 19th century, as the world became more urbanized, that painters began to break with that tradition and attempt to represent the natural world honestly. Looking at the work of Impressionists today it's hard for us to find anything controversial about them, but to their contemporaries they were strange and confusing works that very few saw anything of value in, much like their attitudes towards the subject matter depicted.

Science, which most of us today see as being diametrically opposed to religion, according to Fowles, is as much, if not more, responsible for our attitudes towards nature through its obsession with cataloguing, categorizing and explaining the world. We are unable to allow anything to merely exist in its own right, we must ensure it be given a proper name and purpose in the order of things as we see it. If we can't name it or define it, we don't understand it and fear it. Fowles postulates that as long as we continue to attempt to find a "use" for nature through these means we will never break down the barriers we've erected that keep us from appreciating it for what it is and will eventually bring about its ruination.
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Fowles lays out his argument as a mix of personal anecdote, observation, history lesson and analysis. In nintey-one pages he manages to cover: the history of science, civilization, religion and how each relates to the way we perceive nature; recollections of his childhood both in pre-world war two suburban London and as a evacuee from the bombing of the city during the war in Devon and how the contrast between the two worlds shaped his view of nature; the difficulties inherent in trying to bring nature to life with the written word and the interconnection between artistic creation and nature. This is not a book to be picked up casually and read while trying to do anything else as the thoughts expressed need to be given careful consideration and can't be simply skimmed over if one is to gain anything from reading it. In fact a reader is best served by putting the book down periodically and walking away from it for a while to give themselves time to consider each section before moving on.

That being said, the rewards gleaned from reading The Tree are worth the effort. Never before have I read such a passionate, yet intellectually sound argument made in defence of the natural world. Instead of launching the usual sentimental appeal for our attention though descriptions of beauty and cuteness, he has crafted something that forces us to confront the myths we have created about nature through so called reason and religion. He shows us how each have purposely, and inadvertently, caused our alienation from the natural world while through his own experiences attempts to communicate what we have missed because of it.While he freely admits that the printed word is woefully inadequate for describing the effect of nature on us, through his efforts he manages to impart enough of the wonder he feels at visiting certain places in England for us to begin to understand what we risk losing with the destruction of truly wild places.

Nature is awkward, ugly, uncomfortable and doesn't do what we want it to do. For most of our civilized existence humankind has attempted, through various means, to control it. However one only has to look at events of the past decade in both North America and the South Pacific - the tsunami that wrecked havoc in Indonesia and the devastating results of Hurricane Katrina upon New Orleans - to see how fruitless those attempts have been. Even worse, according to Fowles, is how we are depriving ourselves of an essential part of the experience of being alive on this planet through our desire there be a place for everything and everything to be in its place.

There are authors who can write hundreds of pages and say nothing at all. In the ninety-one pages of The Tree the late John Fowles says more about our relationship with nature than any other author I've ever read. Republished in honour of its thirtieth anniversary, this book will open your eyes to the world around you and hopefully have you looking at the next tree or forest you pass in an entirely new light. Or, even better, to not pass it, but sit down and spend some time with it.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Tree by John Fowles on Blogcritics.)

June 11, 2010

Book Review: Impossible Man by Michael Muhammad Knight

I've been gradually working my way through a number of books written by the American author Michael Muhammad Knight's. He's most widely known to readers at large for inspiring Islamic punk rock groups through his book The Taqwacores. However, aside from his works of fiction depicting the activities of fictional punk rockers, he has written extensively about his personal experiences with Islam and how its practiced both in America and in what we would refer to as Islamic countries; Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Pakistan. While his journeys have taken him around the world, his internal pilgrimage to find a way to reconcile his adopted faith with his Western ideas of equality and individualism have been the real basis for his non-fiction writings.

In Journey To The End Of Islam he explained how he thought that writing The Taqwacores would signify the end of his relationship with Islam. Instead it showed him it wasn't because he was a convert to the faith that he had doubts about certain aspects and practices. Hearing from young Muslims across North America who appreciated his work inspired him try and reconnect with the religion. While part of him still doubted his integrity as a Muslim because he wasn't willing to abide by the rules as dictated by the Qur'an, he also realized he couldn't go back to those days again. However, for those reading the book, the question of how he came to be an unquestioning follower of a religion that most people in America either fear or hate remained unclear. For while he had dropped hints of a troubled past and an abusive and mentally disturbed father, he'd not gone into details of the events leading up to his conversion.
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Impossible Man, published by Soft Skull Press, turns back the clock as Knight takes us back in time to recount the details of his life from early childhood, his conversion to Islam, his subsequent loss of faith, to his wandering aimlessly in search of direction. The picture that emerges is of a person with little or no self-respect desperately looking for acceptance and needing to believe in something bigger than himself. This is not an easy book to read for Knight doesn't shrink from recording even the most embarrassing and personal details of his story. However, it's saved from the self pitying, or ever worse, the look at me aren't I amazing for overcoming this stuff, tone of other autobiographies of this nature, by his refusing to depict himself as a victim.

As he has shown in his other writings Knight is almost brutal in his honesty when it comes to recording the details of his story. This allows him to tell the story without embellishment or editorializing. He doesn't censor his younger self's arrogance, idiocy, and self-delusion. He even refuses to use the benefit of hindsight and try to explain away his behaviour at the time. Instead everything is told as if it is happening in the present so we travel along with him instead of hearing about it being recounted as a memory. This is the story of a kid whose mother had to live through two years of a husband who threatened to murder her or her child during the night, and then locked them up during the day in order to protect them from Satan. Somehow she escaped to flee with him to her parents home and the protection of her brother who was a police officer.

Young Michael escaped into fantasy worlds. first the world of George Lucas' Star Wars in which he was able to find parallels to his own life with a father who had surrendered to the dark side. From there he graduated to the world of Hulk Hogan and professional wrestling, with its overblown cartoon figures and epic battles of good versus evil. It was a friend in high school who, worried over his lack of self respect, told him he should read the autobiography of Malcolm X, and it was literally the book which changed his life. While Malcolm's words struck a chord within him, it was Spike Lee's bio-pic, Malcolm which fired his imagination and spurred his desire for conversion.
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Thinking back over story, the picture he drew of himself was of a person ripe for being taken by unscrupulous people and turned into an empty vessel. It says a lot for the people he went to initially for help with his conversion to Islam that he didn't become one of those sad figures you read about who disappeared into cults out who end up becoming mindless terrorists. They treated his desire to convert with seriousness and respect but never abused their positions of authority or did anything more than try to instil in him the values of his new faith. When he expressed a desire to go and fight in Chechnya during the times of the Russian invasion, with visions of glory dancing in his head, he was calmly dissuaded from throwing his life away uselessly.

It was his intelligence his new teachers valued so highly that resulted in his disillusionment with Islam. He made the mistake of asking why. Why should Allah care so much if his mother didn't convert to Islam that He would send her to hell? He knew his mother had suffered and struggled, had been supportive of him in everything he did including buying him the books he needed to study Islam, driving him to nearest mosque and never questioning his desire to convert. Once the first why is asked and doesn't receive a satisfactory answer, others follow fast and furious. While he never lost his faith entirely he drifted back into the self-destructive behaviour that had marked his early years, including "Backyard Wrestling" which included stunts like being beaten with barbed wire clubs and wrestling on beds of thumbtacks.

There's something pathetic, in the real meaning of the word, reading the boastful thoughts of a young man who takes pride in the amount of punishment he's able to absorb and inflict upon himself. The fact that Knight is almost clinical in his description of these and other activities, never once trying to make himself an object of pity, makes it all the more powerful. His ability to act as a detached observer of events distinguishes this from similar types of work and makes it as compelling as any work of fiction. For those who have ever questioned the why's behind Michael Muhammad Knight's story, what answers he has to offer can be found in this book. For there is no simple answer as to why we do what we do and by not attempting to analyse his younger self's motivations, or second guess any of his decisions, Knight acknowledges that fact. Some might think that's a cop out, but the answers are there in the narrative for anyone who is willing to read them. He is brave enough to let the facts stand on their own and let the reader draw their own conclusions, so the least you can do is make that effort.

(Article first published as Book Review: Impossible Man by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)

June 5, 2010

Book Review: Journey To The End Of Islam by Michael Muhammad Knight

Have you ever noticed how the person who converts to a new religion, or philosophy of any kind, tends to be a whole lot more fanatical about their new faith than those who were born into it? Perhaps they feel a need to prove themselves in order to win acceptance as quickly as possible. Some people adopt a faith in the hope of finding answers to questions they have about life, others because they are desperate to find a place they fit in, while others are looking for something to make order out of any chaos they have lived through. In the latter case it's no wonder a convert becomes doctrinarian, it's such a relief to have order in their lives they'll follow the rules without questioning or doubting their necessity.

When author Michael Muhammad Knight was a teenager he converted to Islam in order to break as much as possible with his white supremacist father. However, when you consider the brief descriptions of his childhood that he offers readers in his book Journey To The End Of Islam, published by Soft Skull Press, you have to wonder how much Islam represented a place of order which would relieve him of having to make his own decisions about good and evil and wrong and right. Like Orthodox Jews and Fundamentalist Christians who take the word of the bible as law, Fundamentalist Muslims take the Qur'an as their rule book to live by. There aren't any grey areas for any of these people; if God says something it's the law and there can be no disputing it.

While that may work for some people Knight found he couldn't live like that and thinking to leave Islam behind wrote his now infamous book The Taqwacores about a group of Islamic punk rockers. Ironically the book became a beacon for young American Muslims who were questioning many of the same things he was. Whether they were gay, straight, female or male didn't matter, they weren't happy with the status quo of Islam, or even what passed for mainstream progressive Islam, but weren't prepared to surrender their faith either. So instead of leaving Islam behind, Knight found himself at the heart of a movement looking to define a new identity for the religion. In Journey he finds himself at a crossroads, trying to decide and define what Islam is to him.
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So, in 2008, while the rest of America is trying to figure out whether or not it should elect its first black president, and being Muslim is something Obama is having to deny as if its something evil and un-American, Knight sets off on a trip that will see him visit shrines, temples, and other holy sites in Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia and finally to Saudi Arabia and the holiest of holy places, Mecca, to make hajj, in an attempt to discover what it means to be Muslim. We not only learn about the history of the religion and the schisms that have divided the faith almost since its beginnings along the way, Knight also provides us with an overview of the uniquely American versions of Islam that were fostered by Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, The Nubian Islamic Hebrews, and the Five Percenters. However, the major focus of the book is on his internal debate; the fight between his intellect and his heart over matters of faith and politics and how to separate the two.

In Pakistan, Syria, Egypt and Ethiopia Knight takes us on visits to various shrines, tombs, and other sites of holy and historical significance to Islam. With each site we not only learn about the various figures in the history of the faith, we find out what role they have played in the split behind the formation of its two major sects, Sunni and Shi'a. In Pakistan there's the added confusion of the mystical branch of Islam thrown into the mix as he visits the tombs of a variety of Sufi saints. While strict Islamic practice forbids the worship of graves or humans, even worship of the Prophet Muhammad is prohibited, that doesn't stop people from praying to their local saints or performing other acts of worship that would be frowned on in other places.

Harar in Ethiopia is considered the fourth holiest Muslim city, and its here that Knight discovers some of the strangest forms his religion can take with its mixture of ancestor worship and animalism. Shrines were built around or joined to fig trees and hyenas were treated with special honour because the prophet would not kill them. Every night hyenas would come through small doors in the wall surrounding Harar to be fed by an individual designated specifically for that job and given the title "Hyena Man". For the author they came to represent a human's lower self, our ugly spirit which only thinks of fulfilling physical needs like food and sex.
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So many divergent views of Islam of course don't make it any easier to find your way to the heart of your religion or to being any clearer about your own place in it. By taking the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca along with millions of other Muslims Knight hoped that he would be able to find what he was looking for. Unfortunately, most of what he found was evidence of how Saudi Arabia, where the city of Mecca is located, has tried to put its stamp on the religion to ensure its control over it. He finds Muslims from all over the world attempting to memorize the Qur'an in Arabic even though they don't understand a word of it. While initially he feels superior to them because he's not allowing himself to be led blindly, that gradually changes to guilt because he can't shake the feeling that maybe that's what faith is really all about.

Who is he to feel superior when they can accept the word of God so easily, but he has to question everything? Are they right and he's wrong? Yet, blind obedience means accepting verses in the Qur'an that allow a man to beat his wife and other things that he can't accept. Can you be a Muslim and not accept those passages in The Book? Or are you something else when you do that? According to Knight there are those in the progressive Muslim movement who try and "reinterpret" those offensive lines, but they still refuse to denounce them as wrong. What can a person of conscience do about Islamic law that makes a woman a man's possession upon marriage?

Knight has proven himself to be almost brutal in his self-honesty in the past and Journey To The End Of Islam is no exception. Not only does he recount his journey through the Islamic world physically and supply the reader with a highly readable and intelligent recounting of the faith's history, he takes us on a journey into his soul with an equal amount of integrity and interest. These types of books are desperately hard to write without them coming across as self serving and of no interest to anyone save the author's navel, yet Knight has managed to turn his highly individual story into something universal.Anybody who has ever questioned their faith, or sought to find out more about themselves, can find something to identify with. I'm sure that conservative religious types of all faiths will be offended by a great deal of what he has the honesty to talk about and admit to. However, those of you who have faith and are experiencing difficulty reconciling your religion, no matter what your religion is, with your own feelings and beliefs on how the world should be, will find that Knight has a lot to say to you.

Knight has an uncanny ability to write about what others would consider insanely complicated issues with a clarity and straightforwardness that make you wonder what all the fuss is about. He doesn't pretend to have the answers to any questions readers might have, he's not even sure if he's been able to answer his own questions. However, to my mind, there has never been a more honest book written about the nature of religion and an individual's relationship to their belief system. If more people were as brave and honest as Michael Muhammad Knight when it came to their religion the world would be in far better shape.

(Article first published as Book Review: Journey To The End Of Islam by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)

April 19, 2010

Book Review: Just Kids by Patti Smith

It was a late fall night in 1981 and six of us were jammed into car cruising through Toronto's streets with Patti Smith's "Rock and Roll Nigger" blasting from the car's stereo. We all joined in as she tore into the chorus: "Outside of society. We were young and artists and the lyrics fuelled, along with whatever we had taken earlier in the evening, our excitement at being alive and ready to conquer the world. Patti understood what that meant - we could tell by the way she sang about being an outsider - and there was no one more special, or outside, than someone still in love with the idea of being an artist who hasn't really begun to experience the complete reality of what that entails. Hard lessons and rude awakenings still lay on our horizons, and we could abandon ourselves to the wild joy of knowing we were different and celebrate it.

We were at the stage where being an outsider was part of the romanticism of being an artist, so it was only natural that we'd latched onto the song's chorus as almost our battle cry that night. Look out world here we come - young middle class kids with dreams of doing something more than sitting in an office, of having something more to give to the world than just being another cipher or cog in the wheel. Maybe we weren't all that sure what that was, but we knew, oh yes we did. It sounds more than a little arrogant when said that baldly, but there's actually more innocence and naivety to it than anything else.

At the time I knew almost nothing about Patti Smith save for her music, and its only been in the past year or so that I've begun learn her story. It turns out that of all those who seemed to come out of New York City's 1970's punk scene centred around CBGB's, it makes the most sense that Patti Smith would be the one whose music celebrated being an artist. In the past couple months I've watched two movies, Dream Of Life and Black, White + Grey which have touched somewhat on her early years. However, as the former was more about the last eleven years and the latter only about her in terms of how her life had intersected with the famous American curator Sam Wagstaff, they didn't offer very complete pictures. Well, all that changed with the publication of her book Just Kids by Harper Collins Canada January 2010.
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Just Kids is not your typical autobiography. Sure it contains all the usual stuff like where she was born, Chicago; how her family moved to Philadelphia and then New Jersey when she was a child; and how in 1967, realizing there was little or no chance of even attempting to realize her dreams of becoming an artist while working in a factory, she left New Jersey for New York City. For its also the story of how her life intertwined with Robert Mapplethorpe's, the other kid of the plural in the title and one of America's best known contemporary photographers, until his AIDS related death in 1989. Almost the first person she meets upon her arrival in New York City, they began living together, as soon as they were able to afford a place and stayed together until the early 1970's.

Smith writes with a clarity and straightforwardness that is deceptive at first in its simplicity. When reading prose its easy to forget that the person writing is a poet, and has a poet's gift for words, so what on the surface might appear to be a simple recounting of an occurrence ends up being far more. You don't just read what she has written, you somehow end up living and experiencing it with her. We share the small comforts that make their days more bearable - the baker who slips them a couple of extra cookies because she feels sorry for the two waifs - and feel the pain of their hunger when they go days without food. Mainly though we share their excitement as they discover their talents and start to push and pull them into shape.

They are a team - us against the world - and together they are unbeatable as nothing, lack of money, lack of food, or even a lack of a place to live can conquer them. For a while they drift from dive to dive, until Robert almost dies when Patti takes an extended vacation with her sister and returns home to find him rotting in a junkie hotel. He's not sick from drugs, but he has trench mouth, lice, and gonorrhoea. She gathers up his belongings and together they move to what will be their final shared home - The Chelsea Hotel. In 1969 The Chelsea attracted artists like a magnet, and they meet everybody from Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter, and Bob Dylan to Gregory Corso and William S. Burroughs. Smith recounts a wonderful story of going to an automat to buy a sandwich and having Alan Ginsberg pay for her lunch when he mistakes her for a pretty boy. Years later he asks her how she would describe their first meeting and she says simply "You fed me".
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Having been raised a very strict Catholic Mapplethorpe was carrying a lot of baggage when it came to his sexuality. In fact, he and Smith had to pretend they had been secretly married before he would even take her to meet his parents, or else face accusations of living in sin. Both of them are in fact so innocent, that neither really understand Mapplethorpe's homosexuality. While there are some obvious rough spots, including him being jealous of her relationships with other men, they are able to transcend them through the bond forged between them by their respective arts. Put baldly like that, it may sound cliched, but as you read the book, you see and feel how their connection is forged. We see how they struggled and supported each other through everything, encouraging and pushing the other along in they developed as both artists and human beings.

Obviously being in New York City in the late 1960's didn't hurt, as they not only had the benefit of being exposed to the great ones of an earlier generation for guidance but the example of those around them who were already succeeding for inspiration. They moved in what can only be called rarified circles as they were invited to hang out with The Band in Woodstock, the opening of Electric Ladyland Studios (where an equally shy Jimi Hendrix joined Patti in lurking on the fire escape and encouraged her to join the party), and the back room of Max's Kansas City with Andy Warhol's inner circle from The Factory. Although already minus Warhol by that time and almost reduced to a caricature of what it once was, this circle of intimates still provided the two young artists with introductions to people who would help their careers.

What's most amazing about Just Kids is how little it feels like an autobiography. Smith writes with such direct honesty and love that it's impossible not to be caught up in their story and find yourself wanting them to succeed. She captures the incredible mixture of fear and exhilaration that occurs when you give yourself over to something as completely as they did to their goals of becoming artists. What some might have tried to romanticize as bohemian, she brings to life with a sense of innocence and wonder that makes it sound like she still can't believe she could have been so blessed as to not only have the opportunity to do and be what she wanted, but actually have succeeded at it on her own terms.

Just Kids is a love story; of two people and their love for each other and their mutual love of art. Beautifully written, its both joyful and heartbreaking in equal measure. Smith doesn't shrink from describing both the harsh realities of the life she and Mapplethrope led together as well as the moments of celebration. However, even more importantly, she manages to convey what motivates a person to make the choice to be an "Outsider of society", and how its worth the price no matter how steep it might seem to an observer. Anyone who has ever wondered what it really is to be an artist and why anybody would go to all that trouble, reading this book will give you some idea as to the answer. Most of all though, no matter who you are or what you do, it will remind you that life is worth celebrating and to make the most of what you have while you're here.

February 6, 2010

Interview: Aatish Taseer - Author Of Stranger To History

Twenty years might seem like a long time to go without knowing your father, but for Aatish Taseer that gap was easier to bridge than the gulf that formed between them when his father accused him of having no understanding of what it meant to be either Muslim or Pakistani. After being raised in India by his Sikh mother and her family, Taseer accepted that his father had a point. In his book Stranger To History Taseer recounts the journey he undertook in an attempt to gain that understanding by travelling through the Muslim world and the people he met along the way.

The book is fascinating for both its description of the world he travelled through, and the voyage Taseer took mentally and emotionally as a result of his quest. While he himself came to some personal resolutions because of what he experienced, he doesn't pretend they're anything more than that. What I most appreciated about the book, was not once did he try and push the reader in any direction. This was a recounting of what he saw and heard reported with an integrity and genuine objectivity that was as refreshing as it is rare.

That's not to say I didn't have any questions after having read the book, because I did, and thanks to the good people at Random House Canada I was able to pass them along to Aatish Taseer via e-mail. I'm sure some of my questions arose from my own lack of knowledge or even from misunderstanding of what he said in the first place. Thankfully he very patiently has taken the time to respond to each of the questions with the same care he showed in the writing of his book. So if you appreciate this interview, you'll definitely find the book a fascinating experience, one that I highly recommend.

Before you began your journey what if any expectations or hopes did you carry into it with regards to both your Muslim heritage and how it might help to bridge the gap between you and your father?

I was never in search of any personal religious fulfilment or identity of any kind. I wanted only to understand the distances that had arisen between my father and me. The reason I wanted to do this was because I felt instinctually that there was something deeper behind those distances, something that would help illuminate a situation wider than my own personal context. And if there was anything that aroused my curiosity at that early stage, it was only the question of what made my father—a disbeliever by his own admission—in some very important way still a Muslim.

Why did you consider it so important to make the journey - you had been estranged from your father for nearly two decades what type of connection were you hoping to forge between you?

Yes, but I had overcome that initial estrangement with my father. The silence between us was new. And I found it difficult to turn my back on the goodwill and hopefulness that that reconciliation between my father and me had produced. It was not just our personal relationship, but Pakistan too. Which formed such an important cultural and historical component of my family history, both maternal and paternal, as well as the history of the land I grew up in. It would have been very hard to pretend that the new estrangement with my father was not wrapped up in a deeper feeling of loss. But I was not travelling in search of reconciliation; I would have found it strange to travel with those kinds of personal objectives in mind. I was travelling to understand.
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You mention the term "cultural" or "secular" Muslim in reference to your father, can you define what you mean by that?

It is a term that my father gave me and it is term that grew in meaning as I travelled. I took it in the beginning to mean benign things such as an adherence to customs and festivals, a feeling for food and dress. But as I travelled I found that it contained other things besides. And these were usually political and historical attitudes, attitudes that were themselves like articles of faith, now related to Jews and American, now to Hindus and India. They almost always included a certain prejudiced view of the pre-Islamic past of a Muslim country. They often translated into a historical narrative, at the centre of which was the 7th century Arab conquest and the triumph of Islam, and on either end of which, were enemies of the faith. Now these things are not in the Book; they are not, as such, a part of the religion; neither are the prejudices that go along with them; but to many they are more important than the religion itself. They were what could make my father, despite his faithlessness, a Muslim.

What inspired you to tell a very personal story - your relationship with your father - and why is it integral to the book? Could you have undertaken a similar examination of the Muslim faith without raising the subject of your father?

No. The personal, though it had wider ramifications, as the personal often does, was what lay behind my interest. I am not a professional writer of books on Islam; my next book, The Templegoers, has nothing to do with either Islam or Muslims. I wrote about the subject because I felt I had to. And it would have been very strange for me to ignore, especially in a book like this, a first book, the reasons that I was drawn to the subject. Which, by the way, are not simply my relationship with my father; that was one aspect; but much bigger than this, in fact towering over the narrative, is the Partition. And it is in relation to this event—in my opinion, the forerunner of what began to happen throughout the Muslim world during the latter part of the last century—that my parents’ relationship became important, as did my maternal grandfather’s grief at being separated from his country.

Although you visited more than just the countries mentioned in the book during your journey you chose only to talk about four, aside from Pakistan. What was it about Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran that decided you to talk about them instead of some of the others?

They all represented, in different ways, the trouble Islam had had in adapting to modern political life. In Turkey, secularism had been turned into a soft tyranny, where the state was writing sermons and choosing clerics. In Syria, it was for years not part of the program, but was slowly creeping back. In Iran, the fury of the revolution had come and gone, and we could have a window into what might come next. Finally there was Pakistan, which, in my opinion, had paid the heaviest price for the faith. It had broken with itself and its history to form a nation on the thinnest of thin grounds. And the nation had been, from start to finish, a disaster. It had left millions of people sixty years later dispossessed and full of hateful lies. All of that remained to be dealt with; the ugly idea of a religiously cleansed society had yet to be fully discredited in the minds of people, though on practical terms, it had completely perished. And to have to do all of this in a climate of war and insecurity, with interference from foreign powers! It was a very bleak picture; hard to see how the land—not the country—would return to itself. (I won’t speak of Saudi, because it formed a small part of the narrative in the book.)

At one point in the book you mention the Wahhabis and their influence upon modern Islam especially in Arabic countries like Saudi Arabia. Who are they, what is their influence and how is it expressed?

They have had forerunners, and interestingly, always at times when Islam felt itself in danger. Some consider Ibn Taymiyyah, a 13th century scholar, living in the times when the Mongols sacked Baghdad, to be the first Wahhabi. But truly, the movement began in the 18th century with an alliance between a Najd scholar and a chieftain. The movement, mainly decrying the excesses that had come into the faith and preaching a purer, more Arab Islam, had some political and religious success before it was crushed, and crushed completely, by the Ottomans. Its resurgence in the 20th century can be linked to the rise of Saudi Arabia and its tremendous oil wealth, which it has used to spread Wahhabism to places, which practised milder, more tolerant forms of the religion. But I think it would be too easy to say that, and it doesn’t explain the first Wahhabi success. My own feeling is that Wahhabism represents a tendency within Islam—and perhaps also in other forms of organised thought—to close its doors, and retreat within itself, when it is faced with a political or intellectual threat too great to confront.

Do the Wahabis have anything to do with the split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and are you able to explain the difference between the two groups?

No, nothing whatsoever. That was a split that happened some 1000 years before. And there was, I suspect, a kind of anti-Arab feeling, originating in recently conquered Persia, behind it. But yes, the Wahhabis have exacerbated the tensions between the two groups because they are deeply intolerant not only of Shiism, but of any local form of Islam.

In the book you talk about how history is being distorted by certain religious leaders in order to justify the notion that Muslims are persecuted. What purpose is served by creating this attitude among the faithful?
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It is comforting to them. It makes them feel that they are not responsible for their wretchedness, that it is all the work of a grand conspiracy which seeks to keep them down. They then, can carry on feeling envious and resentful about the big, modern world, without ever having to do the hard work of engaging it. But it is a very pernicious cycle. Because the less you engage it, the faster you fall behind, the harder it becomes to pick yourself up. And in the end when you’re nothing it becomes very easy for some greasy-faced fanatic to feed you comforting lies.

You've ended up presenting a rather negative view of the current state of Islam, from your depiction of Iran and Syria, the sentiments expressed by young religious Muslims in Turkey and Britain, to your description of your father's "moderate Muslim" as being "too little moderation and in the wrong areas". Was there anything you came across in your travels that countered that impression - that perhaps gave you something you could identify with or the hope there was more to Islam than anger and resentment?

This is the kind of question that makes assumptions I do not share. I don’t consider it ‘positive’ to travel in a country and shut your eyes to its realities. Neither do I think it is at all helpful for schoolboy English travellers to go to these places and come back with reports of their teeming bazaars and lavish hospitality. Fortunately, I come from the sub-continent, which has its fair share of crowded bazaars and generous people, so I feel no need, when I am travelling in the Islamic world to overlook the gloom of Syria or the tyranny of Iran, in the interest of feeling upbeat when I come home. I think it is cynical and patronising to go to these places and tell tales of how the people are capable of a good joke and a cheerful chat as if people and societies should not amount to more. And for people who are coming from societies that have achieved more, this kind of attitude expresses the worst kind of foreigner’s disregard.

Do you have any concerns about what non-Muslims will think after reading this book? What do you hope they will take away from it?

No. The book is published in eleven countries, some of which I have never even visited. It would be impossible for me to conceive what ‘non-Muslims,’ as a whole, might think.

Stranger To History was released a year ago, and I was wondering what the reaction to it has been from Muslims in general and your family in particular?

Again, this is not the kind of judgement I’m in a position to make. What I will say is that despite the fact that the book is only distributed and not published in Pakistan, I have received the maximum number of letters from that country. I was particularly moved by one Pakistani student who wrote: ‘a lot of us agree with you but wouldn’t write this sort of thing for reasons that need not be explained to you.”

However, I know that Muslim reviewers, whether they be in Australia, India, England or Pakistan, have all given the book a rough time. Which is an interesting thing in itself.

At one point you refer to both yourself and your father as the "Stranger To History" of the book's title. Could you explain what you mean by that?

The title, I feel, works on different levels. In the case of my father, I was thinking of Pakistan and how it turned it’s back on its shared history with the sub-continent in the interest of realising the aims of the faith. That was one historical break. But I was also thinking of a more general rejection of pre-Islamic India among the sub-continent’s Muslims, a rejection, which has translated into deeper illusions about their place of origin, many believing they came from Islamically purer countries, such as Afghanistan and Persia. There was also, of course, the personal estrangement, when it came to my father’s relationship with me. That was my estrangement, too, along with an estrangement from the land that is Pakistan, and to which both my parents are linked.

You mention near the end of the book, the one benefit you derived from your journey was it reconnected you to Pakistan. What makes that connection so important to you in light of the divide between your father and yourself?

It is the connection to the land and people of Pakistan that is important. That land, and its culture, is still, for all the distances that have been created, a part of the shared culture of the sub-continent. The things shared are language, dress, ideas of caste, poetry and song. And it is of these things that nations are made, not religion; that has shown itself to be too thin a glue. When one considers that enduring shared culture, despite everything that has been done to break it, one is forced to reject the intellectual argument for the Partition as false. There is no two-nation theory; there are no separate Indian nations; there is just the giant plural society of India, held together by an idea no less subtle, and yet no less powerful, than that of Greece or Europe. It is this society that must on some level regain its wholeness, not along angst-ridden national or religious lines, but as part of a peace worthy of a continent.
 
You set out to find common ground with your father by seeking to gain an understanding of how someone who doesn't practice the religion can still call themselves a Muslim. After what you observed in your travels, do you still refer to yourself as a Muslim in spite of the fact that you appear to have nothing in common with people like your father?

No. During the journey itself, I realised that neither on a religious level nor on a ‘cultural’ one could I ever be part of the ‘civilisation of faith’, which is, in the end, a vision of purity. I have too much hybridity in my life, welcome hybridity, to accept a world-view such as that.

I'd just like to conclude by thanking Aatish Taseer for the honesty and directness with which he answered the questions I posed, and his patience with any questions I may have asked out of ignorance and lack of awareness. Part of the problem in this world today is our inability to communicate with each other because of our refusal to be sensitive to how our perceptions of the world have been shaped by environment and conditioning. People like Aatish Taseer, who are willing to take the time to answer those questions while pointing out why they are inappropriate, are our best hope to bridge what right now seems like an insurmountable gap that exists regardless of religion or creed. How we respond will dictate the future of our world

February 3, 2010

Book Review: Stranger To History by Aatish Taseer

Most of us have little or no difficulty in understanding our heritage and what it means to us in terms of our belief systems as we usually have the example of either our parents or the community around us to go by. However, what if one of your parents comes from a culture that's not part of the majority and that person has never been part of your life? It may take a while, but sooner or later you're going to start to notice your different from everyone around you, and eventually you might start to become a mite curious as to what you've inherited from your absent parent.

Aatish Taseer was born in Delhi India as a result of an affair between his Sikh mother and his Pakistani Muslim father. While his mother never kept from him the truth about his heritage he grew up surrounded by cousins his own age wearing the turbans emblematic of their faith, making his uncovered head feel very conspicuous and out of place. It's not until he's twenty-one that he finally makes the journey across the border to visit his father for the first time. While he is welcomed by his father's wife and children with open arms, the man himself is far more reticent. Salmaan Taseer is an important political figure in Muslim Pakistan, and the knowledge he has an Indian son who may or may not be Muslim could create difficulties.

However, as Taseer describes it in his new book from McClelland and Stewart, which is partially owned by Random House Canada, Stranger To History, even if his father is reluctant to recognize him in public, at least by the end of his first visit he begins to feel they have developed the basis for a relationship. Like many other Pakistani's Salmaan is a secular Muslim, so the fact that his son is a Muslim in name only shouldn't make any difference to him. (In Islam the father's religion dictates that of the children)
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However when Taseer, now a journalist in England, writes an article about second generation Pakistani immigrants becoming fundamentalists and extremists because of estrangement and failure of identity, his father takes him to task in a letter for not understanding what it is to be a Muslim and for spreading anti-Muslim propaganda. Taseer is confused, how can the man who once said "The Koran has nothing in it for me" be offended as a Muslim by what I had written? It's obvious his father is right when he says that Taseer has no understanding of the Muslim or Pakistani ethos as he can't understand his father's apparently contradictory attitude. What does his father mean when he calls himself a "cultural Muslim"?

Attempting to find an answer to this question, Taseer sets off on a personal pilgrimage through the Islamic world. Starting in the fiercely secular Turkey, where many Islamic religious practices are forbidden by law, he makes his way slowly to Pakistan via Syria, Saudi Arabia - where he travels to Mecca, and finally the nominally Islamic state of Iran. Through conversations with various people, and his observations of life in each country, it becomes clear that there is no set answer. In Turkey he meets young men who dream about a world where everyone is ruled by Islam because it is the only faith which can tell you how to live properly. In Syria he see how that dream is being actualized by a regime with its own political agenda and not above cynically manipulating people.

By offering people a version of the world free of all contradictions and questions, a world in which there is only one "truth", they can control them with the help of a compliant clergy. In Abu Nour, a centre for international students in Damascus, people come from all over the world to learn Arabic and take classes in Islamic studies. However sermons in the mosque include distorted views of history designed to depict Muslims as being persecuted throughout the ages and work up antagonism against an enemy simply referred to as the West. The result is the creation of a world that exists in isolation designed to equate being Islamic as a supporter of the Syrian government and any who oppose Syria are enemies of Islam.

When the book shifts to Iran the depiction Taseer offers is no different than any other description you've read of people living under any totalitarian regime. Here he finds that Islam is being used to harass people over trivialities, like the length of their shirt sleeves, in order for an insecure government to exert control over them. In fact in what is supposedly an Islamic republic where you'd expect to be able to find answers as to what is a Muslim, there is even less chance of discovering that here than anywhere else. For, as one person he meets puts it, a professor at a university, "People were very connected to religion even though the government was not religious. But now the government is religious most people want to get away from religion... It is very hard for me to say I am a Muslim."
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Taseer is by profession a journalist, and while that comes through in his ability to ask the right questions of people, his writing style is far more personal than you'd expect from a reporter. He makes no pretence about this being an objective study of Islam, rather its a personal voyage undertaken in the hopes of bridging the gap between himself and the father he was estranged from for over twenty years, and that comes across in his writing. His yearning to understand both his father and the religion he professes to practice, and the frustration and confusion they generate in him, predominate throughout the book as he intersperses accounts of his travels with recollections of his attempts to find common ground with his father.

In many ways this is one of the bravest books you'll ever read, as Taseer doesn't hesitate from voicing opinions that are going to be unpopular with people at all ends of the political spectrum. His compassion for the people he meets allows him to see beyond their words to the need that gives them birth, giving the reader a deeper understanding of where their opinions were born. The title of the book. Stranger To History refers obviously to Taseer's ignorance of his father and his Muslim and Pakistani inheritance. However, it can also relate to what he has witnessed in his journeys in Syria and Iran where history is being rewritten to generate hatred against the West in order to solidify the current regimes power bases. While he doesn't offer any solutions or comfort that there is some easy way to change or prevent what is happening, hope can be taken from his time spent, in all of all places, Iran in the people's determination to deny the regime in any small way they can.

Although his attempt to reconcile his own history with his father is somewhat of a failure, Taseer consoles himself with the fact that he has been able to connect with his personal history of being a product of both parts of the Indian sub continent. By having both countries he has had the chance of "embracing the three tier history of India whole, perhaps an intellectual troika of Sanskrit, Urdu, and English. These mismatches were the lot of people with garbled histories, but I preferred them to violent purities. The world is richer for its hybrids." While he may not have come any closer to discovering his father, or his father's religion, he has discovered himself.

Unlike those who think what the world needs is surety and purity, Taseer reminds us that sometimes there are questions which don't have answers and history isn't always divided up into winners and losers. If for no other reason, that makes this an important book to read, as it not only shows you the dangers of a world where black and white dominates, but it makes you realize just how wonderful a little confusion and uncertainty can be. Well you may not come away from reading this book any more enlightened about Islam then you were before you started, you'll have a better understanding of the variety of people who fall under the umbrella of that word. After reading this book you might not be so quick to make generalizations based on a person's religion and have a better understanding of what lays behind many of today's headlines.

January 1, 2010

Book Review: Voices Of A People's History Of The Untied States By Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove

History, it's said, is written by the winners, and our text books and encyclopedias bear this out with their accounts of wars won and political triumphs. Take a second look at most histories and you'll notice not only are they written by the winners, the story they tell is one seen through the eyes of a select group of people. You'll read about captains of industry, generals, presidents, kings, prime ministers, and the occasional war hero or two, and be regaled with tales of their acumen, or on occasion, spectacular failures. However what you'll very rarely find is the story of the private in the field who carried out the general's orders, a factory worker or coal miner describing what it was like to work twelve hour shifts with little pay for one of the captains of industry, or those who suffered from the politicians' decisions.

If one pays careful attention you can see history being written around you on a daily basis. It's in the headlines on CNN or the official statements from government offices around the world which are reprinted as fact. Today's announcement of a successful surgical strike in Afghanistan will be in tomorrow's history text book as part of the overall campaign against oppression and terror that was carried out in the early part of the 21st century. You'll probably look in vain for any mention of facts or opinions that disagree with that opinion. It's doubtful that history books will talk about the thousands of Iraqi civilians who died during the "liberation" of their country, how the country descended into lawlessness and violence during the occupation, or how conditions for the average person in both Iraq and Afghanistan actually worsened under the new regimes installed by the "liberators".

However, that doesn't meant there aren't any accounts or records of that information. It's just that somehow or other they're not made readily available for us, the public at large, to read. In fact throughout the history of this continent, more specifically the United States, there exist examples of speeches and first person accounts of events that give lie to the officially held position espoused by history books. Voices Of A People's History Of The United States by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, published by Seven Stories Press and distributed by Publishers Group Canada, gathers together writings, speeches, poems, and song lyrics dating back to the times of Columbus telling the history or the United States, but its a history you might not recognize.
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As the majority of the voices in this book are those of ones that were raised in protest against the actions of the government of the time, there will be those who will accuse it of presenting history from a liberal or left wing bias. However, what they will fail to mention is that the histories we have been presented with up until now are just as biased in the other direction. Think of this rather as an attempt to balance the scales. We've heard about Rockefeller and Carnagie and how they built their empires and as captains of industry helped to make the country great, well now you'll hear from those who worked in their factories and mines and fought for living wages, safe working conditions, child labour laws, and a forty hour work week. In fact many of the things we take for granted now; the right of women to vote, equal rights, and the abolition of slavery, were once considered dangerous subversions and the people who spoke out against them threats to public safety.

However, how many text books have quoted ex-slave's Sojourner Truth's 1851 speech "Ain't I a Woman?" where she espouses not only the rights of African Americans but women as well. Rights which none of us think twice about now. However only twenty-two years after Truth's speech Susan B Anthony was arrested for trying to vote in a presidential election and was told by her judge that she had been found guilty according to the established forms of law. These two women, along with many of the voices recorded in this book, were considered to be dangers to society, criminals, radicals, and threats against the established norm. Yet they, along with the men and women who were shot down by Rockefeller's private militias when they went on strike, or arrested by Alabama police for protesting segregation are responsible for the freedoms most of us enjoy today. But whose names are the prominent in the history books? Not the ones who fought for our rights, the ones who fought tooth and nail against them.

Voices Of A People's History Of The United States is just what it says it is, voices of the people - from those you've heard of, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, and Bruce Springstein, and individuals you haven't, like Private John G. Burnett of the American army who served on the infamous "Trail Of Tears". Born and raised in Tennessee, he grew up roaming the woods and mountains of the Smokey Mountain County which was the traditional home of the Cherokee. In 1838 he took part in what he called "the most brutal order in the history of American warfare" - the rounding up of every single Cherokee in the region, and their forced march through the mountains without proper clothes, shelter or food. "Murder is murder" he says, "and somebody must answer. Somebody must explain the streams of blood that flowed in the Indian country in the summer of 1838 ... the 4000 silent graves that mark the trail of the Cherokee to their exile. I wish I could forget it, but the picture of 645 wagons lumbering over the frozen ground with their Cargo of suffering humanity still lingers in my memory..."
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There are speeches by famous people, but not the speeches we've heard recorded. For instance there's a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. explaining why it is essential that he come out in public as being against the Viet-Nam war. Than there are the speeches that were never allowed to be given. Some poor soul made the mistake of inviting Wamsutta James of the Wampanoag nation to speak at the 350th anniversary celebrations of the landing at Plymouth Rock. The organizing committee took one look at his proposed speech and refused to let him speak as his version of events didn't quite jibe with the celebratory mood they were trying to create. Maybe it was his descriptions of putting people in chains or the pilgrims stealing the Indian's winter food supplies, but it certainly didn't sound much like the descriptions of the first Thanksgivings that most of us have been weaned on.

Reading through a history of America taken from the point of view of those who have dissented, those who have stood up bravely in the face of people who would deprive them of their rights, and those who have dared disagree with the status quo and seeing how it was these people, just as much as the politicians, the generals, and the captains of industry who shaped its future, might make you want to rethink what you hear being passed off as history in the making on today's news. What are the voices who disagree with them saying now - is it possible that they are as right in their statements as Susan B. Anthony was in her address to the court which tried her for illegally voting because she was a woman? Perhaps they are and perhaps they aren't, but how are we to know if we're not allowed to hear them?

History is all of our stories come together, whether we are participants or observers. In Voices Of A People's History Of The United States Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove have gathered together some of the voices like ours from history and told the story of the United States from the time of Columbus to those who oppose the empire building mentality that exists in today's America. Each segment is introduced and given its historical context so you know what and why the person is speaking and what about. If you still think it was a benevolent government that ensured black people were given the vote and schools were integrated than you really need to read this book to learn your own history and perhaps see how you too can have a role in it.

December 24, 2009

Book Review: Top Ten Reads Of 2009

While taste in any art form is highly subjective there are still bench marks one can use when judging a works quality. In the case of books those would include how well the author has developed the plot, whether the characters are more than two dimensional, and the other fundamentals inherent in putting words on a page so they either tell a story or develop an idea. Yet once you've ascertained that an author has proven capable of writing a coherent sentence what is it about a book that makes it stand out from everything else you've read?

In my case its a matter of an author having the ability to transport me with his or her ideas, manner of presentation, characters, or even just the way in which they use words to convey whatever it is they are trying to tell me. The ideal book would of course have characters who are so believable we feel we could have a conversation with them, a story so fascinating that we become so absorbed in reading the book it leaves us wanting it to continue, express ideas mentally and emotionally stimulating, provide insight into the world around us, and offer a unique - or at least novel - perspective on life. The perfect author would be able to accomplish all this without us even being aware of it and it would only be after the fact as we are digesting what we have imbibed that we'd realize just how much an affect the title had had on us.

The following list of titles are the ten from all that I read that were published in the past year (2009) that came closest to fulfilling the above requirements for me. Not all of them are novels, there is one collection of poetry, one collection that mixes poetry and short stories, and one which is more reliant on images than words to make its point. Still each of them have in some way helped broaden my horizons, enriched my life, and just as importantly provided me with great pleasure. For what's the point in reading something, even if it meets all the criteria listed earlier, if it isn't any fun. After all, just because you're expanding your mind doesn't mean you can't have a good time doing it.

The Judging Eye by R. Scott Bakker. The first book in the Aspect Emperor trilogy picks up ten years after the conclusion of the final book of Bakker's Warier Prophet trilogy. The characters we met from the first series return as mankind begins its epic war against its greatest enemy led by Kellus, the Aspect Emperor. Not content to merely continue the story, Bakker has broadened his scope and we now travel both deeper into the history of this world he's created, and parts of it where men haven't set foot in generations. Mixing elements of horror, epic fantasy, and psychological thriller he has created a world where his characters and readers are forced to confront things they might rather have not thought about. Brilliantly told, if slightly unrelenting, it sets the stage for what promises to be another trilogy of epic fantasy unlike any you've read before.

Censoring An Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour. Imagine writing a love story where it is prohibited for your characters to actually even spend time together alone let alone hold hands. How would they even meet and fall in love if single men and women aren't even allowed to have contact? Even having your characters meet by chance on a busy street risks the book running afoul of the censors in Iran and seeing your book forbidden. Iranian author Mandanipur guides us through the convoluted path authors must follow living under the current theocracy in his homeland if they wish their books to see the light of day. Dotted with moments of surprising humour we are given a peak behind the veil hiding life in Iran from the rest of the world which while confirming a lot of what we suspected about the hardships of life there, also offers plenty of surprises as well. A beautiful story about love, art, creativity, and the strengths and weaknesses of the human spirit.

The Enchantment Emporium by Tanya Huff. Ever since I first read Tanya Huff, I've been a big fan of her fantasy work. She's one of the few authors I know who are equally at home in the world of military science fiction, horror, epic fantasy, and the newer genre of urban fantasy. The Enchantment Emporium falls into the latter category, taking place in the least likely locale I can thing of, Calgary Alberta, home of oil men and cattle ranches. Not exactly where you'd expect to find a confrontation between twelve dragon lords a leaping, a sorcerer, and one of younger members of the Gale family. Not quite human, Gale boys demonstrate their power by turning into stags, and Gale woman mix spells into pastry dough, are even they up to preventing what looks like the apocalypse? As is usual for Huff, she provides a great mix of humour, action, and characters who, no matter how powerful or outlandish they might be, are easy to identify with. A great fun read leavened with the right amount of tension to keep ti compelling.

The Lees Of Laughter's End by Steven Erikson. Best known for his epic series The Malazan Book Of The Fallen, Erikson's offshoot series featuring the dark duo of necromancers, Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, is a delightfully tongue in cheek look at the depths of depravity men will stoop to in order to fight evil. While the urbane and cultured Bauchelain deals primarily in controlling demons, poor Korbal Broach is endlessly searching for the means to create progeny through alternative means as he is lacking the necessary anatomy to propagate the species in the usual way. That he prefers to use the still living internal organs of others to form his "children" has of course upset the families of his "donors", forcing the duo and their servant Emancipor Reece, to be constantly on the move. In this episode they have taken to the seas in an attempt to escape the forces of righteousness nipping at their heals, only to find that an evil even greater than themselves has found its way on board ship with them. Filled with some of the funniest dark and gruesome humour imaginable, you'll find it difficult not to cheer on our evil duo as they are only trying to make their way in a world which doesn't seem to understand them.

Strange Movie Full Of Death by Scot Wannberg. For anybody who still thinks that poetry is boring and can't be read for pleasure, I defy you to read Scott Wannberg's most recent collection and still feel the same way when your done. Funny, sad, emotionally honest, and more in touch with reality than the most realistic novel, his poetry will not only move you, it will make you think, laugh out loud, and cry - sometimes all within one poem. A reminder, if anyone needs it, that poetry in the hands of a master like Wannberg can do in a few verses what it take most novelists two hundred pages.

US Future States Atlas by Dan Mills. Satire comes in many forms, and this collection of Dan Mills' work proves that a picture is worth far more than a thousand words. In response to George Bush Junior's lame excuses for the invasion of Iraq, Mills has divided the world up into its component parts if it were all part of the United States Empire. Each new "state" comes complete with descriptions of the benefits derived by the original United States from occupying it, and lists the reasons its annexation was a necessity. Brilliant, scary, and intelligent, it would be sidesplittingly funny if there wasn't such the ring of truth to it. Its as accurate a reflection of America's "me first" attitude towards the rest of the world as I've ever seen depicted in any media. This is a mirror not many people are going to like looking in, but if you have the courage to do so you might begin to understand the resentment so many other countries feel towards the United States.

The Cavalier In The Yellow Doublet by Arturo Perez-Reverte. This is the fourth instalment of the adventures of the cynical opposite to Dumas' heroic characters, Captain Alatriste, translated into English from Spanish. Once again Perez-Reverte has not only recreated 17th century Spain in all its corrupt decrepitude. After loyally serving his king in battlefields across Europe and through skulduggery in his service, Alatriste is loath to give up his romance with an actress of some repute simply because his majesty's wandering eye has settled upon her. However, things are not always what they seem, and soon he finds himself caught up in a plot which could result in regicide. Full of Perez-Reverte's usual satirical flowery language, not only is the book a great adventure, but a wonderful depiction of the intricate dance of life in a royal court where honour and loyalty are for sale to the highest bidder, and integrity is a dangerous characteristic to possess.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. Mixing real historical figures together in a novel with fictional characters is always a risky procedure as its so much harder to give their characters the same depth as your fictional creations as you're constrained by the truth and your knowledge of their actual behaviour. However not only does Kingsolver manage to bring people like Leo Tolstoy, Frida Kalho and Diego Rivera to life with the same ease as her fictional lead, they become key figures in her analysis of the fickle nature of fame and how it can be used against a person. Spanning the depression to post war American and McCarthyism, Kingsolver's latest book looks at how public opinion is manipulated by the government and the press to believe that black is white and there is nothing in between. Scary, heartbreaking, and depressing, its a timely reminder of the dangers of how quickly people forget their own history and their eagerness to condemn those they don't understand.

War Dances by Sherman Alexie. Sherman Alexie is a writer who happens to be a Native American. Sure he writes about what he knows best, what it's like to be a Native American in the twenty-first century, but he also writes about what the twenty-first century is for everybody. In this collection of short fiction and poems he gives us glimpses into the lives of people who are desperate for answers to questions they're not even that sure they understand. Whether its the Native American man who watched his father die of alcoholism, or the son of a Republican senator who gay bashes his old high-school best friend, they are all looking to find their way back to the things they wish they could believe in. Somehow Alexie manages to find humour in some of the situations, and even if it sometimes feels like we're all laughing in the dark together, it's better than crying in a corner alone. Alexie is one of today's pre-eminent social commentators, and this collection is one more proof of that claim.

Gods Of War by Ashok Banker. Best known for his modern retelling of the Indian epic The Ramayana, in this novel Banker shows that he can look into the future as easily as he can the past with this story of the end result of mankind's pride - pride in science, pride in their petty accomplishments, and pride in thinking we are all that matters. Five very different people from four cultures are chosen by the elephant headed god Ganesha as representatives of humankind to bear witness. Witness to the assault upon the city of the gods by unknown forces in what looks to be a war that has been on going for some time. When science and reason take on belief and faith in an all out war there are no winners and perhaps it's time for Shiva to open his third eye and end this "day", so the next world can begin. A combination of fascinating characters and a riveting story keeps the reader glued to each page as Banker pushes the envelope of both form and content. while raising issues that most of us would rather not think about.

November 14, 2009

Willy DeVille And How To Write A Biography

There are two ways of looking at a blank page if you're a writer; either as an opportunity or as an indication of how bereft you are of ideas. Sometimes you can stare at the blankness, and even though you know what you want to write the challenge its empty visage presents renders you speechless. That first word you put down on the page will commit you to the attempt of beginning something new, and sometimes finding the courage to begin, to overcome your uncertainties, is too much and you simply walk away. Either putting the pen down without writing a word or shut off the word processor with there being nothing to save.

It was in early 2009 that I first suggested the idea of writing a biography of Willy DeVille to his wife Nina. Willy had just been diagnosed with Hepatitis C and would be spending the next while undergoing a series of treatments to help his body recover. As he had been forced to cancel all his recording and touring obligations I had thought that he and I could work on it together over the winter. He could record thoughts on tape and I could start writing them out. However before I could even suggest the idea I received an offer to work on another project, which was to begin almost immediately and ended up taking up all my time until nearly June/09.

I've written ,a href="http://blogcritics.org/music/article/a-thank-you-to-willy-deville/">elsewhere elsewhere about the events of this past spring, of Nina writing me in May of 2009 to let me know Willy had been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer, which is as close to a death sentence that you can be given without a court order from a judge in Texas. So when I was finally able to bring up the subject of perhaps Willy trying to record a few notes about his life for me to use it was June and he wasn't even well enough to do that. The drugs he was taking for the pain, and the cancer itself, were not only sapping his strength, but they were also stealing his brain.

However, Nina gave me the go ahead to work on a biography, saying that Willy had liked my writing and really, really liked me and it would be an honour if I could put it together. That was a bit overwhelming, believe me; I go asking permission to write Willy's biography and not only does Nina say yes but makes it sound like I'm doing them a favour. I knew Willy had been pleased with how our interviews had turned out, had like the reviews I had written of a couple of his CDs and DVDs, and the liner notes I had written for another DVD, but this was a little more than that. However, after I got over the initial burst of "Wow", the sense of responsibility set in. Nina was entrusting me to preserve her husband's legacy.

The thing is, I don't even like most biographies. I find the format of repeating what other people have had to say about somebody in order to create a portrait of a person to be annoying. I know I'm exaggerating, but they end up feeling like you're reading one long series of he said this and did that after another which doesn't allow you to get to know the subject. So the first thing I decided was that there was no way I was going to write a book like that. However, what are the alternatives?

Of course no matter what the format, the research still has to be done to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. Luckily for me people began to contact me with their stories about Willy over the summer. I had taken upon myself to begin a petition to have Willy considered for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in June which required that one of my e-mail addresses be made public. As a result various people began to contact me to talk about Willy. Nobody knew about the plans for the biography at the time, it was more they were looking for a sympathetic ear to talk about what he meant to them. Amongst those who contacted me were people who had known Willy when he was still Billy Borsey from Stamford Connecticut and they've proven to not only be valuable for the information they have been able to provide, but as moral support for the process.

There have been other people from all over North America and Europe who have been equally generous with their memories and even photographs, a great many of which have never appeared in print before. Some have perhaps appeared on web sites, but none of them have been published in the pages of a book. Most important of all, I've started to hear from musicians Willy played with over the years. From people who were in bands with him before Mink DeVille, members of Mink DeVille from the CBGBs days, to people who played with him on his last tour of Europe in the summer of 2008. It doesn't seem to matter if they played with him for twenty years or toured with him once - he still made enough of an impression for them to want to talk about him.

The raw material is being assembled - pages and pages of people's thoughts and memories and transcripts of old interviews; audio and video tapes of interviews that he gave on various radio stations and for television shows; and of course his music. Some sixteen CDs worth of original recordings plus greatest hits packages, his contributions to collections commemorating people as diverse as Edith Piaf and Johnny Thunders, and the vast assortment of recordings that have been uploaded onto You-Tube since his death. Somewhere within all of this is the story of Willy DeVille and it will now be a matter of finding the connecting threads and tying them all together in a coherent fashion so I can relate it to readers.

Which brings me back to that blank page I mentioned in the first paragraph. The sensible thing would be to create an outline - a chapter by chapter breakdown of the book detailing what each will be about and its significance in terms of Willy the person and Willy the artist. My idea is to take all the information and turn it into a third person narrative so that it reads like a novel. At first I thought it would be best to follow some sort of chronological order - travel with him from Stamford Connecticut to CBGBs, then continue down south with him to New Orleans and his time spent wandering in the desert in the South West, and then back to New York City.

Yet as I sit staring at the blinking cursor on the page I wonder if that will be enough. I've been entrusted with a man's legacy and the thought threatens to overwhelm me at times. I don't really give a fig about people's expectations for the book - I'm bound to disappoint somebody no matter what I write. What I care about is doing justice to my subject. How do you tell the story of a person's life with only words on a page and still images? It's like suggesting a butterfly pinned onto a piece of paper under glass gives you any indication of what it was like alive. While including audio and video samples of his work with the book will help, as the video embedded in this story proves out, it will only capture one small facet of him, not bring him completely to life.

I'll just have to reconcile myself to failing, but make the best damn attempt I can. That may sound defeatist, but unless I realize that before I start I'm never going to start because I'll never get over my fear of failing. Accepting the impossibility of a task and spitting in its eye by going ahead and doing it anyway is what Willy did most of his career. So I can't think of a more appropriate approach to be taking. He played his music for the love of it and hoped for the best; I'll write this book for my love of what he gave the world and hope for the best.

November 10, 2009

Book Review: "Self-Surrender", Peace", "Compassion", & "The Mission Of The Goose": Poems And Prayers From South India by Appayya & Nila-kantha Dikshita and Vedanta Deshika

I can't think of a more difficult job for a translator than translating poetry. Unlike prose it's not just a simple matter of turning one language into another, you also have to worry about conveying whatever ideas are suggested but not spelt out in the poem. How many times have you read a poem where the poet has made use of a word's dual meanings, or the combining of words in a specific way, to suggest something other than the literal meaning of the words in question? There's almost no way you can do a literal translation in those circumstances. On top of that you also have to worry about staying true to the form of the original poem.

While that's definitely not an easy job, a sure fire way of compounding it is if the poetry in question happens to have been written in a language that's no longer in current usage and by writers whose culture has little or nothing in common with your own. For the last couple of weeks I've been working my way through a deceptively slim volume published by the New York University Press of four works written in Sanskrit from Southern India dating from between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, "Self Surrender", "Peace", "Compassion", & "The Mission Of The Grey Goose": Poems and Prayers From South India. Translators, and Sanskrit scholars, David Shulman and Yigal Bronner have not only taken on the task of translating four pieces from the classical Indian cannon, the items in question represent the work of three pre-eminent philosopher/poets, one from the Vaishnavas tradition of Hinduism, who worshipped Vishnu as the original and supreme being, and two whose worship was directed more towards the god Shiva.

Vedanta Deshika reportedly lived to be 101 (1268 - 1369) and has contributed two pieces to this collection, the story poem "The Mission of The Goose" and "Compassion" with its ironic sub-title "The Iron Shackles Of Mercy". Appayya Dikshita and his nephew (or grandson - there seems to be some dispute about this as a couple of sites refer to him as the latter) Nila-katha Dikshita lived close to two hundred years after Deshika, 1520 -1592 for the elder and 1580 - 1644 for the younger, and their contributions to the book are "Self Surrender" and "Peace" respectively. While the former reflects the author's devotion to Shiva, the younger poet's work is more along the lines of what we would consider satire as it details the lack of peace in his life due to his association with a ruler and his court.

Those familiar with the epic poem The Ramayana will recognize the circumstances and characters depicted in "The Mission Of The Goose". Rama, one of the avatars of Vishnu worshipped by those who follow the Vaishnavas tradition, is attempting to send a message to his wife Sita who has been kidnapped by the ten headed demon Ravana, and taken to his island kingdom of Lanka. While Rama is awaiting the construction of a bridge to carry him to Lanka and rescue his beloved he sends a message to her by goose. The poem details instruction he gives the goose to make the journey in safety and what he will find when arrives there.

Without the historical context the translators provide in the introduction to the book, the reader wouldn't understand some of its deeper complexities. For instance part of the directions Rama gives to the goose include visiting a temple that won't be built until the time of the poet - a temple that was built in honour of Rama. Throughout the poem the poet has depicted Rama as a man desperate to be reunited with his wife and embodied him with all the attributes of a lover and husband that we'd expect. With this reference he reminds us how he considers Rama the god on earth in human form and the importance of worshipping him. In fact the majority of the directions contain that sort of double reference to help guide people in their worship. Rama's warning to the goose to not let the beauty of what he sees in flight distract him from his purpose, is a reminder to not let material things distract from the worship of the divine.

Obviously not being either Hindu or an expert in Sanskrit, I'm not in the best of positions to judge as to the quality of the translations. However I couldn't help but be jarred by something I noticed in their translation of the second of Deshika's pieces, "Compassion". Time after time they refer to Vishnu using the pronoun God. To my mind, and I would think to most Western readers, the word god with a capital G has very specific connotations, that of a supreme deity in a monotheistic tradition. While its true that Deshika does practice a form of Hinduism that elevates Vishnu above the other gods, this usage still seems out of place in the context of the poem and the culture its referring too.

However the same usage also appears in both "Peace" and "Self-Surrender", neither of which are about Vishnu. The question for me became what are they trying to imply with the word God? In the minds of most people reading these translations it will conjure up images of a supreme deity who not only dictates how we are to behave, but sits in judgement on that behaviour. Even if there is a god above others in a pantheon that's not the role they play. Couldn't there have been a better way of referring to whomever it was they meant by that pronoun to ensure that those connotations were avoided?

Having read an adaptation of The Ramayana I enjoyed "The Mission Of The Goose" and was looking forward to reading the balance of the poems included in the book. Maybe it's being unreasonable on my part, or overly sensitive, but I found the use of the capital G god pronoun so questionable, I was too distracted to give myself over to simply enjoying the poetry and appreciating them for the works they were. Perhaps it's also a sign that I'm unable to overcome years of conditioning which tell me that God is the bearded guy in the clouds who smites us down if we misbehave. However, if I, who am not an adherent to any of the monotheistic religions can't overcome that - how could those who are?

It's the responsibility of translators when working in another culture to ensure they don't impose, whether on purpose or by accident, their own beliefs or ideas. Whether or not Bronner and Shulman intended to imply there was a similarity between the monotheistic traditions of the West and Hinduism, they did so by the use of one word. As a result, what had started off as an enjoyable adventure in trying to learn more about the poetry of an early and fascinating period of world history, turned into me questioning the veracity of what I was reading to the point of giving up in frustration. Perhaps we should leave the translation of works in other cultures to them and stick to our own in the future. That would sure save a lot of confusion.

November 5, 2009

A Book Signing For What Will Happen In Eragon IV?

Well in about ten days I'm going to be doing my first appearance as a professional author! Who'd have thunk it? Not me - at least not in this fashion. By now most people who read this page will know that last January Ulysses Press in the US commissioned me to write a book predicting what would happen in the fourth instalment of Christopher Paolini's Inheritance cycle. The main reason such a fuss is being made over the fourth book is that he had originally only planned on it being a trilogy, but was half-way through writing the third book, Brisingr, when he came to understand that if he wanted to do the story justice he needed an extra book.

Naturally his fans were disappointed that they weren't going to be seeing the conclusion to the series immediately, but once they had devoured the third book they quickly recovered and speculation has run amuck since as to how things were going to turn out. Which is why Ulysses Press thought there was an opportunity for a book like What Will Happen In Eragon IV? to be of interest to some people. Of course there are going to be those who see this as a shameless attempt to cash in on somebody else's fame and creativity, and I did wrestle with that for twenty-four hours. However also saw it as an chance to have some fun and exercise my brain in a direction I've never tried before.

I had no idea whether I could write about something like this and make it interesting to the people who like Paolini's books, and I still don't. What I do know is that it was much harder work than I anticipated it being, and if I were going to try and exploit somebody else's work and ideas I'd have found a much easier way of doing it - Believe you me!
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Now the purpose of this post isn't to justify my writing of this book, it's to invite any of you who are going to be in Kingston Ontario on November 14th to come down to Indigo Books at 259 Princess Street between 2:00 pm. and 4:00 pm to for the opportunity of having your book signed - or purchasing a copy and having it signed if you haven't already done so, and maybe even taking some time to talk about the book and what you think is going to happen and why.

You can also leave your comments about my predictions at the books own web site if you can't make it down to the store to give me a piece of your mind. Hopefully though I'll see you there. Indigo shipped in forty copies of the book and I'd really like to make sure they're not stuck with any of them after Saturday the 14th - in fact it would be really cool if they have to order more. You can also pick up a copy just down the street from Indigo at Novel Idea - corner of Princess and Bagot - as they have a few copies on the shelf ( in the young adult section at the back of the store right next to their copies of the Inheritance cycle)

Please, do not, like those poor misguided souls at amazon.com who have left negative reviews, confuse my efforts with the actual fourth book of the series, I'm not sure how you could as it clearly states on the cover of the book my name as author and that the book is not associated with, authorized or approved by Christopher Paolini or his publishers ( Well they did approve it - at least so much as promise not to sue me for stealing Paolini's intellectual property as it's obvious any of his work I've quoted has been purely for analytical purposes)

So hopefully you'll read the book and at the very least it will make you think if not even change your mind about what you think will happen. Remember there is a big difference between what you think and what you hope will happen.

September 6, 2009

What Will Happen To What Will Happen In Eragon IV?

January 2009 will always be notable for me as the moment when my aspirations of being a published author were finally realized. True it wasn't going to be quite how I imagined it, but my name would be appearing on the cover of a book on bookstores across North America. I had been approached by Ulysses Press and asked if I would be interested in writing What Will Happen In Eragon IV?, a book predicting what would happen in the fourth and final instalment of Christopher Paolini's Inheritance cycle (Eragon, Eldest, and Brisingr)

They had had remarkable success with a similar book about J.K Rowling's Harry Potter series, and although Paolini has yet to duplicate her popularity, he's been pretty close. Brisingr, book three in the series, sold a half million copies the day it was released in North America, a new record for it's publisher, Random House, for a young adult title. Another reason why Ulysses figured there would be interest in our book, was the fact Paolini had originally intended to only write a trilogy, but half way through the writing of book three a press release was issued announcing that he wasn't going to be able to finish the story properly without creating a fourth book.

The cynical among you might think that this was merely a ploy to try and milk a golden goose by either the publisher or the author, but if you've read the books as closely as I have (and believe me I've read them closely in the past few months) you'll know he really didn't have much choice in the matter. The story had become so large that for him to wrap up all the lose ends he had developed over its course the third book would have needed to be close to 1500 pages in length to cover everything. Even before the third book was published speculation about how the series would conclude was been rife in forums, blogs, and social networking sites, so there's definitely a market for a book on the subject.

My initial contact with Ulysses Press may have been in January, but I wasn't given the go ahead to start writing until the end of February. Initially I had been told that my deadline for submitting a first draft - they asked for a minimum of 50,000 words - was May 1st/09, but by the time I signed the contracts that had been shifted back to April 1st. I ended up handing in 55,000 or so words by the end of March. That very rough draft was sent off to some readers whose comments were passed back to me and I was given an opportunity to make any changes I wanted to the text before it was sent off to the editors. So roughly two weeks later I handed in a second draft - this time closer to 57,000 words and sat back to wait.

Now I've heard plenty from various authors who I've talked to about the challenges a writer faces in getting his or her book published. However I don't think anyone can really appreciate any of them until you've worked through them yourself. Obviously I didn't have to deal with the first hurdle of having to find someone to publish this book, but there were specifics associated with this work that I don't think many other authors have to face. Of course the first thing I discovered is probably something all first time authors experience; handing in the manuscript is only half the battle.

Now in most cases there is the whole editing process where your pearls of wisdom are picked apart and put back together by the editors assigned to your book by the publisher. Now I know editors get bad press, but I have to tell you in this instance these people were saints. You have to remember what I submitted was at best a clean first draft which I had had very little time to check for typos and continuity. So when they sent me back their edited version of the text with changes marked via the word processing software's "show changes", I simply checked the box marked accept changes - and then proceeded to deal with the questions they had on content. However that process was remarkably easy compared to what came next, the lawyers draft.

Obviously I had referred back to the original books on many occasions, and for each reference I had to make sure that the page and book they came from were cited. So in order to ensure that Random House, Paolini's publishers, had no reason to accuse us of any sort of intellectual theft I had to scour the pages ensuring that all references from the books, no matter how oblique, were properly cited. One of the more tedious things that I was forced to do was count the number of words directly quoted from the books. It seems that only a certain percentage of your total word count being quotes is allowable under the fair uses laws of copyright. I had quite the headache after that was all said and done.

Finally it was time for the proofs, normally the last stage before a book goes to press, The author is sent a copy of the book laid out in its final form and told to scour it for any mistakes that might have been missed and take this last chance to request any changes he or she might want. In my case though there was still one more stage for us to got through - due diligence. We had to send off samples of the book to Random House for approval so if they decide to sue us at some point in the future we can stand up in court and say "Hey they had their chance to object before we went to press and they didn't".

I had finished with the proofs back in July/09 and the days gradually ticked by closer to September 1st/09, our publication date. Near mid August I heard from Ulysses' publicist as she was preparing for the book's launch so I assumed everything was still on schedule. I decided that it couldn't hurt to do some local publicity and contacted the branch of Indigo books where I live, Canada's biggest chain of bookstores, to make inquiries about a publicity appearance. I also got in touch with the book's distributor in Canada to see what they would be willing to do to help out with that event. Happily, I've written quite a few reviews for them in the past and they were great, promising not only to ensure the store had enough books on hand for my appearance but to also create posters for the event.

Then, on September 2nd, the day after the book was supposed to have gone on sale in the United States, after I'd already set up a web site for the book and announced its publication, I heard from the publishers that the book was not due back from the printers until September 8th and wouldn't be in book stores until the first week of October. Talk about your false climaxes. Now I have to post an announcement on the web site telling everybody not to bother looking for the book just yet, contact Indigo and let them know we might have to reschedule the event, and be grateful that I hadn't mailed out the press releases that I had planned on to the local media.

It's been a long strange trip this whole experience, one which I'm extremely grateful to have experienced, but I was still looking forward to its conclusion. However at least now there's a definite end in sight, and soon enough I'll be finding out what will happen with What Will Happen In Eragon IV? Yet, until I actually see it siting on a bookshelf in a bookstore with my name along the bottom of the cover I won't truly believe any of it.

July 29, 2009

Book Review: Twelve The King By Michael Blake

Sometime in 2008 I wrote an article about the threat posed to wild horses by the very people who are supposed to be preserving them - the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Some of the details include a program where horses are supposedly protected by being live captured and then put up for adoption. I still haven't figured out how capturing, domesticating, and then selling the horses constitutes preserving the wild populations, but I'm sure that somebody, somewhere has come up with a justification. Of course it's a little bit better than just rounding them up for slaughter and turning them into dog food, and just as effective a means of ensuring they don't interfere with ranching, forestry, and strip mines.

Of course as animals who were born into the wild, the older the horse that's captured the less chance it has of ever being domesticated. This is especially true for the older stallions who served as the herd's protectors in the wild. Even though all stallions are gelded upon capture (castrated) some never lose that edge which allowed them to ascend to a position of leadership with a herd. That's not a horse you're about to buy when your kids want a pony.

Fortunately there are some people out there who have sufficient appreciation for the artistry of Creation to see the beauty and splendour inherent in those magnificent creatures. While they may not be able to do anything about the circumstances that cause their plight, people like Michael Blake, best known as the author of Dances With Wolves, are the only hope these horses have of ending up as your dog's breakfast, or wasting their lives away in a corral. In 1991, he paid a visit to what he described as one of the BLM's concentration camps for wild horses, and first saw the horse he called Twelve. In his new book, Twelve The King published by Perceval Press, Blake tells us the story of his nearly two decade long relationship with this wild stallion.
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While all the horses in the BLM facility outside of Reno Nevada that day in 1991 had been taken from the wild herds in the mountains it was immediately obvious that the black gelding with the numbers 1210 on his flank was different from the rest. While other horses in the camp could be ridden after only twenty minutes in a paddock with the director of the facility, nobody that day Blake visited could even lay a hand on the black. Although he was protected from the slaughter house, the numbers on his flank gave him immunity, he had been declared unadoptable because of his age at capture, twenty years old, and was looking at spending the rest of his life confined to a small pen.

For twenty years Twelve had roamed the desserts and ranges of Nevada, and for most of that time had been the protector and leader of his herd. The director of the facility in Nevada told Blake that when Twelve was released in the paddock with the other sixty or so geldings that had been in his herd, the others would never approach him. When the gates were opened for them to be returned to their stalls, he would always lead them out, after first checking it was all clear. On one occasion he recounted how all sixty horses ran in a circle around Twelve, as if paying homage to their king.

While the book appears to be simply a recounting of Blake's life with Twelve, the details that come out from this description help you understand the uniqueness of this horse, and wild horses in general. For while Twelve would allow himself to be touched, he never stopped being a wild horse. He would have nothing to do with the domesticated riding horses that Blake owned, so in order to give him companionship Blake adopted a female from the same Reno facility. The descriptions of their play time - biting, rearing, and kicks just missing the other's head - give one a sense of their power and control. For never did he see either horse actually make contact or hurt the other no matter how violent their play might have looked to human eyes.
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While Blake admits that at the beginning of their relationship he harboured hopes of a bond forming between himself and Twelve, that he would somehow be able to overcome the animal's years of living wild and "tame" him, it never happened. Yet that's what makes this book special the chance it offers to be close to a horse who, although willing to accept human companionship, never surrendered anything of himself. Blake recounts walking Twelve past a ring where young riders were being put through their paces on their new mounts. Commands to walk, trot, and canter would issue out of a loud speaker and the riders would change their horse's gait accordingly. When the horses began to canter he felt Twelve stiffen, and then turn to take up a position facing the opposite direction in which the horses in the pen were travelling. He was looking to see what was chasing them and putting himself between the herd and any potential threat. As soon as the horses were walking again he relaxed his vigil and allowed himself to be guided away. (He was never led - only ever guided)

Twelve The King is a deceptively simple book, only thirty some pages of photographs and text. Its power resides in the feelings of awe and wonder that Blake so obviously feels for Twelve and the fact that he is able to convey those feelings to us with minimal words and no hyperbole. There are no long rapturous peons of praise to the glories of nature and wild creatures, just straight forward sentences describing this one horse. Yet reading about Twelve is to be given a glimpse at what is lost each time a rancher encroaches on preserve land and the BLM removes more horses from the wild, and the herds move one step closer to eradication.

"In city traffic/I remember his eyes/So dark and wet/So full of God" ends a poem Blake wrote after his first sight of Twelve at the Reno BLM facility. It's a pity there aren't more people who share Blake's vision, who can see the hand of their Creator in the untamed and the beauty it represents. He doesn't waste space decrying the practices of the BLM, a couple of paragraphs summarizing the hypocrisy of their so-called preservation efforts - ones that appear destined to guarantee the eradication of wild horses in America - is sufficient to tell us all that we need to know. Yet Twelve The King is one of the strongest arguments you'll ever read for ensuring the preservation of the wild herds. A world in which Twelve and those like him have ceased to exist is not one I care to imagine, but is one that could soon become a reality. That would be a shame.

Twelve The King can be purchased directly from Perceval Press

June 10, 2009

Book Review: US Future States Atlas By Dan Mills

I've always had something of a problem political art. Far too often people expect you to lose your objectivity and only look at the message, not at how the message is delivered. It's like all of a sudden we're supposed to forget about the quality of the art because the message is so important. Maybe I'm just an elitist snob, but it pisses me off when people expect you to say how wonderful something they did was because it was about this or that, not because it was a beautifully written story or exquisitely drawn illustration.

I'm in agreement with saying art should hold a mirror up to society and there's nothing wrong with deliberately setting out to create a piece of art that makes a political statement. However, it's equally important for whomever is doing the creation that he or she are able to set aside the issue that originally inspired them and be able to focus on how best to communicate it for an audience. No matter what you do, though, creating political art is such a difficult balancing act, as you try to meet the needs of both the art and the issue you're dealing with, that not many can pull off.

However, if you're interested in seeing an example of one artist who does an exemplary job of accomplishing it check out the recent release from Perceval Press, US Future States Atlas by visual artist Dan Mills. Subtitled "An Atlas Of Global Imperialism" the book gathers together a series of satirical maps Mills created delineating countries the United States could invade in the future and annex as additional states in the union.
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For each country, or "state", Mills has taken an actual image of it from an atlas and then begun its transformation into being part of United States Global (USG).(Note: USA + USG = United States Empire (USE)) First, if these new states are more than one country, made up of bits and pieces of a few adjacent countries, or as in the case of "New Venice" (formally Venezuela) divided up into separate states, their new boundaries have to be defined on the atlas. The new regions are painted in either one or a few exceptionally garish colours that make them stand out from those in their immediate vacinity.While in some instances it makes them appear to be a mockery of the way in which relief maps designating altitude and geographical formations are drawn, the distinctiveness of the colours also puts me in mind of the way in which maps used to designate countries that were once part of the British Empire with bright pink. Even in post colonial days you could look at a world map and spot Commonwealth countries, former colonies who still wanted to be part of the same club, dotted all over the world.

In fact if you turn to the back of the book you'll see that Mills has created two new maps of the world, one of which depicts the countries of USE picked out in a sickly purple, washed out blue, and shades of green. The other is crammed full of initials as it designates all the territories through abbreviations. Looking at the new map of the world where the fourty-seven new states appear like random blotches against a pale background it's hard to find any rhyme or reason for why these particular spots were chosen to become parts of the new empire.

Not to worry, for on each of the individual maps of the new states Mills has outlined the reasons why this particular country was chosen to become part of USE, and the benefits to be derived by USA, or US50, from their inclusion. These include everything from the geo-political, a country is situated such that an American presence can easily exert influence on a region of the world, to the natural resources made available through their inclusion. Of course one country can't just annex another without so much as a by your leave, I mean wasn't the first Gulf War fought because Iraq annexed Kuwait?
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That's all right Mills has covered those bases as well. For on each map he's itemized the reasons for US50 to take over the country. Take the new state of Panama Canal as an example. First of all the country of Panama wouldn't have existed without US aid in the first place as they were part of Columbia until 1903 and only seceded with American aid. Immediately upon declaring sovereignty they gave the US control over a swathe of land through the middle of the country until 1999 in order to build the canal and run it. Therefore a good chunk of the country was ruled by America for the majority of its existence anyway. Aside from that it will fulfil the need for military bases in the region to assist in future plans for the region and provide a beach head in Central America.

With his US Future States Atlas Mills has created a wickedly biting satire of America foreign policy dating back to the days of the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny. In the later parts of the twentieth century and early twenty-first we've seen the US invade countries all over the world with impunity for what has turned out to be the most spurious of rationale. Somalia, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq have all been treated to visits by American armies since the 1980s, while other countries have had to deal with forces armed and funded by various US governments. His creations are not only visually arresting with their garish colours, but they also provide insightful and intelligent commentary on American foreign policy and how truly ridiculous some of the rationale given for those previous actions has been.

Perceval Press has done its usual masterful job of presenting artwork in a book form. The works are laid out in such a way that we are able to see both their scope and the detail of each piece. Blow ups of the actual states themselves allow us to appreciate the lurid details of the colours Mills has chosen to illuminate them with, while the scale reproductions of each map are clear enough that we can make out details like the accompanying text. US Future States Atlas accomplishes the delicate act of balancing of art and politics with grace and style. While that's in large part due to Dan Mills' sensibilities, Perceval Press has to be given some credit as well as they have created an effective and accessible means for people to view the artist's work.

US Future States Atlas can be purchased directly from Perceval Press.

May 27, 2009

Book Review: Heather Jansch's Diary...A Life In The Year Of By Heather Jansch

I've always been fascinated by the process that individual artists follow in their creations. On a few occasions in the past I've been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interview writers and musicians and talk with them about the approach they take in creating their work. The only truism I've discovered from those conversations is process is as unique to an individual as the art they produce. Therefore, by extension you can add that looking to another's process is not much use if you're looking for tips or shortcuts to help with your own work.

However there are benefits of a less tangible nature, for both non-artists and artists alike, to be found in reading about how somebody goes about creating and then making their art. For the non-artist it's a way of learning more about art in general and gaining a deeper appreciation for the amount of work involved with creating. More specifically, reading about one person's methods and efforts gives you insights into their work that can only increase your enjoyment of whatever they produce. For those who are also trying to create, sometimes just reading another's tales is sufficient to bring one's own efforts into perspective and might just encourage you to keep flailing away even when things seem most futile.

It's with all that in mind that I recommend to both artist and non artist alike a new publication by British sculptor Heather Jansch, Heather Jansch's Diary: A Life In The Year Of. Laid out like a cross between a journal and sketch book, this sixty-four page spiral bound package is replete with not only the joys and travails involved in Ms. Jansch's efforts to produce her extraordinary sculptors made of driftwood and other fallen timbers, its fleshed out with anecdotes about her life in general. As a result you not only learn something about her work but also the artist as well and how her life and her art intertwine.
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What Ms. Jansch is primarily famous for are her sculptures of horses. Ranging from scale models to life size they are unlike any other statues of horses I've ever seen. Constructed by attaching drift wood and other found wood to a frame work, her creations capture more of the wildness and power of the animal subject - more of its spirit in fact - than you would think possible for an inanimate object. Somehow she is able to arrange the individual pieces of wood so they coalesce into a single entity of muscle and sinew. Posed in mid-motion, she has so successfully captured the kinetic energy of the animal that you are in constant anticipation of their next move.

Almost as incredible as that may sound, what's equally amazing is that in spite of the fact that they are made up of materials that should lend them a skeletal appearance, there's nothing scary or spectral about them. Instead they have all the characteristics of living horses, down to the near arrogant carriage of the stallions' heads, the slight curve in their spines, and the multiple strands that make up their tails. As the illustrations in A Life In The Year Of... show the horses are exhibited outdoors in various environments, and I think you could be forgiven if coming upon one of them suddenly in a field for mistaking it for the real thing.
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Once you get beyond the wonder and joy of exploring the photographs of completed sculptures included in the diary, and your envy over the beautiful Devonshire countryside where Jansch happens to live and work, it's time to start exploring the text of this particular journal. As the title suggests she does take you through a year of life with her art, but she also describes a few other adventures as well that may or may not have been part of that year as they exist as entities onto themselves. However, each and everything included in the pages of this book contribute to helping us build a picture of who this person is and gives us clues as to what compels her to create her magnificent beings.

Judging by her descriptions of sore muscles, broken nails, blistered hands, and strained ligaments the work is not without its detractions. However, none of those difficulties seem sufficient to prevent her from taking on projects or stopping her from working when inspiration strikes. In her forward to the journal she says," When the muse in on my shoulder I am helplessly enthralled and have to follow her fast. To deny the muse is to deny life." However at the same time she also has the self awareness and insight to know when she needs to step away and take breaks from the work. Usually that seems to be for her when she begins to complain about what's involved with the making and has lost enjoyment for the process.
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In Heather Jansch's life inspiration seems a rather haphazard thing, as she doesn't appear to know just when it will come and it seems to depart with equal suddenness. However, while some might find that frustrating, she seems to be able to accept that with equanimity. One of the reasons for that is that she also appears to lead a very full life even in the times when she's not creating, thinking, dreaming and building her art. This is made clear by the amount of space taken up in the journal describing events and happenings that on the surface have little to do with her art. For while they may not directly result in the creation of a horse or other sculpture, they can't really be separated from her creative process either as they offer evidence of a mind that's constantly finding the pleasure in life that's required for inspiration to flourish

One of the delights of the journal is it's layout, with text, photographs, and reproductions of sketches and preliminary drawings evenly distributed throughout its pages. Whether it's a picture of children attending an open house at Jansch's studio, a rough ink sketch of a horse, or a stunning shot of one of her creations silhouetted against a misty morning sky surrounded by trees, each piece helps to explain why she does what she does. There are no simple answers as to why any artist creates. They may be able as Jansch does to tell you what inspires them, in her case life, but as far as why is concerned, it comes down to a cross between, because and I must. However, when we see the results of her creativity, and try to image the feelings generated by knowing you were responsible for creating something as astounding as one of her statues, or were responsible for the smile on that child's face, a piece of the why comes a little bit clearer.

While her process might seem somewhat random, dependant on inspiration as it is, the reality as we learn is that once inspiration hits, hard work, sweat, and toil have as much to do with artistic creation as they do with any labour. One thing you'll learn for sure from reading A Life In The Year Of... is that there's one heck of a lot of hard work that goes into making something beautiful and no matter how magical inspiration might be, without the down to earth perspiration nothing would ever get done. This is a delightful and insightful journey into the mind of a truly inspired artist that will be a pleasure and an education for artist and non-artist alike.

You can order a copy of Heather Jansch's Diary: A Life In The Year Of... through her we site and she'll ship anywhere in the world. For those of us on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean who stand little or no chance of ever seeing her work in person, one of these diaries represent our best opportunity to have a piece of it to hold onto for ourselves. The fact that its an entertaining and perceptive read at the same time makes it even that much more of a treasure.

January 31, 2009

Music CD/Book Review: Various Performers Money Will Ruin Everything Second Edition

Almost every week without fail you can read somewhere about how the end of the CD is nigh. Digital downloads of Mp3s are no longer the way of the future, they are now. All those big cumbersome CD players are being replaced by teeny little I-pod clones that can hold hundreds if not thousands more songs than one 700mb CD ever could. At one time the downloading of music from the Internet was the province of hackers and considered an illegal activity. Now every major record company has got in on the act and new releases are routinely available to download from I-Tunes long before they come available in hard copy.

Of course this saves them tons of money, as there's no longer the need to create physical packaging. If an item is being downloaded what purpose is served by spending a small bundle on cover art or liner notes - simply post the stuff to a web page once and be done with it. Well maybe I'm old fashioned, but one of the things that I still miss most about LPs (Long Playing records for those folk under thirty who don't remember what came before CDs) is the great album art. CDs are such dinky little things that what you get is a postage stamp compared to the huge expanse of colour that covered LPs. Yet at least with the CDs you get something you can hold on to while listening to your music - some tangible proof that somebody, somewhere, went to some effort to produce something.

It turns out that I'm not as alone or weird as I thought I was in those thoughts as the independent Norwegian label Rune Grammofon is proving with the release of Money Will Ruin Everything: The Second Edition on February 3/09. Gathered together on two CDs, a poster, and an accompanying book, they are releasing their second package celebrating the various performers signed to their label. The two CDs contain samples from the various groups and individuals they've recorded and the book is chock full of interviews, articles, photos, album art, and other mementoes related to the past five years of their recording history.
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To be honest I'd never heard of the label until I received the press release from their North American distributor, Forced Exposure, and had no idea what kind of music they produced. What attracted me was the fact that this little label had the balls to produce this type of package when nearly everyone else is going in the opposite direction as quickly as possible. I had to know more about this label produce that they would go to this much effort to celebrate their performers and who are the people responsible for making it happen.

According to an interview that's published in the book with label owner Rune Kristofferson it sounds like its pretty much a one man show with Rune doing all the work himself. Although it means he's unable to sign or record all the bands he wants to, it's a very deliberate effort on his part to keep the label small and not become another big corporation where money is the bottom line. I think that the sub-title of the collection, But The Music Goes On Forever tells you all you need to know about what motivates Rune and his efforts.

When I requested a copy of Money Will Ruin Everything I didn't know what to expect, but I thought it might be a collection of experimental and electronic music that verged on the edge of dissonance. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that although some of the music fell into that category, there was also a great deal of diversity to be found among the groups and individuals signed to the label. From the ethereal sounds of Susanna And The Magical Orchestra's version of Henry Purcell's "When I Am Laid" to Shining's cover of the old King Crimson cut "21st Century Schizoid Man" there's something here for every ear to listen to and be amazed by.

The overall impression you get from listening to the two disc set is that Rune Grammofon is a label where it's the quality of the music that matters, not the kind of music being played. Considering it's only one person making the decisions behind what gets recorded each year you'd expect some sort of pattern to develop that would give you an indication of his personal preferences when it comes to music. Instead what you get is a wider range of music than anything you'd find on any label with multiple producers and talent scouts.

As for what attracted me to request a copy of this collection in the first place, the packaging, that doesn't disappoint either. The book is an amazing collection of images from the last five years of Rune Grammofon's existence including everything from examples of some of the most interesting cover art you've seen together in one place, images of Oslo Norway where most of the recordings have happened, and photos of most of the folk who appear on the compilation. The articles that have been written for the package reflect how so many different people mourn the passing of cover art, and respect and admire the work that Rune Kristofferson is doing with his little label.

There's also a wonderfully chaotic atmosphere to the layout that captures the free spirit of the label. Absolutely nothing about anything you see, or hear, in Money Will Ruin Everything says "corporate", which to my mind is a good thing when it comes to music, especially popular music.

In this day and age when less is increasingly becoming the adage of all music production companies and album art is increasingly becoming a thing of the past, it's taken a small independent label from Norway, Rune Grammafon, to remind us what a joy it is to have something tangible to go with the music you love. Money Will Ruin Everything The Second Edition proves that not only does music not have to all sound the same, but you can still make the experience of purchasing it a pleasure for more than just one of your senses.

January 24, 2009

Book Review: Otra Isla Para Miguel (Another Island For MiguelBy Henry Eric Hernandez

Henry Eric Hernandez is a historian even though you'll not find his name listed as the author of any text book or learned article about the subject. For he doesn't "write" the kind of history that deals with dates, battles, or famous historic figures. In his book published a couple of years ago, La Revancha (Revenge), Hernandez documented a series of what he called interventions where he and a group of people carried out renovations on buildings in Cuba where events of historical significance had taken place. Through these restoration projects he brought history to life as he recalled what it was that had originally made a building famous; what is now a rundown toilet in a school was once the military barracks that both Batista and Fidel Castro had used as their the staging grounds prior to marching on Havana during their respective revolutions.

While the work he carried out in La Revancha focused primarily on events that took place in the earlier part of the twentieth century, either before Castro had taken power or in the early days of revolutionary government, his most recent book, Otra Isla Para Miguel (Another Island For Miguel), published by Perceval Press brings us into the modern era. This time though he has turned to the people of Cuba in order to paint a picture of the effects its involvement in the Angolan, Ethiopian, and Somalian civil wars of the late 1970's and early 1980's. The focus is split between stories that reflect the economic impact of the wars and personal accounts from women left widowed.

In his introduction to the book Kevin Power provides us with the basic facts surrounding the civil war in Angola, and the circumstances which led to Cuba's involvement first there and subsequently in both Somalia and Ethiopia. This being the height of the Cold War, Russia and America were up to their usual tricks of vying for influence in the region. Russia, instead of deploying their own troops "asked" Cuba to send advisors to the side they supported in Angola, while the US, South Africa, and China backed the other side. In excerpts from speeches given by Fidel Castro that are included in the first couple of stories, we see that in the late 1970's Cuba was considering normalization of relations with the United States as part of a plan to expand their industry and economy. Instead, they involved themselves in the civil wars in Africa and deepened the split.
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There are two parts to Otra Isla Para Miguel, the stories included in the book and a DVD of Cubans telling their stories. Like the book, some of the people in the DVD talk about loved ones lost in the wars in Africa, while others detail the economic hardships they face and what they have to do in order to survive. In an interesting twist both the book and the DVD combine visual elements with "words" to tell the story of the impact these wars have had on Cuba and her people.

Throughout the text Hernandez has scattered photo's celebrating people's contributions to the cause of Cuba. Tawdry certificates commemorating years of service and charitable contributions, pictures of men and women posing under banners celebrating agricultural triumphs, and images of men in uniforms either at training facilities in Cuba or in action in Africa are juxtaposed with a widow's reflections on losing her husband or an account of a woman working as a prostitute because she has no other way to raise her family.

In the DVD interviews with individuals talking about their lives cut away to footage of life in Cuba. We see row after row of buildings crumbling in disrepair, dirty streets with garbage heaped in mounds against the sides of buildings, and aimless groups of people wandering, sitting in desolate groups on street corners, wearing the blank expression of the hopeless poor the world over. While the individuals we see being interviewed are animated, the primary emotions that appear to be driving them are anger, fear, and grief, as they recount what they have been though and what they continue to experience.

Without using any of the usual characteristics of a history text book, dates, statistics, and the names of famous people, Ora Isla Para Miguel gives the reader/viewer a history of Cuba. While the picture that gradually develops isn't positive by any means, at the same time you never once get the feeling that anybody involved in the project has a particular political agenda in presenting this information. This is a people's history of their day to day lives, not a rant against the horrors of Communism or the "evils" of the Castro regime.

In the 1970's Cuba's government made the decision to become involved with a series of wars overseas with results that have proved catastrophic for the country. Not only did they leave countless of people bereft of fathers and husbands for reasons they still don't understand, they took the country down a path that has resulted in their near economic ruin. Not only does Ora Isla Para Miguel bring that reality to life in a way no text could, Henry Eric Henandez reminds us of the human face that resides behind the events that are called "History". In the process he has rendered one of the most accurate histories of a country and its people I have ever experienced.

January 20, 2009

Book Review: Mostly People Photographs By Robert Whitman

Anybody can pick up a camera and snap off a bunch of photos that will serve as a memento of an occasion. However doing that has a much in common with the work of a photographer as the scribbles of a five year old have with the writings of William Shakespeare. For while the digital age has given us unprecedented access to the means to take pictures it hasn't changed the fact that only a few of us have the ability to not only see and capture something special in a moment in time.

In his most recent volume of photographs, Mostly People published by Perceval Press, American photographer Robert Whitman, shows that not only does he possess that ability, his photographs of people display an understanding of the importance of environment in portraiture. Yet his skills as a photographer, as the title of this volume suggests, don't end with his ability to bring people and their surroundings to life as he is equally capable of letting us see the meaning in the rust stains of a swimming pool as he is the frown lines of a brow furrowed in concentration.

Ask anyone who has ever attempted to take a picture of a loved one, or who has ever posed for their picture, about the process and you're more often than not bound to hear a variation of one of two complaints. That doesn't look like them/me and I/they aren't photogenic. Sure all the bits and pieces that make up the subject are contained within the frame and are all in the right place, but somehow or other nothing that you or they do can make your pictures look like them. Every holiday season it's the same thing; collections of photos filled with people who look vaguely familiar sitting on the family couch. Taking pictures of people so that we are able to see them is a skill that seems to escape most of us.
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Where most of us fail is by attempting to capture an accurate representation of a person in an atmosphere devoid of life or activity. Unless we have trained to work in front of a camera, standing still, or posing, leaves the majority of us incredibly self conscious and awkward. Without the focus that an environment can give - even if its something as simple as waiting in the lobby of a theatre for a play or movie to begin - the subject of a photograph appears lifeless or artificial. Yet the instant we liberate them from the shackles of posing and photograph them candidly, they miraculously turn into living breathing souls.

Of course we can easily ask people to go about their business and photograph them in the hopes of creating some wonderful portraits, but it takes a special eye to chance upon instances out in the world, recognize them for what they are, and capture that moment on film so that all can experience that same instant in time. Even a casual perusal of the content of Mostly People will give you an idea as to how talented Whitman really is. From the photograph of a street urchin crouching under the elevated chassis of a derelict auto on a street in Havana Cuba, the image of a mother and daughter talking in a kitchen, to one of the many pictures taken either at the beach or a swimming pool, each are examples of his excellence at capturing moments that contain the stuff of life.

A mother leans against her kitchen counter with one arm crossed under her chest and the other bent at right angles to her torso holding a cigarette while she stares at her daughter seated at the kitchen table. Instead of returning her mother's gaze, the teenaged girl is leaning her chest on the edge of the table staring into her clasped hands. While the daughter appears to be lost in her own thoughts, the mother is obviously focused on her daughter, her faced creased in what appears to be a mixture of anger and worry. If you didn't know before what it was like to worry about an adolescent child, looking at this picture tells you more about that experience than any text book or self-help manual could hope.

Scattered throughout the Mostly People are shots that Whitman has taken of the modern dance troupe Pilobolus in a variety of environments. The members of the troupe are contortionists of extraordinary abilities, able to fold their bodies back on themselves, and into a variety of shapes and forms. They interweave their bodies together to form constructions in an attempt to become part of their environment and as an exploration of the the relationship between humans and our surroundings. In one shot they are seen crammed within a barred opening in a brick wall with their naked bodies stacked one on top of the other much like the bricks in the wall that extends in either direction away from them.

While at first we can't help but only feel awe at the way they contort their bodies, after a while you stop thinking of them as humans. Instead they now begin to merge into the background and gradually begin to become one with the rest of the wall. For as they no longer look like our idea of what a human should they begin to take on the characteristics of the inanimate objects around them. Of course we will never mistake them for the brick wall, but as they have lost their original identity of "human" they become environment instead.

While Mostly People shows us that photographs of humans don't have to be the stilted things most of us are familiar with from the posed shots that pass for portraits there are the occasional pictures in the collection that also blur the lines between human beings and the environment that surrounds them. While completely different in their representation of people, each has its own haunting beauty that is thought provoking and that resonates with emotional honesty. No matter what his subject matter, Robert Whitman is a photographer with an exceptional eye that allows us to experience the world and the people in it in a way that we wouldn't otherwise.

As is usual for a book from Perceval Press, Mostly People is beautifully laid out, and shows the photos to their best advantage. The company has a history of presenting the work of individual artists in such a manner that our focus is always where it should be, on the work, and Mostly People is a perfect example of what a great job they do in honouring an artist's work. You can purchase a copy of Mostly People, and many other fine books of art or CDs directly from the Perceval Press web site.

January 1, 2009

My Favourite Reads Of 2008

Another year has winged its way by and with a day left it's fair to assume that I'm not going to be reviewing any more books slated for publication in 2008. So it seems like as good as time as any to put together a list of the books that I liked the most over the past twelve months. Naturally the ones I liked the most stuck in my memory, but I still had to wade through the site's archives so I could locate their links, and I was shocked to see how many articles I had actually published in this time, and how many had been book reviews that I'd forgotten about.

The trouble was that even before I started to wade backwards in time to last January I had already compiled a list of nine books, and the list didn't change. The criteria I used for selecting the books that would make my top list was simple enough; which ones would I be most inclined to re-read. I also decided to limit myself to books that were published in 2008 for the simple fact it made my life somewhat easier when it came to choosing.

So, in no particular order, here are the nine books, of those I reviewed in 2008, that I preferred over the rest.

Binu And The Great Wall by Su Tong was a retelling of a traditional Chinese folk tale/myth of one woman's quest to find her husband after he was conscripted to work on the construction of The Great Wall of China. Accompanied by only a blind frog, she sets out across the breadth and length of China in what seems a fruitless quest to bring her husband a winter coat so he might stand a better chance of surviving the deprivations of slave labour. A beautifully told, and eloquently written story of devotion that provides readers with a wonderful portrait of life in China during the time of the Emperors.

You wouldn't expect a book that deals with the accumulation of statistical evidence about HIV/AIDS to be entertaining, but The Wisdom Of Whores, by former UNAIDS worker Elizabeth Pisani, not only crunches the numbers of the whys and wherefores of the spread of the disease, it does so in such a manner as to leave the reader fascinated. Part of that is due to Pisani herself, who is equal parts iconoclast and idealist. The breeziness of the writing style only accentuates the passion she feels for her subject, and the compassion that she feels for the people her work on the front-lines of the fight against HIV/AIDS has brought her in contact with. From board rooms to brothels, Pisani, takes us behind the scenes everywhere to paint one of the clearest pictures about the state of our attempts to curtail the wave of death and destruction the disease is causing.

Skovbo by Viggo Mortensen, is the companion book/catalogue to a photography exhibit in Reykjavik Iceland. As befits the title, Danish for forest, Skovbo is a collection of photographs of trees and forests taken by Mortensen. Not merely content to "take pictures" of trees, he manages to depict their interaction with light and shadow to bring them alive in ways that makes even the solitary tree in a town square majestic. Even more impressive is his ability to celebrate the tree without romanticizing nature as something ethereal and beautiful. There are dead animals in the fields, broken branches on trees, and ugly and gnarled limbs proliferate. The true beauty of nature is its wildness, and that's at the soul of each picture in Mortensen's latest collection.

Neuropath by Scott Bakker probably caught a lot of people by surprise. Bakker's first three books had been the opening salvo of a major epic fantasy series, so for him to come out with a psychological thriller that bordered on a horror story was a bit of a shock. Be that as it may, it was a brilliantly written, terrifying descent into the potential (and unfortunately very real) dangers of how the mind can be controlled and manipulated. Pleasure becomes pain, feelings and emotions can be artificially stimulated with the flick of a switch or the removal of a synapse. Nothing you feel is real, it's all just conditioned response, and the government can condition you to feel and believe anything they want. Neuropath might be one character's roller coaster ride into a personal hell, but we're all along for the ride, and while the scenery isn't very attractive if we don't learn to recognize it now, it soon might be too late.

One of the best ongoing epic fantasy series took another step towards its conclusion this year as two new instalments in the Malazan Book Of The Fallen were released. Toll The Hounds by Steven Erikson, was followed by The Return Of The Crimson Guard by Ian C. Esslemont and what a one two punch they packed. For while Erikson was following events that were unfolding in the farthest reaches of the Empire affecting the pantheon of Gods and Goddesses of the world, Esslemont was writing about the Empire's struggle for survival. Both men once again prove that not only can they handle the sweeping events of history, but the demands of creating characters who we care about and believe in. Each new book released in this series only reconfirms its pre-eminence among a world of pretenders in the field of epic fantasy.

The King's Gold by Arturo Perez-Reverte continued the adventures of Captain Alatriste during the waning days of Spain's power on the world stage. Here he has been chosen for the delicate task of stealing gold from Spanish merchants for the King's treasury. Hiring some of the worst cut throats and pirates he can find, Alatriste once more takes on the jobs no "honourable" man could be trusted with. However, since Alatriste has no illusions about fights for glory, king, and God, and only does a job when the money is good, he can be counted on to succeed where others would fail. Set against the backdrop of the Inquisition and the church's grab for power in 17th century Spain, The King's Gold proves once again that cynicism can be every bit as noble as blind faith.

A Man Most Wanted by John Le Carre drips with the author's scorn for the "War On Terror". On the surface it deals with the attempts of a German intelligence officer to convince his superiors to let him use an illegal Islamic immigrant as the means to establish a double agent among the jihad terrorists. However, at the moment where he thinks he's scored his ultimate triumph, it's snatched away and he's left holding nothing, while the Americans and British have another prisoner to interrogate at their leisure. What does it matter that the subject knows absolutely nothing? It looks like you're getting results when you arrest somebody, even though the next bomb attack will surprise you as much as the last one did. This is Le Carre's searing indictment of the way in which intelligence communities the world over have botched their job, and succeeded in motivating terrorists more than stopping them with their ham fisted behaviour and stupidity.

Ravensoul by James Barclay sees an author carry off the impossible; bring back a group of characters from the dead and succeed in making the story believable. Most of the Raven had been killed in their last battle, but when even the dead are no longer safe, who else is there to ride in and save the day again but dead heroes? It's a rollicking good time when the Raven come back from the dead, and once they convince their old companions its really them, it's time to try and save the world if they can. Of course if they can't do that, there's the next best thing - find a new one where we can all start over again. Probably the most fun you can have with sword and sorcery without strapping on a sword yourself.

Well that's it, I know these lists are supposed to be ten, but only these nine were able to pass the test of being ones that I'd want to re-read. Whether they're the best books of the year is another matter, but I read because I like too, and these were the books I liked reading most of all. See you next year.

November 19, 2008

Book Review: The Clash By The Clash (Strummer, Jones, Simonon, & Headon)

A sure sign that Christmas is approaching is the sudden proliferation of coffee table books on the market. As sure as holly and mistletoe, each book publisher can be counted on to have one, if not two, of these extravagances available at this time of year. With subject matter ranging from antique farm implements to celebrity photo spreads, the coffee table book is usually long on glossy photos and short on text, as they are meant more for display purposes than reading. (Hence the name "coffee table book"; its meant to be ostentatiously placed on your coffee table for bored family and friends to leaf through when they have nothing better to do during holiday visits)

For the most part I consider these books a waste of space and money. Each time I look at one I think about how many novels by how many authors could have been published for the amount it cost to produce a volume that might not even sell enough copies to pay for itself. Check out the remainder bins each year, or even more telling, those publisher clearing house stores, and you'll find most of the space taken up by last year's coffee table books. Even a year of supposed economic hardship like this one hasn't stopped book publishers from putting out their obligatory Christmas coffee table book.

However, once in a while there will be a publication of this kind where an effort has been made to make it not only eye catching, but also informative, with the text being as important to the book as the photography. When there has also been a deliberate attempt on the part of the publisher to make it as anti-coffee table book in presentation as Atlantic Books have done with the recently released The Clash you've stumbled upon something that your not going to leave around for people to use as a coaster this holiday season, or ever.
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The Clash, distributed in Canada by Publishers Group Canada, is not just a pictorial record of a band, its a history of the band written by the band. Drawing upon personal accounts left behind by the late Joe Strummer, interviews with the three other principle members; Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Topper Headon, and previously unreleased print material (tour posters, band members' journals and scrap books, newspaper clippings, and tons of photos) The Clash tells the story of the most important band to come out of Britain's 1970's punk scene.

Like a Clash song, the book pulls no punches as the boys aren't shy about admitting to their cock-ups nor hesitant to talk about any of the bad times along with the good times. Using album releases and tours as a framework, the book is laid out chronologically. To start off with each of the four fills in biographical detail of their years BC (Before Clash); growing up, and how they ended up in the band. If you didn't know the guys in The Clash were different from other musicians before, reading what and how they write about themselves clues you in. There's nothing sentimental or mawkish - we were poor but loving - or any of the other bullshit you find in these sorts of things.

In fact Joe and Topper both had fairly middle class lives, with Joe spending most of his childhood in boarding schools as his dad was in the foreign service, and Topper's parents both being school teachers. Mick and Paul did grow up in Brixton, London's rough and tumble working class slum, and each recall a childhood spent playing in abandoned bomb shelters. Both of them came from broken homes - Mick was raised by his grandma, and Paul divided his time between his mom and step-dad and his dad - but neither make a big deal out of it. In fact they are each really quite matter of fact when it comes to reporting on growing up, owning up to when they were shits and all, but never looking back to lay blame or to seek excuses.

From reading those bits, and then everything else each of them wrote about their time in the band, you can't help feeling relieved. They sound like the guys who played and wrote the songs that preached personal responsibility that made The Clash so distinct from other bands. Even straining your ears, and reading between the lines, there's not a hint of anything to contradict that impression. There's no bullshit false modesty about what they accomplished, but neither is there any self aggrandizement where they pretend they were anything more than a rock and roll band.
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Along the way the boys dispel a lot of the myths that grew up around them and the Sex Pistols hating each other, putting it down more to antagonism between the groups' respective managers at the time. Bernie Rhodes, The Clash's manager, had worked for Malcolm McLaren, who managed the Pistols, and the impression given is that he was constantly trying to outdo his former boss. So when Malcolm decided to try and make the Pistols more in demand by not having them play, Bernie went the opposite route and had The Clash in the public eye as much as possible. That made for some friction because the Pistols thought it was a deliberate attempt to outshine them.

However, hearing Joe, Mick, and Paul talk about the early days, there was a real sense of camaraderie between the two bands - us against them, and they genuinely liked each other. This is one of the few times I've ever read anything where Sid Vicious comes across as a human, instead of some deranged maniac. Sure a lot of shit happened to him at the end of his days, but that didn't stop The Clash from trying to organize a benefit for him to pay his legal fees when he was arrested for the murder of his girlfriend Nancy. That doesn't sound like the kind of thing you'd do for people you didn't like.

In the end what truly makes this book special, and what differentiates it from the usual run of the mill coffee table book shlock, is the fact it is a Clash creation. From the shocking, fluorescent pink of its cover, to the scatter shot lay out reminiscent of the old punk fanzines that were lovingly cut and pasted and run off at Kinkos in the middle of the night, The Clash by The Clash has about as much in common with other books of its type as the band had with the bloated corporate rock that preceded them. In keeping with Clash history, this is the band that released a triple album, Sandinista for the price of as single, the book is retailing at a price only slightly more than that of a normal hardcover.

At 380 plus pages, some 300 photos and illustrations, and around 60,000 words of text, they've not stinted on material either to make this inexpensive. Informative and visually exciting The Clash manages to capture a good deal of the energy and spirit of what made the band for a period of six years "the only band that matters". Who know whether or not this will be the definitive book on The Clash, but for now, its the only one that matters.

You can pick up a copy of The Clash in Canada at selected bookstores or on line through Chapters Indigo and other on line retailers.

October 16, 2008

Book Review AIDS Sutra Various Authors

In 1860 a British act of parliament declared that sex between men was illegal and punishable by a jail sentence of up to ten years. The law went into effect throughout the British Empire including its largest colony, India. Unfortunately, when the British government repealed section 377 in 1967 it couldn't take back what it had imposed on its colonies the century before, and to this day homosexual sex is still illegal in India. (Speaking to a gathering of Indian delegates at last summer's, 2008, International AIDS conference in Mexico, Indian health minister A Ramadoss lent his support to the repealing of Section 377, but as of yet nothing has been done to do so)

The Bombay Police Act of 1951, which covers everything from frightening cattle to public decency, gives police the power to fine and arrest people they believe are behaving indecently. As the act does not define what is indecent, it gives police the arbitrary power to arrest virtually anyone they feel like. While in theory the act is to be used to curtail prostitution, the fact that the average police officer makes less than a maid results in widespread use of the act to shake down sex trade workers for money. Of course the constable on the beat has to give a cut of whatever he takes in to his superior officer. In fact if the lower grades among the police force ever want to advance up the ladder they are expected to pay off their higher ups on a regular basis thereby encouraging the practice.

Its reading disheartening facts like these, and other far worse anecdotal tales, that makes the new book AIDS Sutra, produced by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and published by Random House Canada (available in India through Ramdom House India) so depressing. For all that India tries to present to the world the shiny face of a modern technologic giant, judging by what you read in AIDS Sutra when it comes to sexuality its stuck in the dark ages. One of the things this book makes clear is just how much these attitudes impact HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.
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For AIDS Sutra the Gates Foundation gathered together sixteen of India's best writers and sent them out among the various communities in India affected by HIV/AIDS. AIDS Sutra tells the stories of everyone from orphan children living with the disease to women, men, and transgendered people forced to sell their bodies as a means of survival. Salman Rushdie, Kiran Desai, Vikram Seth, Nalini Jones, and twelve other authors have each contributed a report for the book that as fiction would be heartbreaking while as non-fiction are heart-sickening and horrifying in their implications.

The overall impression that you get from reading these works is that in general India is the same place North America was in the 1980's when it comes to their understanding of HIV/AIDS. There is still wide spread ignorance concerning how the disease is spread and it's only been recently that even the medical profession has begun to treat those suffering from the disease with something approaching the respect offered anyone suffering a serious ailment. Reading the story of Dr. Tokugha, as told by Nikita Lalwani, that opens the book prepares you for some of the ugliness to come. When he tested positive for the virus instead of informing him of the results, in a horrible breach of patient confidentiality, the hospital told his brother in law, a government minister. It was only six months later, a week before he was to be married, that his brother in law let him know he was positive.

Reporting on sex trade workers in various places around India Kiran Desai, Sunil Gangopdhyay, Sonia Falerio, and CS Lakshmi all draw similar pictures of women who have been pushed into circumstances by forces beyond their control. While some of them, mainly the younger and prettier ones, are able to command a degree of respect, the majority of them face the attitude of one police officer interviewed who said any woman who sells her body is bad so should be beaten, and wants sex, so should be raped.. Even more disquieting is new legislation being proposed by the government threatens to send them even further underground, making it harder for medical authorities and Non Government Organizations (NGOs) to work with them to help prevent and treat HIV/AIDS.

While the police in major centres like Mumbai (Bombay) are now starting to make attempts to educate new officers about the reality of AIDS, ingrained habits and conditioning will take years to overcome. As no records have been kept in the past there is no way of knowing how many police officers have been infected with the virus from exercising their "rights", raping sex trade workers instead of arresting them, and then in turn infecting their wives and other partners. The only group more difficult to monitor and help than female sex trade workers in India are men who have sex with men (MSM).
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With homosexual sex acts still illegal the stigma attached to being gay is such that many men are forced underground. Since sex is illegal they are continually at risk of being arrested and are routinely subject to harassment and extortion by the police. However according to articles by Salman Rushdie and Mukul Kesavan that's nothing compared to what happens to MSM sex trade workers. The police routinely set up entrapment ploys for them by sending a "client" out looking for sex in one of the regular cruising areas. When the client goes to leave the area to take his partner of choice somewhere they can have sex, the sex trade worker is arrested. If he's lucky he'll only have to pay off the police, but quite often they will be hauled back to the station house where they are gang raped by police officers and tortured.

As it is illegal to have gay sex, how do you set up programmes that will deal with preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS among that community? There are NGOs that do work with the MSM and transgendered communities in India, and as it stands the best statistics available show that 20% of MSM's are HIV positive. How many are still going undetected because of their reluctance to go public with the reason for them requiring testing is anybody's guess, as are the number of police officers who may be positive after participating in a scene as described above. Until the act making sex between men illegal is repealed in India, there can be no way of knowing the true numbers of people infected with the disease, and no way of mounting a seriously effective prevention campaign.

It's never a good thing to try and impose your own moral code unto another culture or to form judgements on it based on observations conducted by eyes conditioned to another value system. However, when a book like AIDS Sutra, written by people who are native to the culture, paints as devastating a picture of India's preparedness for dealing with HIV/AIDS, it's no longer a question of morality, it's a question of human rights. No one, no matter what their sexual orientation or gender deserves to be treated in the manner the people we meet in this book are treated. Even worse is the fact that the way they are treated not only endangers them, but endangers the population as a whole.

Reading AIDS Sutra one is forced to draw the conclusion that not only is the Indian government unprepared for dealing with preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS, the situation is such that there is no way of knowing the extent to which the disease is spreading across the country. For the country that gave us Tantric sex and the Karma Sutra, and whose pantheon of Gods and Goddesses contains a transgendered deity (Ardhanarishvara the half woman god) India seems to have somehow become stuck with horribly Victorian attitudes towards sex and sexuality.

In the West our governments ignored HIV/AIDS until it was almost too late because of bigotry and prejudice. India can't plead the excuse of ignorance when it comes to the disease as far too much is known about it for that to wash as an argument any longer. However, judging by the articles in this book the government which should be leading the fight to save the lives of its citizens is allowing conditions to continue that will only encourage the spread of the disease. The tragic conclusion one reaches reading AIDS Sutra is that India is headed the way of East Africa of ten years ago and risks allowing AIDS to reach pandemic proportions.

AIDS Sutra can be purchased directly from Random House Canada or an online retailer like Amazon Canada and in India from Ramdom House India.

August 24, 2008

Book Review: Letter To A Hostage Anoine De Saint-Exupery

We live in a world full of displaced people. War, famine, disease, and economics have forced millions if not billions of people to leave their homes. While some are fortunate enough to be allowed to immigrate to new countries where they have the chance to start over again, others end up in the squalor and helplessness of refugee camps. Trapped in bureaucratic limbo as no country is willing to accept them and unable to go home, they live on hand outs and take shelter in anything from tents to edifices made of scrap.

Limbo or purgatory can't be any worse than the fate of those doomed to spend their days whiling away the hours awaiting word that they can return to their homes or by some miracle will be allowed into another country. If that isn't a troubling enough fate, what of those who have family and friends to worry about? As long as no word comes saying they have died, they continue to remain alive as long as they are remembered. Those memories are the one thing they retain that assures them there life before this was real, and the people they left behind are all that's left of whatever it was that once rooted them to their homeland.

In 1940 when most of Europe had fallen under the shadow of Nazi Germany, Portugal remained unoccupied and fiercely neutral. Located at the far end of the Iberian peninsula and buffered from the rest of Europe by Spain, little Portugal became the last place of refuge for people fleeing Nazi Germany hoping to obtain a visa that would take them across the water to the United State, Canada, or South America. Whether living under Nazi rule was unacceptable to them or life threatening, made no difference as the result was the same. Standing on the edge of the continent looking across the ocean towards potential salvation, their only recourse was to wait.
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Among those waiting was French aviator and author Antoine De Saint-Exupery who is perhaps best known for his children's book Le Petite Prince - The Little Prince. After the fall of France he refused to live in Nazi occupied France and made his way to America so he could continuine to fight. Like so many others he ended up in Portugal waiting for a visa, and it was during his time in Portugal among fellow refugees that he was inspired to write the essay Letter To A Hostage, which is now being re-issued by Pushkin Press of London, England.

Unlike the refugees of today who are resigned to the hopelessness of their situation, the majority of those waiting in Lisbon acted no differently than they would have if they were on vacation in the south of France or other resort area. On the whole these were people who had the where with all to have bought their way out of whatever troubles they might have experienced in their homeland. Once ensconced in Lisbon they proceeded to live as if their circumstances remained unchanged, dressing up every night and going to the casinos or attending lavish dinner parties. Of course it was all pretence, or as Saint-Exupery puts it: "As Lisbon played at happiness, they (the refugees) played at pretending they would return"(to their homelands).

I suppose a great many of you have read Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince, but for those who haven't, and for those who may not remember some of the key elements, at one point in the book the Little Prince of the title is being taught about love and friendship by a fox whom he meets on our planet. "What is essential is invisible to the eye. It's only with the heart that one truly sees" says the fox to the Little Prince. In many ways, Letter To A Hostage is an analysis of that sentiment, as Saint-Exupery attempts to define those things that are essential for defining our existence.

Surrounded as he is by those he considers rootless, people who are doomed to be cut off from their previous lives and forced to start over again in a new country, he begins to determine what will enable him to maintain his connection to his native France while he is in exile. What he comes up with is there are people, friends or family, that one can hold onto and carry with you in your heart to act as the ties to your home. Yet because their existence is threatened, his connection to his home is at risk. In particular he thinks of an ailing Jewish friend and worries about his chances of survival in occupied France.
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Yet, how can something as simple as friendship, or as insignificant as a smile, be so important that it defines our connection to where we come from, who we are, and in fact be an essential aspect of human existence. Well, according to Saint-Exupery it's because the joy that we are gifted with through friendship, and the way the caring involved in a friendship motivates us to behave, are essential elements of the human spirit. Anybody can prepare a meal for anybody else, but if you or I cook a meal for someone we love, or somebody we care for, it's different from a meal cooked by a stranger for strangers.

You know the things your friend likes and dislikes, so you will go out of your way to include or exclude them from any dish you prepare. You are making something that's unique to that person, and in doing so you are recognizing their individuality and respecting it. Seeing the aimless refugees going through the motions of living without any intent behind their actions, without the invisible essential element of hidden joy that denotes a friendship, Saint-Exupery comes to understand why the consideration of an individual, caring or respect, is so important to preserve. Without a respect for our differences, if, as the Nazis desired, we were all the same, where would the conflict of ideas that generate growth and stimulate creativity come from? Uniformity of thought might make for an ordered universe, but it also makes for stagnation.

In a Letter To A Hostage Saint-Exupery follows a stream of thought that takes him from musing on what he finds so unsettling about the refugees he is sharing Lisbon with at the beginning of WW2 to how respect for each other's individuality is what ensures the continued evolution of humanity. His thoughts on friendship and how that shapes our behaviour towards others act as a natural segue between his contemplation on the nature of the rootless refugee and the deadening effects on human expression brought about by the tyranny of conformity.

Saint-Exupery's use of anecdotes as examples of his theories might be initially puzzling as the connection between the incidences he describes and his conclusions are not immediately obvious. Yet as you absorb the stories and think about them within the context of the ideas he is expressing, they become clear. Originally published in 1943, Letter To A Hostage, is every bit as applicable today as it was over seventy years ago. Think of how we are constantly being told that different is not only bad, but something to be afraid of, and you can see how important it is to be reminded of the importance of diversity.

Antoine De Saint-Exupery disappeared while flying a mission in 1943, but his works have live on long after his death. Works like The Little Prince have instructed people all over the world about the true nature of friendship and the things that are truly important in life. Letter To A Hostage may not be as accessible as his work for children, but it too details the essential invisible things that make life so special.

August 21, 2008

Book Review: Lines From A Mined MInd: The Words Of John Trudell By John Trudell

What do you see when you look out your door? Do you see a street in a neighbourhood with cars, roads, houses, shops, apartments, and people going about their business? Or do you see occupied territory full of things that don't belong, cluttering up the landscape and despoiling the environment? Two people can look at the same thing and see two completely different things, it all depends on your perspective. One person's normalcy is another person's hell.

Look at what we accept normal: famine, war, pestilence, and death. The four horsemen of the apocalypse have been among us for centuries but we've been too blind to see them. What would happen if the apocalypse came and nobody noticed? Guess what - it's happening everyday and you haven't noticed yet. What? You don't believe me do you - you think I'm full of shit and crazy don't you? According to our society the viewpoint I've just expressed is crazy and full of shit because it doesn't accept the agreed upon version, or vision, or normalcy.

If you're going to read John Trudell's book of poetry and song lyrics, Lines From A Mined Mind: The Words Of John Trudell, published by Fulcrum Books, you better be prepared to have your preconceived notions of how the world works challenged. First of all he has spent the past forty years as a resistance fighter on behalf of his people, the Santee Sioux, and the authority you accept as a government are in his eyes an occupying power. It was from his great-grandparents that we stole the land on which we have built our neighbourhoods, and against whom our governments conducted a campaign of genocide in order to deal with the "Indian Problem". A history like that is enough to give anybody a jaundiced eye when it comes to looking at the world around you, but Trudell has also suffered horrible personal tragedy.
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He was a spokesperson for the all tribes occupation of Alcatraz Island by Native Americans that lasted from 1969 to 1971 and subsequently joined the American Indian Movement (AIM). He was chairman of AIM from 1973-79, but following a mysterious house fire that killed his wife, children and mother in law he resigned. To this day the cause of the fire has never been discovered, but considering his position, and the animosity that surrounded AIM in those days (and that continues to this day) there will always remain the distinct possibility that the fire was set deliberately. It was after that Trudell began writing, and since 1983 he has released eleven recordings of his music, and toured around North America performing and giving readings of his work.

Lines From A Mined Mind is the first time an exhaustive collection of his writing has been gathered into one publication. For those of you not familiar with Trudell's work, he primarily wrote blues, and blues based rock and roll, but more importantly his lyrics dealt with issues that barely anybody was, or is, singing about. It's not only that he wrote about issues affecting Native Americans, but he also wrote about the effect the world we live in has on a human being's spirit; how we have allowed ourselves to be shaped and moulded to such an extent that we no longer notice that we are being manipulated.

In his introduction, titled "From Somewhere Inside My Head" Trudell outlines the precept behind "Mined Mind". "Industrial tech no logic civilization is the mining process/The intelligence of each arriving human generation/Is programmed to perceive the reality that meets the needs/Of the industrial society each human generation arrives in/The human beings are individually and collectively mined". Society conditions so that we can be of most use to it, but of course as with every industrial operation there is waste product. In our case that ends up being "the fears doubts and insecurity/That affects the human beings perceptional reality in such a way/The human being becomes separated from the being at the expense of being/Resulting in human beings viewing life through their fears and inabilities."

Now, although Trudell has made it cleat that this is how he views the way the world works, he doesn't lay any claims to being superior to the rest of us because of this belief. This is just the backdrop against which all of our struggles to be true to ourselves are played out against. In his poems and song lyrics throughout the book he talks about his struggles to overcome those obstacles. Of course his path is made even more complicated by the fact that he is also a member of a group of people considered to be a conquered race by the majority of our society. For most of his life the government that supposedly is there to protect and serve him, has done its best to deny him his rights as a human being.

What's really wonderful about his poems/lyrics is that they don't just complain about something, or sound like the usual victim's lament. He demands that his readers think about things and poses questions that are designed to try and make you see how his world view came about. In the poem "To God" he ask a few questions about some things that he's been finding confusing "About these Christians/they claim to be from your nation/but man you should see the things they do/all the while blaming it on you". The poem then lists a litany of offences that have been carried out in God's name and then continues "We do not mean to be disrespectful...our people have their own ways/we never even heard of you until not long ago/Your representatives spoke magnificent things of you which we were willing to believe/But from the way they acted/We know you and we were being deceived".

Naturally, as you would expect from a man who has fought for the rights of his people for forty years there are quite a few political poems and songs. However he is more than a one issue person, and writes about everything. From the joy children can bring, our responsibilities to each other as human beings, spirituality, and the relationship between men and women. In fact some of the poems he's written about men and women are the most honest I've read by a man about that subject.

In "Shadow Over Sisterland" he has written probably the strongest denunciation of men's mistreatment of women since John Lennon's "Women Is The Nigger Of The World". "There's a shadow over sisterland/With a Smith & Thomas/Pointed at her head.../Money and authority/Have their own way of talking/...Tethers of chains/Tethers of jewels/Economic bondage/Runs by those rules/". Everything about our society; religion, laws, and even the way the economy runs are geared towards keeping men dominant over women. When you start to consider some of the more regressive laws that have been passed in recent years, ones that have resulted in women going to jail for refusing to have caesarian sections during childbirth, you realize that you might not like the picture he's painting, but that doesn't stop it from being true.

John Trudell is an articulate and intelligent poet and lyricist whose words might confound you because they challenge your vision of the world. You might not like his perspective, and there's a good chance you won't agree with it, yet it you won't be able to deny his sincerity. Because it dares you to look at our society through the eyes of those whose backs its been built on, it's not a pretty picture, but it's a lot more realistic than anything you'll read or see for years to come. For as he makes clear, whether we know it or not, we're all victims of the same machinations.

August 12, 2008

Book Review: Unjust Justice Chantal Delsol

It's amazing how there are words whose definition everybody can agree on, but they can still mean different things to different people. While that may sound contradictory, when a word is used to express a concept we might all agree as to its ideal but just as easily have vastly divergent opinions on what it entails. Depending on our social, political, ethnic, and/or cultural backgrounds and upbringings each of us has a perspective that will colour the way we conceptualize an idea - or see an ideal. While the dictionary may say that word justice means the quality of being fair and reasonable and the administration of the law or authority to ensure that quality is maintained, what defines fair and reasonable?

In Canada and the United States we have a code of civil conduct that is based on what our society has decided is morally acceptable.While there is an overall concordance about justice, even within our society there are significant disagreements on its application and absolute definition that stem from differing views on what exactly is morally acceptable. Yet in spite of our inability to define justice for ourselves, it doesn't seem to stop any of us from demanding the imposition of justice in other jurisdictions.

Whether it's George Bush justifying invading Iraq in order to bring Saddam Hussien to justice, demands for justice being made on behalf of the Dali Lama, or justice for Palestinians, it all amounts to the same thing. Us telling them what to do based on our morality. It doesn't matter what your political or religious persuasion is, you're going to be basing your definition of justice on your own version of morality and imposing it on someone else. Think of how ridiculous you'd think it is for a devout Islamic Cleric to pass judgement on your way of life, and you might begin to get the idea of how you look to someone in that part of the world when you tell them what to do.
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In her book, Unjust Justice, published in English for the first time by ISI Books, French political philosopher Chantal Delsol postulates that the desire to impose one person's version of justice across the board as a response to various crimes against humanity that have occurred and that might still occur, is as potentially dangerous as the original crime. In clear and concise language she develops her argument through references to social political philosophies of the past millennium, and an examination of the past hundred years of history.

While she makes no bones about her anger at Western Europe's turning a blind eye to the crimes of the former Soviet Union, and is somewhat snide when referring to what she calls progressives, she manages to present her case without being overtly political. In fact one of the most appealing aspects of this book as far as I'm concerned is that there's plenty in it that is bound to piss off people at both ends of the political spectrum. I don't say that just because it appeals to my perverse nature either, but as a sign of her integrity as a thinker. Not once did I find her trying to force her arguments so that they could better accommodate a particular dogma or ideology, indeed she is firm in her warnings about the dangers of dogma when it comes to the application of justice.

As a culture the West has a long and depressing history of cultural imperialism dating back to our earliest recorded histories. Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire, and then the Christian Church have all taken their turns at imposing their morality by whatever means necessary throughout history. Ruled by the prevailing dogma of their time, emissaries of these empires sought to create a universal code of conduct, or morality, by which justice could be defined. If it meant exterminating all those who objected, well they were only doing what was necessary to make the world a better place.

While there have been philosophers over the years who have argued against this singular view of the world, and Ms Delsol cites both Immanuel Kant and Charles de Secondat Montesquieu as examples of a more enlightened viewpoint, Unjust Justice argues that our attitudes haven't really changed. While we might believe that the desire to bring the perpetrators of war crimes committed over the past sixty-five years to trial justification for the creation of a tribunal to try those cases, the very act of doing so implies the assumption of a moral authority on par with that of the Catholic church during the Inquisition.

Chantal Delsol argues that the only way a court like this can work are in cases like the Nuremburg Trials, the judging of Nazi Party officials for complicity in the Holocaust and other war crimes, when the people on trial were guilty of contravening the pre-existing laws of their own country, meaning there is a proper context within which they can be tried. Otherwise it becomes a case of arbitrarily creating a frame work within which to hold them accountable. The only grounds we have to justify trying a Serbian leader for crime against humanity and not an American leader for ordering the bombing of Iraqi hospitals, or a Russian for bombing Chechnya is because the former lost and the latter won. While that might play well on the home front, it isn't much of a foundation for a world court now is it?

While Unjust Justice is not an easy read, it is thankfully free of the usual academic jargon that clutters up many philosophical texts. Ideas are examined in depth but never beaten to death so we are given sufficient proof in support of Ms. Delsol's theories to make them plausible, without ever feeling like she's belaboured the point. Kudos must also be give to the translator of the text, Paul Seaton, for ensuring that the clarity of the original text is maintained for its new readership. It's not often that you find ideas of this quality, let alone this important, presented in a manner this accessible. If you care about the nature of justice you really should read this book. At the very least it will make you think, and hopefully it might also get you questioning some of the easy answers other people try to pass off as ideas.

Obviously I've only barely touched the surface of the material covered by Ms. Delsol. What it comes down to is that justice, or the application of it anyway, is as individual as each society. One only needs to look at the differences between two countries as similar as Canada and the United States as to what passes for justice in their legal systems to see that. In Unjust Justice Chantel Delsol issues a warning about the dangers of assuming any of us know what's best for anyone else that we would be wise to heed. In our eagerness to see justice done we run the serious risk of committing a serious injustice.

May 16, 2008

Book Review: Skovbo Viggo Mortensen

It's always deep in the heart of the forest where the evil lurks. Hansel and Gretel come across the evil witch and her gingerbread house, Little Red Ridding Hood meets the wolf, and countless other fell and dangerous creatures are known to lurk there. Our relationship to trees and forests has a history of being adversarial; in order to establish outposts of civilization homesteaders would clear away trees to grow the meagre crops that keep them alive.

As hard as it for us to imagine most of the world's temperate climate land masses, North America, Europe and parts of Asia, were at one time covered with mixed growth forests. Evergreens and deciduous stood cheek to jowl and were home to wildlife that has long since vanished. While North America, Canada in particular, is still home to swaths of pristine forest land, Europe's great stands have been greatly reduced. Where once wolves and woodland bison roamed, small pockets of trees remain that are but ghosts of their past glory.

The majority of us will now probably go our entire lives without setting foot in anything resembling a forest, or at best visit one of the domesticated versions where neat roadways and paths lead you through ordered rows of new growth and the occasional old veteran bearing the scars of the axe that failed to fell them, Yet for those of us willing to make the effort to strike off on our own and enter into the forest world, the experience can be close to mystical. The noise of civilization has ebbed into silence and we stand there alone with only floating pieces of light and dust, occasional bird song, and small animal life for company.
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The first book of Viggo Mortensen's poems and photographs that I acquired, Coincidence of Memory, had on its cover an image of trees rendered in slightly out of focus shades of grey. Since then I have had the good fortune to be able to view the majority of his books and in each of them there has been at least one image that has paid homage to the splendour and mystery of trees. So it wasn't much of a surprise that Skovbo, (a Danish word that roughly translates into English as "home in the forest") his latest book of photographs and poems published by Perceval Press, gathers together images of trees that he has photographed from around the world. Meant to be a companion for an upcoming exhibit of Mr. Mortensen's photography at the Reykjavik Museum of Photography Skovbo works just as well as a stand alone collection of work replete with the mystery and beauty of trees.

Last year Mr. Mortensen released a CD of improvised piano tunes entitled Time Waits For Everyone featuring pieces that were named for locales throughout Eastern Europe and Russia. In Skovbo we are taken back over that same geographic territory.This time though we are seeing through the lens of his camera, and occasionally his words on paper, as he drives through the country side and occasionally ventures into cities. With the exception of one or two shots trees play a role in the composition of these photographs. From a solitary tree standing sentinel on the edge of a farmer's field caught by Mr. Mortensen's camera through the car window to panoramic views of forests, I've never seen trees captured on film in the way they are in Skovbo

No matter what his subject matter, what first catches your eye about these works is the role that light plays in the composition and Mr. Mortensen's ability for capturing and utilizing ambient light. Shooting up through a hole in the canopy of a stand of trees at night brings the star filled sky crashing down on our heads, as the camera lens pulls and is pulled by the one source of illumination available to it. The light years that separate us from the stars has been eliminated as the night sky plugs the hole in the top of the forest; if our bed were the forest floor the sky would be our ceiling lying just beyond the reach of our fingertips.

In another composition he shoots across sun's glare refracting the light in such a way that a stand of trees awaiting illumination are washed with a prism's red flecks and bedecked with transitory fire flowers. While this photograph gives some indication that sunlight might not be the gentlest of light sources by showing us the harshness that lies at its heart in terms of colour and intensity, it barely prepares us for the merciless quality that appears in the picture of a dead fawn in a farmer's field. Off in the distance, at the edge of the frame, we see a line of trees that could indicate the beginnings of a forest that might have been the animal's home and shelter.

What compelled it to leave the cool dark place under the boughs of the trees to venture out here into the open where it met its end? The harshness of the light beating relentlessly down on the small corpse gives notice that there is no sentimentality in nature. While Mr. Mortensen's camera is able to capture the beauty of the cool dark places under the trees in such a way as to make you want to seat yourself beneath them and breath in the peacefulness, he does not shy away from the truth that sudden death is just as much part of this world's reality.

Still there is no escaping the majesty and beauty of the forest or the strength and mystery of the solitary tree as image after image of them are presented for our contemplation. Even a tree laid out to rest with its roots ripped from the earth and splayed like a multi-fingered hand adds to the impression of dignity that has been created. In spite of being fallen, its strength and power remain undiminished in the eye of Mr. Mortensen's camera.

On some occasions the camera looks at the forest from a distance, on others its looking out from amidst the trees at the world beyond, and others we are brought to rest inside the forest with the trees. The photographs in Skovbo show us that no matter where we sit there is still enough power remaining in the scattered woods of the world to stir our souls and fire our imaginations. Peering into one grey and misty vista of trees I can't help but look for shapes flitting back and forth; the ghosts of the wolves or wood bison that once roamed the woods of Europe, or the spirits of the people that used to live in them in North America. Viggo Mortensen's Skovbo brings the forest alive in a way that I've never seen photographs do before. You might never look at a tree in the same way again.

Copies of Skovbo can be purchased directly from Perceval Press, as can other works by Viggo Mortensen and other fine artists and writers.

May 8, 2008

Book Review: The Wisdom Of Whores Elizabeth Pisani

It's close to thirty years ago since British rocker Ian Drury had a hit with the song "Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll". Somehow or other nobody had strung the three together in quite the catchy way he had before, and his little ditty's title caught more then a few people's imaginations. In those innocent days prior to AIDS and the "War On Drugs", it became the catch phrase of choice for a great many people to sum up what they needed to make them happy. That Drury might have been satirizing the rock star image with his song was lost on ninety per cent of his audience, who had latched onto the title as a lifestyle definition.

The world spins around and ten years later, in the 1980s, I couldn't read the obituary pages of my local paper without reading that a man of my generation had died of unknown causes, leaving behind special friends, but very rarely, a wife or parents to mourn him. AIDS was very much a mystery in those early days in the mid to late eighties, but even then we knew it was caused by sharing bodily fluids and the quickest way of catching it was through unprotected sex and sharing a needle. It was only a matter of time before it spread beyond gay men. Sex and Drugs were "very good indeed" no longer.

When the Canadian Red Cross came clean about not testing their blood properly and giving hemophiliacs infected blood, (and oh by the way if you received a blood transfusion between these dates you really should get yourself checked), the "innocent victim" syndrome in AIDS reared its ugly head. Just what the world needed - another way to stigmatize people who were dying because they had sex or shared a needle. The Christian right in North America had already labelled HIV and AIDS as the wages of sin, and being able to say they only have themselves to blame, while others are blameless, only added fuel to the pyre they were building to burn the sinners.
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In the preface to her book The Wisdom Of Whores, Elizabeth Pisani says that when people ask her what she does for a living she cheerfully replies "Sex and drugs" as it's easier than having to explain to people that an Epidemiologist studies how diseases spread in populations. For ten year of her life, starting in 1996, Ms Pisani worked on the front lines of HIV/AIDs research looking for patterns in how the disease was spread, developing ways of curbing the spread of the diseases, trying to figure out how many people were potentially at risk, and of course dealing with the political fallout that always seems to accompany sex and drugs.

In the course of her work she has run police roadblocks in Indonesia carrying blood samples and used syringes, sat on street corners with prostitutes in the border towns of China and Tibet discussing the economics of their trade, worked with the transgendered prostitutes of Indonesia, argued policy with officials from the UN, the World Health Organization (WHO), Muslim Clerics, and brothel owners in Thailand. The Wisdom Of Whores are the conclusions she has reached after these ten years of field work about what works in the fight against HIV/AIDS and what doesn't work. These conclusions are backed up by not only her years of personal observation, but by the data she has crunched charting the growth of the disease and the effectiveness of the various means used to prevent it's spread in different countries and among different social groups.

One of the most frightening things about this book is, at the time it was being written, the amount of influence being exerted on HIV/AIDS programming by people with political and religious agendas. From Muslim Clerics in Africa and South East Asia saying that not using condoms proves how faithful you are, the American government going so far as prohibiting their staff from having access to research that proves the effectiveness of condoms in preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STD), to American policy that tries to prevent any agency, whether they receive American money or not, from advocating the use of condoms as a preventative measure; it's more important to these people that their view of the world is adhered to than the disease be prevented from spreading.

In spite of the statistical evidence that Ms. Pisani cites, that over 70% of the people who sign pledges vowing to abstain from pre-marital sex end up having pre-marital sex, the American government still preaches abstinence as the answer for preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. The fact that the majority of these people also practice unprotected sex is even more damning. That those figures are from the US, and not a country with a flourishing sex trade, makes the whole abstinence argument even more spurious.
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In spite of what any number of groups might want you to think, according to Ms. Pisani's research very few people are sold into the sex trade of South East Asia as slaves. It's more a matter of simple economics; a women can earn more in a half hour as a prostitute than she would for making 150 t-shirts in a sweat shop. If people are really so concerned about women in the sex trade maybe they should consider paying a little more money for their brand name t-shirts so these women have a viable alternative to make money to feed their families.

In all of these countries where condom programs have been implemented within the sex trade infection rates have been halved and continue to decline. The programs that work best are the ones like the one implemented by Thailand. The government allows the brothels to operate as long as the women working there use condoms, if they don't the government closes it down and the owner loses his source of income. By routinely randomly testing all the women working in the brothels for STDs the government is able to tell if condoms are being used. Not only has this helped prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS but it has also cut down on the spread of all STDs among clients, brothel workers, and all of their families.

The sharing of needles by intravenous drug users is of course the other big way that the virus is spread. In spite of this, resistance to needle exchanges as a means of prevention still runs high. Those who believe in the war on drugs are convinced that needle exchange programs encourage drug use and don't want anything to do with it. Yet statistics presented by Ms. Pisani shows that needle exchanges not only help prevent the spread of disease, they work to help people get off drugs. Two or three times a week they are in contact with social workers who can give them referrals to treatment programs and provide them support in quitting drugs and a good many of them take advantage of it.

The other big issue that Ms. Pisani raises is the need to balance treatment and prevention. While nobody wants to see anybody die when there are drugs available that could prolong their lives for as much as ten years, the problem is now that too much of the HIV/AIDS budget is being spent on treatment and prevention is falling by the wayside. As a result people are still being infected in spite of everything we know. Politicians are much happier when they can say they are giving money to treat pregnant women so they don't spread the disease to their unborn child, or to treat a child who was born with the virus, than they are in announcing money to help people who have sex and use drugs from catching it.

The Wisdom Of Whores is like a gale of fresh air being blown through the musty smelling bullshit that has surrounded the whole HIV/AIDS issue from day one. It's not just the holy cows of the right Ms. Pisani takes on either in her battle to save lives. Everything from peer counselling to confidential testing is put under her microscope for analysis; saving lives and preventing the spread of the disease is what concerns her not what people think is right. I'm sure this will get a lot of people's backs up, but it's hard to argue with her statistics about rates of infection.

It's hard to imagine a book about a subject as dry sounding as epidemiology being a page turner and entertaining, but Elizabeth Pisani has managed to do just that. She is irreverent, but never irrelevant; by turns angry, compassionate, and frustrated, she is a refreshingly human voice among so many speech makers. Sex and drugs might be taboo subjects for most people, but they are Elizabeth's bread and butter, and according to her they are at the root of HIV/AIDS. The Wisdom Of Whores paints as true a picture as possible of the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS and where it stands today as you're liable to ever read. As well as the book you can also go the Wisdom Of Whores web site to receive even more up to date information and join in the ongoing discussion on how the world is doing in its fight to keep people alive.

The Wisdom Of Whores can be purchased directly from Penguin Canada or an online retailer like Amazon.ca

April 27, 2008

Book Review: Pagans In The Promised Land Steven T. Newcomb

It remains a cause of wonder to me that people express surprise at how powerful conservative Christianity is in the United States. Do they not remember who it was that sailed on board the Mayflower that put ashore at Plymouth Rock? The history that's taught to American school children says that the folk who celebrated America's first Thanksgiving were fleeing religious persecution in England. Technically I suppose that it's true they weren't being allowed the freedom to practice their brand of Christianity back home, but did anyone bother to find out what exactly they weren't being allowed to do that so impinged upon their liberty?

One doesn't need to look much further than the reign of Oliver Cromwell to understand why they weren't being allowed to do what they wanted back home. Cromwell led a Puritan revolution that saw the overthrow, and execution of King Charles 1 of England. During his reign of terror Cromwell and his Puritan followers outlawed any form of worship that wasn't in compliance with their strictures, closed all the theatres as sinful, and invaded Ireland and razed it to the ground for being Catholic. Saying that the Puritans were fleeing persecution because they weren't allowed to do what they wanted is sort of like saying denying the Klan the right to hold a lynching impinges on their civil rights.

Of course in 16th and 17 century, nearly anyone crossing an ocean anywhere and travelling to a "new world" was a Christian of some sort or another. Portuguese and Spanish sailors were circling the globe and "discovering" South America. The French and the British were dividing up North America between them as everybody was trying to find an easy way to get to the East. It was the great era of Christian exploration and conquest. According to a new book by Native American author Steven T. Newcomb, Pagans In The Promised Land, published by Fulcrum Publishing, it's here we need to look to find the roots of American policy towards the indigenous people of the North American continent.

Steven Newcomb is a columnist for Indian Country Today and co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute(ILI). In his work for ILI he works to support indigenous nations and peoples to protect their sacred and ancestral homelands, restore and revitalize traditions and to heal from the past five hundred years of colonization. A good deal of that kind of work involves finding the means to advocate for various nations in courtrooms across the United States, which in turn means he's had to make a study of the rationale behind Judicial rulings that have found both for and against Native Americans in the past.

In Pagans In The Promised Land he has distilled some of that information to offer proof of his theory that American government policy towards Native Americans has been justified by concepts of Christianity. He also categorizes the relationship of American governments towards Native Americans as one that follows an empire-domination model based on an inherent right of Christian rule by discovery.

While he offers various examples throughout the book substantiating his theory through the history of America, three concrete examples, or proofs, form the core of his argument. In 1493 Pope Alexander VI issued a Papal Bull known as Inter Caetera in response to a request from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to justify their claiming any lands that Christopher Columbus discovered or may discover in the future. The only codicil that the Pope added was that no Christian King could claim any land already claimed by another. The Pope saw this as being a way of spreading a Christian Empire, fulfilling his desire to subjugate non-Christian nations, by whatever means necessary, and making them all Christian.

Those landing at Plymouth Rock claimed the land in the name of the Puritan Christian God. They may not have exercised the letter of Alexander's Papal Bull, as they weren't Catholic, but they sure followed its spirit through their treatment of the local indigenous population. Yet, according to Newcomb, while the Inter Caetera may have defined their relationship with Native Americans, it has been American governments likening themselves to the Israelites of the Old Testament in Exodus and America as "The Promised Land" that has had the farthest reaching consequences.

The Puritans saw themselves as the Chosen People and the new world as their promised land where they would be able to live as they wanted, but it didn't stop with them. Benjamin Franklin suggested to the Continental Congress that Moses leading the Israelites across the Red Sea should appear on the Great Seal of the United States, while Thomas Jefferson said it should depict the Israelites crossing into the Promised Land guided by clouds and fire. Both images were designed to reinforce the image of Americans as The Chosen People and America as the Promised Land.

Of course, as in the Old Testament, in America there were Canaanites who needed to be smitten before the Chosen People could move into their Promised Lands, and smitten they have been. According to various proofs offered by Newcomb throughout the book this mindset has permeated the attitude taken by America during their expansion across America and their treatment of Indigenous people's everywhere.

One of the key arguments in his book in support of his theory that the relationship between the American government and the Native population is based on the rule of Christian discovery is a legal case from the 1820s - Johnson v. McIntosh. Chief Justice John Marshall actually based his ruling in part upon the Papal Bull of 1493. In the case he said that the discovery of "heathens" by Christian people gave the Christians "ultimate dominion" over the "discovered Indian". This decision has never been overturned and remains the legal foundation for all American government dealings with the Native populations of the Americans.

Steven Newcomb has studied judicial history, and has in some ways approached this work like a lawyer proving his case in court. Fortunately, he refrains from using legal terminology, whenever possible, and has formulated his case in a way that all lay people can understand. The other thing to realize is that this book has been written for a native audience to help them understand the situation they face. One of the parts I found wonderful about this book was how he offers cognitive counsel for Native people to help them overcome the mindset of feeling like they are a conquered people. He reminds them that governments can not control how they think, what they imagine, how they use their language, or where they direct their attention. As long as they remember that, and continue to work on keeping their languages, traditions, and cultures alive, no matter what constraints the government puts on them they will still be free.

Pagans In The Promised Land is a must read for anybody wishing to understand what truly motivates American policy towards the Indigenous people's within in its borders. While at times it can make for a depressing and angering read, the author ends with a message of hope that is applicable for people anywhere in the world struggling to maintain their identity in the face of what seems to be overwhelming odds.

April 1, 2008

Book Review: How Can I Keep From Singing: The Ballad Of Pete Seeger David King Dunaway

I guess it goes without saying that biographies are always going to be written about people who have already gained a certain amount of renown; otherwise nobody would be interested in reading about the person. If we already know about a person because what they have done has gained them sufficient recognition to have a biography written about them, what are we looking for when we read their biography?

There is always going to be an audience for the "tell-all" biography that does its best to diminish its subject matter, but those books are more self-serving exercises on the part of their authors to obtain their own notoriety rather than give a true accounting of a person's life. Although I'm sure that on some level wanting to find out if a person's private face matches their public image will always be part of the motivation for reading a biography, most of us are looking to gain deeper insights into the people who have sparked our interest for one reason or another.

How did they develop into the person deserving of a biography? If they were a musician when did they begin playing and who were their influences for example? Was there some moment in their life which brought about a revelation that set them on the path that would lead them to fame? In order to sate his audiences desire for answers to these sorts of questions, the author of a biography will have to have done extensive research into his subject matter, and be able to convince his or her audience that they know what they are talking about.
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David King Dunaway
received the first Ph.D in American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, in folklore, history, and literature. He is the author of a half dozen books of history and biography specializing in the presentation of folklore, literature, and history via broadcasting. He has also created a number of radio broadcasts and documentaries on such topics as Route 66. Across The Tracks: A Route 66 Story is a three part radio show on the influence of this famous cross country highway on America's literary and artistic culture.

However his main focus for the last thirty years has been the documenting the life and work of Pete Seeger. In 1981 he published a preliminary version of a biography of Pete, and this year, a new definitive edition of How Can I Keep From Singing? The Ballad Of Pete Seeger has been re-issued by Random House Canada through their Villard Books imprint. In the twenty-seven years since the book's original publication Dr. Dunaway has delved deeper into the life of Pete Seeger in order to substantiate what he had in the first edition. He also, to quote Mr. Seeger, "spent many days going over each page"of the original publication with Pete, fixing mistakes that Pete had found in the original book.

The result is an exhaustive documentation of the life of the man who was probably the most significant folk singer of the twentieth century with a career that spanned close to seven decades. He has performed with some of the most famous names in music including Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly), Woody and Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Muddy Watters, and influenced more people around the world than can probably ever be counted. He was also vilified and blacklisted for being un-American by the Joseph McCarthy anti-Communist witch hunts of the fifties; stoned by angry mobs, and received death threats for most of his career because of his belief in the power of music to conduct social change.

Professor Dunaway takes us on an Odyssey that starts with Pete's parents who were both musicians, and his father being a Conscientious Objector in World War One. Although Peter wasn't born until 1919, and missed out on his father's burgeoning radicalization, it was part of the family atmosphere that would shape his future. When he was still an infant his father, Charles Seeger, decided to take Classical music to the people and packed up the family into a ramshackle car/trailer and headed out on the road. They ended up in the Ozark mountains playing classical music for people who in turn played them fiddle tunes.

Charles Seeger was also part of a group of Classical musicians who tried to compose music for the picket line in support of the burgeoning trade union movement in the 1920's, but the world will probably never be ready for the twelve tone protest song that the Composer's Collective insisted on trying to write. But young Pete missed out on most of this activity as from the age of four he was in boarding schools. His parent's marriage had ended when he was quite young and he ended up spending a great deal of time alone.

Aside from his parent's music and his father's radicalism the biggest influence upon young Pete Seeger were the writings of the Canadian naturalist Ernest Thomas Seton who wrote stories about survival in the wilderness based on a romantic and idealized version of Native American life for young boys. Seeger spent long hours alone in the woods relishing the solitude. While most young men of intellectual privilege would sequester themselves from the world's realities in the ivory towers of academia, Seeger refers to himself as growing up in a woodland tower where he learned about surviving in the woods, but little or nothing about the world's bitter realities.

Two things occurred during his time in high school in the thirties that according to Dr. Dunaway were key in young Peter's development; he purchased his first banjo and his father became involved with a group of men trying to find a wider audience for American folk music. It was through this group of people that Pete met Huddie Ledbetter and indirectly Woody Guthrie. In 1940 Woody invited Pete to take a road trip with him to discover America. Long before the Beats, Kerouac, or anybody else they took to the road with a banjo and guitar; playing for food and gas they crossed the country via Route 66.

Anybody who knows anything about Pete Seeger knows of his passion for social justice and his love of folk music from all the corners of the earth, but especially that of his own country. He had a firm belief in the power of music to bring people together and overcome the barriers of race and class. In How Can I Keep From Singing: The Ballad Of Pete Seeger Dave Dunaway does a masterful job of establishing the roots and showing how those beliefs developed and grew in Seeger. He's not blind to the consequences of the third great influence on Seeger growing up though; the isolation and lack of any real emotional support of family and friends as a child.

Growing up in his "woodland tower" meant that Seeger had no real experience with human nature or what fear and hatred could drive people to. The result was that on occasion he would inadvertently place his wife and children in danger. While trying to get to a concert in Peekskill where he was supposed to perform the car he and his family were travelling in was stoned so badly by an angry mob that the windshields shattered leaving Pete, and his wife and children covered in shards of glass. Less physically dangerous, but just as threatening was his failure to realize the severity of the House Un American Committee Hearings and the consequences of his initial conviction for contempt of Congress would have on his career for the 1960s even though he was eventually acquitted on appeal.

Pete Seeger the solitary singer on stage leads two thousand people in song and in that moment is fulfilling his dream of bringing all people together no matter what their backgrounds through the power of music. But he's still Pete Seeger alone, the young boy with dreams of being a hermit living in the woods. He and his wife have been married more than sixty years and according to Dunaway have a wonderful partnership and marriage but that doesn't stop there being a certain aloofness about Seeger that dates back to those days on as a solitary child.

How Can I Keep From Singing: The Ballad Of Pete Seeger is a marvellously detailed and fascinating account of both a man and an era. Yet, for all of his accomplishments, and in spite of all of the joy he has brought so many people over the years, I was left with a feeling of sadness that in some ways Pete Seeger never got to experience the gifts he bestowed on us. This is a brilliant and poignant account of one North America's truest treasures.

How Can I Keep From Singing: The Ballad Of Pete Seeger can be purchased directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Indigo Books

March 30, 2008

Book Review: The Silencing Alix Lambert

We all know that there are circumstances where journalists put themselves at risk in order to cover a story. Camera men, reporters, and photo journalists frequently report from war zones and come under the same fire as the soldiers they are reporting on and run the same if not larger risks. For unlike the soldiers they aren't in a position to defend themselves. Yet while it is true that journalists are at risk under fire, it is only on rare occasions that they are deliberately targeted during these situations.

In his introduction to Human Rights Watch's World Report 2008 called "Despots Masquerading As Democrats" Kenneth Roth, Director of Human Rights Watch, wrote that silencing the media is one of the ways that a government has of ensuring the denial of the democratic process to their people. Now there are many ways that a government can do this: creating laws that control the media; allowing monopoly ownership of the media in return for favourable coverage; censorship; and either directly killing, or turning a blind eye to the killing of journalists.

It's no coincidence that one of the first things that a government does when it wants to control how it's people think that it seeks to control the mass media. Even in North America - with our so-called free press - we have seen how easy it is for governments to sway public opinion when they are able to manipulate the media properly. Yet this behaviour pales in comparison to countries where journalists are murdered on a regular basis and the government attitude has done nothing to discourage this behaviour.
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In The Silencing, a new book published by Viggo Mortensen's Perceval Press, multi-talented artist Alix Lambert has compiled a collection of interviews, essays, and photographs that tell the story of six Russian journalists killed for being good at their jobs. For each of the six individuals Ms. Lambert has visited the murder site and photographed it and interviewed a family member and/or colleague to tell us a little about the person who was murdered.

In her introduction Ms. Lambert says that with the photographs she was trying to represent the sense of absence, what had happened, what might still happen, and that they are about possibility, loss, death, pain passion, yet also about hope. The essays aren't necessarily about the murder, or even what the story was that the person was working on that resulted in their murder - although in some of them that is mentioned. Instead they are about the person and what they meant to the person writing the essay.

In order to give us some idea of the significance behind the murder of these six people, Ms Lambert includes in her introduction an essay by Ann Cooper, former executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), about the development of a free press in the former Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev during the period of glasnost and perestroika in the mid 1980's and how that press actually prevented a coup by extreme Communists from overthrowing Gorbachv in 1991. Yet the problem was that with freedom from state control in the early 1990's meant that there was no longer the state's money paying the way for the press. Wealthy individuals began buying up the major media outlets in Moscow and turning them into mouthpieces for their political and social opinions.

So by the time Putin came to power in 1999 it was easy for him to start reigning in the freedom of the press, because the public no longer had the same faith in their objectivity that they had earlier in the decade. Putin was smart in that he only went after the major television stations and allowed independent print media to exist, knowing full well how little influence they actually carried. Of course in the larger metropolitan centres like Moscow, other means could be brought to bear to exercise control of journalists who would report on matters that might be troubling to certain parties.

Such was the case for five of the six journalists memorialized in The Silencing, the reasons behind the murder of the sixth are unclear and have never been discovered - which gives you some indication as how little was done in terms of investigating any of these crimes. When, as it is in most countries around the world, it is the state's responsibility to ensure justice is carried out, and the murder of journalists are barely investigated, or the guilty parties are somehow able to leave the country, it has a chilling effect on freedom of the press.

What journalist is going to push his or her investigation too hard if they know that it is open season on reporters who uncover anything that somebody may not want revealed? Conversely, what is there restraining a corrupt politician or a crook from having a journalist silenced when he knows little or nothing will be done to investigate the crime, or that it is always possible to buy your way out of jail?

Looking at the photographs of what look to be perfectly ordinary scenes in the lobby of an apartment building, the sidewalk in front of an office, or a train station takes on a whole different perspective when you understand that somebody was murdered there. Shot in black and white, sometimes at day other times at night, they allow your imagination full scope. That darker spot on the cement floor; is it a stain left behind from a puddle of blood? Would the victim have heard his or her assailants footsteps echoing on the floor boards?

Ms. Lambert was right about the sense of loss and absence the images create, especially when they are viewed with the accompanying essays. If those writings had only been details about what had happened, or facts about the story the people had been working on, they might not have had the same impact. The fact that they are tales told by a son or a cousin or a friend and include details about why they had wanted to become journalists, their families, the things that made them laugh, and the things they felt strongest about make the sense of absence feel even stronger.

If there is hope to be found in these images its because their existence means somebody cares to do something about the situation. It means that there are people both inside and outside of Russia who care enough about what these people were doing, and the ideal of free press that they are willing to continue talking about the murders ten, even fourteen years later. Nobody is expecting a solution to be found at this late date for any of the murders. I don't honestly expect anybody thought that the murderers would be caught even the day after the majority of the murders took place. Yet keeping the memory of the people alive reminds people that a free press did exist, and can exist.

On their own, and out of context, I'm not sure what sort of effect the pictures would have on me as they would become just another office block etc. Now however they each serve as memorials to an ideal as well as individuals. Alix Lambert's The Silencing is an awful reminder of how valuable a commodity truth is and the lengths some governments are going to prevent their people from hearing the truth. Read it to remind yourself what the words freedom of the press really mean.

Those wishing to purchase The Silencing can do so directly from Perceval Press and hopefully other on line retailers.

March 27, 2008

Book Review 28: Stories Of AIDS In Africa Stephanie Nolen

I'm sure most people have noticed how numbers play this strange trick on the human mind; the higher they get the less meaning they have. I mean when somebody mentions the size of the American government's deficit as being in the trillions of dollars, does anybody really understand what that means? Or if they do why aren't they as upset about it as let's say you or I are about our personal debts that may only amount to a few thousand dollars?

The whole, the higher the number the less it means is especially telling when dealing with casualty figures. While we can get whipped up into a state close to hysteria when we read about the killing of one person, the deaths of millions of people won't cause us to turn a hair. Is it simply a matter of protecting ourselves, in that if we ever let ourselves feel the horror that we should feel from that many deaths we would never stop crying? Or is it because numbers that high are just incomprehensible?

When the death of one person is reported in the news we are usually given details of that person's life. We learn about those left behind to grieve, what they had accomplished to date, and what they have been prevented from accomplishing by their untimely demise. When the death total is from an earthquake or other natural disaster we might be told something about the town or city which has suffered the calamity, and be shown pictures of collapsed buildings, but we won't learn anything about individuals and the grief will stay impersonal.
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Currently there is somewhere between 26 and 30 million people infected with the AIDS virus in the continent of Africa. To give you some idea of what that number means it's the equivalent of saying that nearly the entire population of Canada has AIDS, as we have a population of around 33 million. Those numbers are only estimates, as many governments in Africa are either unable or unwilling to provide an accurate count of the numbers of people with the virus.

A trade paper back edition of Stephanie Nolen's 28: Stories Of AIDS In Africa, that was first published last spring by Random House Canada, being released this coming April 15th, is a timely reminder that there are faces and lives that go with each one of those 26 to 30 million people. Each of them have families, had hopes and dreams that are now withering, just as surely as anyone who is killed in a car accident or a house fire.

In the introduction to the book Ms. Nolen explains her rationale behind choosing twenty-eight as the number of people she would profile in the book; one person for roughly every ten million infected with the AIDS virus. She also says in the same introduction that she fears that even the thirty million figure quoted above is a conservative estimate based on how deeply rooted AIDS has become in Africa and how often she witnessed case numbers far exceeding official estimates in areas she visited researching this book.

In 2003 Ms. Nolen convinced her editors at The Globe And Mail, Canada's national newspaper, to allow her to investigate the AIDS pandemic in Africa. She moved to Johannesburg, South Africa and spent four years travelling across the continent and attending international AIDS conferences, as she struggled to come to grips with the enormity of the situation facing Africans of every race, creed, nationality, and social status.

The amount and depth of her research is obvious when you read the introduction to 28; its probably the best written history of AIDS, not only in terms of Africa, but the disease period, that I've ever read. The disease did not spring up overnight among North American homosexuals in the early 1980's as I'm sure many believe. The first known human cases of AIDS can be traced back seventy years ago to Cameroon. Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV) is a disease found in Chimpanzees, an animal that used to be fairly commonly eaten and hunted in Africa. A virus that is non-lethal in one species, can be death to another, and such was the case with SIV which was not particularly dangerous to chimps, but as HIV has proved incurable in humans.

Scientists figure that it would only have taken ten or twelve incidences of hunters butchering infected chimps and becoming infected themselves for HIV to take root successfully among humans. Once that happened it was only a matter of time before it spread. Thankfully HIV, in spite of any propaganda you might hear to the contrary, is not one of the easily transmitted diseases and requires the transference of bodily fluids in order to have a chance at survival unlike airborne ones like TB, Ebola, influenza or the common cold.

There's no way of knowing for certain how many people were infected with the disease prior to the discovery in the mid 1980's of the test we now have to detect its presence, but Africans were dying of what they called "Slim", a mysterious disease that caused people to waste away since the 1950's. As we learned in North America when people caught HIV from tainted blood products, there are many more ways than sex and drug use to catch the disease. In Africa, mass immunizations where thousands of people were vaccinated with the same needle, looks to be one of the ways AIDS was able to establish a firm grip among the general population.

While Ms. Nolen's skills as a journalist make the introduction invaluable reading, what makes 28 Stories Of AIDS In Africa so compelling are the stories of the twenty-eight people of the title. Some of them will be known to you, like Nelson Mandela, who in 2005 announced to the world that his son had died of AIDS. Since his retirement from the presidency of South Africa has dedicated himself to the fight against the pandemic. Others, like Manuel and Philomena Cossa, a migrant gold miner from Mozambique and his wife, you'll have never heard of, and their stories will break your heart.

From 1967 until 2005 Manuel would spend two years at a time away from home and family working in the gold mines of South Africa. Most of those years were spent working under the iron fist of apartheid for little more then slave wages, but it still meant he brought money home to his family. But in 2005 he came home sick, and both he and his wife have now tested positive for AIDS. They now have no income; because Manuel did not test positive until he was home the mine owners don't have to pay him a disability pension as they would if he had tested positive while on the job. No income means their children have to drop out of school, or can't even start school because they can't afford the ten dollars for school fees.

Alice Kandzanja is a nurse in a hospital in Zomba in southern Malwai that operates at 400% capacity, meaning that each bed has three patients laid out head to foot. She has seen 2,000 of her sister nurses die since the AIDS epidemic hit Malwai. In 2006 Cynthia Leshomo of Botswana won the Miss HIV Stigma-Free pageant by taking her medication as part of her traditional wear portion of the competition. In Botswana, which used to have a lower infant mortality rate than most of Eastern Europe, people didn't get AIDS because it was only a poor person's disease. Yet in the year 2000 37% of pregnant women were HIV positive.

That is the real face of AIDS in Africa, how it effects more than just the person infected, and cripples the futures of so many people. Governments don't have the money to provide free education to their people thanks to the policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank that have demanded they cut social spending if they want to get any aid money or debt forgiveness. A country like Mozambique doesn't have enough doctors and therefore no way to distribute drugs to people who need them even if they could afford to buy them.

One of the most common questions that Stephanie Nolen reports being asked is how can the world let this happen to us? Even when they do finally cough up money, as the Bush administration admirably has done to the tune of $15 billion dollars over five years, it's a case of too little too late, and with far too many strings attached. How can you insist that money for AIDS prevention not be given to groups that advocate condom use or planned parenthood or stipulate that only expensive patent protected American drugs can be purchased with the money?

From South Africa to Egypt in the north, tens of millions of Africans have been diagnosed with AIDS. Each day there is a good chance that a baby is born somewhere in Africa who is HIV positive, and the numbers continue to grow. Although conditions have improved since the early 1990's when governments in Africa refused to acknowledge AIDS even existed and in 2000 when funding was non existent, the hole that has been dug is so deep that it might take decades just to reach the surface.

28: Stories Of Aids In Africa helps you remember that behind the numbers in the headlines, and behind the politician's talks of costs, are human beings who are suffering. I defy anyone to read this book and still feel that governments the world over are doing enough to make a difference.

28: Stories Of Aids In Africa is being released as a trade paperback on April 15th/2008 by Random House Canada and can be purchased directly from them or from an on line retailer like Amazon Canada.

March 11, 2008

Book Review: My Boring Ass Life: The Uncomfortably Candid Diary Of Kevin Smith Kevin Smith

I remember a time many years ago when I was directing Samuel Becket's play Waiting For Godot and being surprised at how so many people still didn't understand what it was about. We had been booked to perform it at a private school where the senior class was studying it, and before the show I got up to introduce the play and asked the kids to tell me truthfully how many of them found the play boring. After a little hesitation nearly all of them raised their hands, and I told them, well you're right, it's really boring.

I then told them a little of the play's history, how the first time an English language audience understand the show, really related to it, was when a production of the play was mounted at San Quentin prison for guys serving long term or life sentences. They had immediately understood, and identified with, the way the characters were so desperate to find something, anything, to do that would pass the time waiting for a day to end so they could get onto the next day and do the same thing all over again.

It was Beckett's contention that the majority of us spent our time exactly as his character's did in vain search of something to fill the hours of the day with meaning. Our jobs, our religious beliefs, and everything else that we feel or do all derive from that impetus. In Waiting For Godot he has taken that to absurd lengths with his two characters as they contemplate everything from suicide to violence in an effort to fill that emptiness.
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What, you must be wondering, does Waiting For Godot have to do with Kevin Smith's book, My Boring Ass Life: The Uncomfortably Candid Diary Of Kevin Smith? Isn't it just a collection of entries from the online diary that he keeps where he talks about the his day to day life and all the boring details there in?

Well, yeah, the book is made up of just over a year of entries that were previously published at Silent Bob Speaks.com, and there is day after day of I got up, let the dogs, out went to the can had a shit while doing this on the lap top, went down to the office and answered e-mail until it was time to take the kid to school; stopped and picked up breakfast for the wife at such and such and came home. The entry would continue on in that vain, until he would fall asleep watching episodes of television he'd bought through i-Tunes.

Of course since he is Kevin Smith the film director, he does occasionally lead a more exciting life than most people and periodically there are entries that deal with his life in film. The year or so in question that makes up this book includes an account of his first appearance in a film playing somebody aside from Silent Bob, when he made the movie Catch And Release, describes appearing opposite Bruce Willis for one scene in the latest instalment of the Die Hard franchise, and relates the making of his own movie, Clerks ll.

Oh and he does other stuff, like appearances at comic conventions, radio interviews about Star Wars: The Revenge Of The Sith, fundraisers he and his wife do for their daughter's school, signing shit-loads of merchandise to be sold at his comic stores or through his View Askew company's web site, and going to the Cannes film festival with Clerks ll and receiving an eight minute standing ovation at the conclusion of its showing. You know trivial, boring, day to day stuff that all of us experience.

Of course there has to be something about Jason Mewes in all this too. For those of you from another planet, Jason has played Jay, the long haired, loud mouthed, foul mouthed, moronic, stoner, whose a fixture in the world where Clerks 1 & ll, Mallrats, Dogma and of course Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back take place. Inseparable in real life as they are on screen, Kevin's description of Jason's descent into the hell of addiction, and the years he took to climb out again are probably the most devastatingly honest description of the helplessness one must feel when you feel like you're losing a loved one to drugs.

I think what blew me away the most about that part of the book is not once did I get the feeling that Kevin was making himself out to be anything special or any kind of hero because of what his friend went through. I doubt he would have ever even written anything about it if it weren't for the fact that he felt it important that the truth be told about what happened instead of second hand crap turning up in the tabloids. He doesn't make it out to be more or less than what it was, offering no excuses for Jason, (he does offer us the explanation though that Jason's mom was a junkie, he never knew his father, and his mother had him running drugs when he was nine years old, and later became his major supplier for prescription medicines) and taking none of the credit for Jason's recovery.
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As a former drug abuser myself whose been clean for fourteen years and still has to say in one way or another, I'm not going to use today, I understood the significance of Jason being able to say "I don't need to do that today, and probably not tomorrow either". When Kevin recounts those moments, they aren't famous people from Hollywood, they are two guys from Jersey - close friends who cared deeply enough about each other that the one had the strength to say no when it was needed and the other to go clean.

That's the thing about Kevin Smith and his movies; he is one of us. I don't mean we're all medium height, husky, white guys who wear shorts and high-tops, but that feeling that has permeated all his films from Clerks through to Jersey Girl (Which I thought was a wonderful movie by the way and am proud to say that I own a copy of the DVD) that it could be you or me up on that screen.

Yes, even Dogma. Suspend your disbelief about angels, apostles, and devils walking the earth for a second, and think about the way Bethany feels about life. We've all been there haven't we? Wondering what the fuck, and if this is your idea of a big plan God, well I don't want to play anymore. I know there are plenty of film types out there that have said Smith's movies only appeal to a certain type of people, and Kevin says he understands if people don't share his skewed view of the world, but there's more to his movies than I think he even gives himself credit for.

I was about a third of the way through My Boring Ass Life, still wondering what the hell was so interesting about reading about some guy talking about spending his hours watching DVDs, going to the toilet, and making runs for fast food when it hit me that it was like watching one of his movies. While this book is about the details of his life, the things he does that fill his time, his movies are about what the people in them do fill their time, and that's something we all do.

Hanging out at the mall, playing video games, dealing drugs, dreaming of the opportunity to be something else, might not be what you do to fill the hours of your day, but you have the equivalent in your life. I know I do. You may not want to identify with Randal and Dante at the Quick Stop, or Jay and Silent Bob, but you can't deny that on some level there's a chord of recognition that's being struck as you watch them. You may not be any more like them than you are like Vladimir and Estragon, but that doesn't mean they don't mirror some part of your life.

The candid honesty in Kevin Smith's My Boring Ass Life that everyone refers to isn't the fact that he admits to masturbating or that he and his wife enjoy having sex together. What takes real guts, in this work ethic, always have to be doing something productive society that we live in is his willingness to admit that he's perfectly content to play on line poker for hours on end, curl up and watch movies with his wife and daughter, write a boring ass diary on the web, or sit and talk for hours with a friend.

To some people that might be a "boring ass life" or seen as wasting time, but I think anybody who makes time in his or her day to do puzzles with his child or let a friend know that he's important is making fine use of his time. Randal and Dante might be "losers", and even that's debatable, but Kevin Smith knows what's important in his life and take care of it. His life is anything but boring and nowhere near a waste.

March 4, 2008

Book Review: Human Rights Watch: World Report 2008

I've got a question for you; what are human rights? You probably hear or read the phrase at least once a day in the media, but have you ever stopped to think what they should entail? Don't worry if you haven't because I'd lay odds you're not alone. The phrase is bandied about so much these days that if it ever had an agreed upon meaning in the eyes of the general public it's been long forgotten.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights created by the United Nations in 1948 has 30 articles, most of which will probably sound familiar to any of us who live in countries which have a Bill of Rights or the equivalent. You know the usual stuff - everybody will be treated the same regardless of race, colour, sex, religion creed, no one will be subjected to torture or cruel and inhuman punishment, everyone is entitled to protection under the law and nobody is above the law, everybody has the right to privacy, freedom of thought, and freedom of opinion.

Over the years its of course been updated and some specifics have been added like the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Of course that these addendum were needed goes to show just how well people were complying with the original declaration. If countries had been treating people equally regardless of sex there would have been no need for any convention dealing specifically with violence against women.
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That's the thing isn't it, everybody talks a good game, our governments in the West especially, but there's probably not a government in the world that's not guilty of a violation of somebody's human rights. Take a look at the partial listing of articles I've mentioned above, and you'll notice that the United States, who have one of the most comprehensive Bill Of Rights of any country, has contravened every single article listed.

Of course they aren't the only ones; according to the organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) there's a distressingly huge number of countries all over the world making a mockery of the declaration according to Human Rights Watch World Report 2008, their annual report on how well countries around the world are abiding by the statues put forward more then fifty years ago.

After my first glance through the volume I couldn't decide which was the more depressing thought; the fact that it exists at all, that it is over 560 pages in length, or that it doesn't list all the countries or all the categories where there were infringements of Human Rights around the world in the year 2007. I think it's the last one that bothers me the most, especially when the writers say that they really have no way of knowing how much they miss, because there aren't many countries that are going to give you access to documentation proving they've been violating the rights of their population.

Before you ask, who the heck are Human Rights Watch or assume they are just another plot to discredit the U.S., there's a couple things you should know about them. They describe themselves as being a Non Government Organization (NGO) that refuses funding from any politically affiliated body or government, and are dependant on the donations of private citizens and foundations for finances. They rely on first hand accounts from people on the ground in countries where abuses are taking place as their primary source of information, but they will never base a report on information that can not be verified by one of their own field people.

Initially founded in 1978, and called Helsinki Watch for the location of it's head office, it started off with only two divisions Europe and Central Asia. Currently it has expanded to six geographic divisions so it now includes, Africa, the Americas, all of Asia, and the Middle East, and added three thematic divisions, arms, children's rights, and women's rights. Other permanent divisions include a country's treatment of refugees and immigrants and how that stacks up against U.N. declarations on their treatment; HIV/AIDS and Human Rights; International Justice; Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered rights; Arms; and Business and Human Rights.

Let me tell you about the litmus test that I use for organizations like this; when it comes to the Middle East do they ignore transgressions on the part of the Palestinian authority and only criticize Israel, or do they apply the same standards to both sides? Far too many so called rights groups are all prepared to stomp one side in the dispute and allow the other to literally get away with murder. Well not these guys, they hold both sides accountable for any and all violations of a groups Human Rights. So while they criticize Israel for firing upon civilian populations in Gaza and Lebanon, they hold Hamas to account for firing rockets and mortars into civilian areas in Tel Aviv, for targeting civilians with suicide bombers, and for the unlawful detention of an Israeli soldier in clear contravention of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention.

After reading that, I felt a lot more comfortable about the fact that this is an organization without an agenda aside from doing their best to make countries accountable for their treatment of their citizens. They don't except any excuses from anybody, be it George Bush and company or Putin and his cronies in Russia. From Albania to Zimbabwe if you're government has abused the rights of it's people HRW are going to let the world know about it whether you or the world want to know.

That's the rub isn't it; HRW may be without an agenda, but the rest of the world is nowhere near as unbiased. Governments the world over will turn a blind eye to violations conducted by the countries that do them favours, while condemning the exact same activities in others. Human rights for some but not for others is a cynical and gross violation of the spirit of original declaration, and also happens to be the breech that most countries have in common. Running almost neck and neck for infamy are the number of countries who try to pass themselves off as democracies while denying their people the rights that ensure democratic governments.

While international human rights law says that each citizen is entitled to take part in the conduct of public affairs either directly or through a freely elected representative, and to vote in genuine and periodic election with full and equal suffrage, in a secret ballot guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electorate, it also guarantees the societal elements that are essential for a true democracy. A press that is independent of the government, rights that defend the interests of minorities, and rights ensuring that government officials are subject to the rule of law as much as private citizens.

What kind of democratic election is it when only one party runs for power, or when the press only reports what the government allows, when people aren't allowed to attend political rallies unless approved by the government, when there is no free and open debate on the issues, and there is nothing in the constitution guaranteeing an arms length body monitoring elections? In his introduction to World Report 2008, "Despots Masquerading as Democrats", Executive Director of HRW Kenneth Roth, cites these examples to point out the importance and necessity for human rights monitoring.

Anybody can and does call themselves a democrat, and even worse there are always those in the international community who seem willing to endorse them for their own convenience. It's ironic isn't it that the supposed ideal form of government, the one so many wars are fought to protect, has never been internationally codified? You don't think it's because half the world's governments who currently claim to be democratic would be revealed as just the opposite, or that it's not in best interests of countries like the United States and Russia to have their various friends proven to be just as despotic as their enemies? No it couldn't be that, nobody is that cynical or hypocritical are they?

So the only meter we have to measure a government's true democracy is their willingness to ensure the protection of human rights no matter what it costs them in terms of their ability to retain power. There used to be a rather common saying along the lines that a man was judged by the company he keeps. Perhaps a variation along the lines of: a government should be judged by how it keeps its people, would be more appropriate for today's world.

With disinformation raised to an art form, and government influence over media reaching a zenith in all parts of the world, a non-aligned body monitoring how people are treated based on the principals espoused by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the only hope we have of getting a true picture of the health of democracy in the world. Human Rights Watch makes a very good case for being that body through their willingness to judge each and every country against the same measure; their adherence to the Declaration.

Human Rights Watch: World Report 2008is this years status report on the health of democracy in the world, and it doesn't look good. While there have been some positive signs in a few countries, indications are that overall the patient is in danger of expiring due to extreme cynicism and complications caused by opportunistic despots. That's not a very good prognosis for the future.

February 29, 2008

Book Review: Visions For The Future: Celebrating Young Native American Artists

There's a man who I know, and I was privileged enough to call him friend during the time I knew him well, who lives in two worlds. In one he carries a brief case and holds a college degree in business. He has standing in court rooms across the country even though he's not a lawyer, and can argue law and cite precedents that date back to the 18th century. He has to because of the other world he inhabits, that of being a Native American man living in the twenty-first century.

He has carried the flag of his nation in Grand Entries at Pow Wows and into battle on the carpets of the court rooms where words are what he pulls from his quiver to fight the never ending battle for survival his people have fought for more then five hundred years. He's not alone in this battle, there are numerous men and women across North America who are on this War Path these days. Briefcase warriors who refuse to roll over and be good Indians and accept the indignities that continue to be heaped on the heads of their people.

In the 1970's the burgeoning Native American rights movement was centred around the very public and flamboyant activities of the American Indian Movement (AIM). While AIM may have garnered the majority of the public's and media's attention, that also brought them to the attention of the FBI. If J. Edgar Hoover decided you were a threat to America, you could pretty much count on never having a moments peace, and being hounded relentlessly until you were dead or in jail. By the end of the 70's AIM's effectiveness as a force for Native rights was depleted, but they hadn't been alone, and other groups aside from them had formed around the same time.
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TheNative American Rights Fund (NARF) was formed in 1970 through a grant from the Ford Foundation by the California Indian Legal Services. NARF is a non-profit law firm who represent the needs of Natives in court who otherwise would not have access to legal representation. Their brief is simple - to protect the rights of Native people everywhere, and see that justice is done in the courts as much and whenever possible.

While you won't see them in courts over casinos, rightly believing they have enough money to take care of themselves, they are the voice for all the tribes across America who don't have that new cash crop. For instance they have been in litigation for ten years with the Bureau Of Indian Affairs (BIA) over the possible mismanagement of over 500,000 Native American's trust funds by the Bureau and its agents. But it's not just the law they see as their responsibility, they, like the other groups who came of age during the 1970's fighting for a Native Renaissance, knew how important it was to not only preserve their rights, but also their culture.

That doesn't mean they believe they should return to hunting buffalo and living in Tee Pees, those ways are irrevocably lost. It means holding on to the essential elements that define them as a people and applying them in the twenty-first century. The arts have always been a vehicle for a people to express their culture and Natives have been no exception. The trick is though to bring the arts into the twenty-first century.

Visions For The Furture: A Celbration Of Young Native American Artists published by Fulcrum Publishing is a record of the first annual exhibit of works by young Native Artists sponsored by NARF. The purpose of the Visions For The Future shows is to not only encourage the work of Native artists aged eighteen to thirty-five, but to act as a bridge between the generation of Natives who began the fight for sovereignty and rights in the 1970's and the young people who weren't even alive during that time.

To that end the artists were asked to submit works that reflected NARF's focus on the modern day battles that face Native Americans. Education, sovereignty, natural resources, civil rights, land claims, and ensuring the continuation of cultural and spiritual traditions in the twenty-first century. By having them express those themes based on what they see around them, the hope was they would be able to take the first steps in changing people's view of just who Native Americans are today and to help people understand the realities facing them.

Today's young natives are just a liable to be involved with hip-hop and house music, make use of the Internet, and skateboard as their European, Asian and African contemporaries. So you wouldn't really expect them to be doing beading or making pottery like their great-grandparents did, any more than you'd expect a young Italian artist to be painting like De Vinci or Michelangelo. "When a person learns that I am an artist" says Bunky Echo-Hawk, "predictably they ask if I do beadwork or make pottery." Historical or replicated art, as he refers to it, has nothing to do with his world as a young Native American today, nor any of the other artists whose work appears in this book.

Cultural and spiritual events like Pow Wows are still a part of their lives of course, but so are toxic waste dumps on reserves, addictions, and poverty. In an essay he contributed to this book called "Bullets In The Chest, Arrows In The Back" - a reference to the war chiefs of old who rode in the front lines of battle risking both being shot by the enemy and hit by friendly fire - Bunky Echo-Hawk wonders how someone can live on a reserve with a toxic waste dump and create art work that omits that reality. Why not weave a blanket with bio-hazard warnings woven into the pattern he asks.

Today's Native artist faces the bullet of colonization in that no one is interested in seeing modern Indian life depicted. The public at large is in love with the image of the stoic, feathered warrior, and the doe-eyed Pochahantes. They don't want to see pictures of Sitting Bull being interviewed by Larry King or a Chief wearing a gas mask. The arrow in the back is the easy acceptances of assimilation and the capitulation by so many Natives who are more than willing to give the public what they want instead of reality.
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The work of the thirteen artists included in this book, the thirteen of the 130 who applied and were selected for the show, are in all mediums; photography, pen and ink, paint on canvass, silk screened posters, and even tattoo designs. Each of the images in some way reflects something about the present day Native circumstance. Some of them are celebrations of the way in which traditions like Pow Wows are continued today, others, like Bunky's works depict realities that nobody wants to admit exists.

Three of my favourite pieces are a poster by Thomas Ryan Red Corn with a picture of the four carvings on Mount Rushmore captioned by the word Vandalism, referring to the fact that the Black Hills are treaty lands stolen from the Lakota; a self portrait by Micah Wesley depicting her fall into the desolation of addictions and self loathing; and a photograph of an elderly woman in Jingle Dress regalia at a Pow Wow by Valerie Norris. These three disparate images are the epitome of what this exhibit was trying to capture through their depiction of the political and personal struggles that face Native Americans, and the enduring strength of their culture in spite of adversity.

Art is what we use as a people to tell our story to other people, and it is the obligation of a people's artists to be truthful in order for the rest of the world to understand them. The Native American Rights Fund uses the motto "The Indian Wars Never Ended", with unspoken colliery being the battleground has merely shifted. While NARF and people like them can take the war to the court rooms and the halls of power, it's up to the cultural warriors to change people's perceptions of who Native people are and the battle they fight today.

If Visions For The Future: A Celebration Of Young Native American Artists is any indication of the type of art being produced in "Indian Country" by today's young Native artists, there is a new generation of warriors prepared to do what it takes to make people realize North American Indians are alive and well and here to stay.

Artwork: "Inheriting The Legacy" and "Sitting Bull Intimate" by Bunky Echo-Hawk

February 26, 2008

Book Review: Curse + Berate In 69 + Languages Edited by R.V. Branham

Maybe it's because I write so much, but I've always been fascinated with words and languages. Where did they come from; how did different sounds come to represent words for different people, and why? I think it's amazing that so many people have come up with different ways of being able to communicate ideas, emotions, and abstract concepts.

There's so much you can learn about a culture from its language based on the ideas and concepts they are able to express and how they utilize the words at their disposal when doing so. In English we may be able to call an object a television and understand what that means, but another language may have to string a couple of words together that will describe the function in order to communicate the same meaning: the box which brings people to life.

English of course is itself a mongrel of a language, being made up of bits and pieces from all the peoples who ever invaded the British Isles dating back to the Romans and earlier. If you look at the earliest texts written down in the English language, Beowulf. Sir Gawain And The Green Knight, or Chauser's Canterbury Tales you wouldn't recognize it as being the same as what we speak today. Even today the English language continues to evolve depending on where its spoken and by whom. The English spoken in India differs from that spoken in Australia, which differs from what's spoken in Canada, and that in turn is different from the form it takes in the United States.

Yet, in spite of all that's different between us, and all the distinctive flavours that our languages have, there is one thing it seems they all have in common; the ability to rip the flesh off someone's bones with a few well chosen words or phrases. According to Curse + Berate In 69 + Languages published by Soft Skull Press every language from Afrikaans to Zulu contains the means to be rude, crude, lewd, and just downright insulting.

Assembled by the staff of the international literary review, the The Gobshite Quarterly and edited by R.V. 
Branham, editor of the same publication, Curse + Berate In 69 + Languages contains an A - Y(abnormal - Yuppie/snob: apparently no curses they have found in the English language begin with Z) listing of English profanity translated into as many languages as possible. A second section contains a selection of choice phrases for use in specific circumstances. "Corpus Politic Or What Would Caligula Say/Do & Variations" for instance contains a list of things that one culture might say to another in a moment of pique, or aspersions you might want to cast upon your political enemies in times of undue stress.

In his introduction to this compendium of invective, Mr Branham makes no bones about his intent. He's appalled at what he considers our cavalier attitude towards swearing. We now toss off words, that even a generation ago would have caused consternation among the masses, without a second thought and they have lost their power to inflame or incite. By opening our eyes to some of the truly inventive means others have found for utilizing what we have managed to trivialize through overuse, he hopes to instil in us a new respect for the profane and encourage his readers to breath new life into that which has been allowed to become moribund - swearing.

Now I won't say that I've read every listing, but even a sampling of the offerings under the various headings in this dictionary (the majority of which if published here would probably result in this site being blocked by parental locks on servers around the world) is enough to make a reader realize how much we have been limiting ourselves. The Spanish, for example, have a way with a descriptive phrase that makes the rest of the world seem like innocents, and I doubt that anybody can match certain Mid Eastern languages for inventiveness when it comes to curses.

Curses are of course a different matter all together from cursing, and it's interesting to note how some cultures make use of one over the other when it comes to wishing a person ill. I have to admit that until now I hadn't given the matter much thought, but after what I've read here, I can see the attraction of a good hearty curse as compared to cursing. A curse has the power of momentum behind it, and as it builds up a head of steam to its denouement it gives you a wonderful opportunity to let someone know the depth of your feelings towards them. It's definitely an area where the English language has been lagging behind the rest of the world, and Curse + Berate offers up some wonderful choice examples that surely will provide fodder for the inventive mind.

The other thing that becomes abundantly clear from reading this book is how much we all have in common when it comes to our source material for swearing. Body parts, bodily functions, and religion are at the top of the charts for almost every single language on earth when it comes to cursing. Animals feature high on the list too of course, but usually only when combined with human activity - generally sexual for some reason.

Sex: there's no getting away from it when it comes to swearing it seems. Somehow being able to work the subject of sex or sexuality into your invective makes it all that more potent. What that says about most cultures attitudes towards sex isn't very complimentary, as it means that the subject is still obviously taboo or considered somehow dirty, but next to references to God, I'd have to say that sexual activity and defecation are the most prominent features of cursing across the board. (Being able to combine the three into one curse is the sign of an extremely inventive mind and obviously an ideal to strive for in your own attempts.)

Aside from the obvious benefits of attempting to build bridges between cultures that a book like this strives for by showing the reader that no matter where we live we have so much linguistically in common, I'd be remiss in mentioning just how much fun this book is. If you don't have any hang ups about swearing - and if you did I doubt you'd even open the damned thing - Curse + Berate In 69 + Languages will have you laughing so hard that it will hurt.

Some of the funniest parts of the book are the literal translations of other languages' expressions. While an idiom taken as a whole will have one meaning, and that can be funny enough - when translated word for word it becomes even more outlandish and hilarious. Some of the best examples for this are some of the Chinese dialects - check out the Mandarin slang for breasts and you'll see what I mean.

Curse + Berate In 69 + Languages is one of the funniest, most intelligent, and inventive books on language that you will ever come across. If this book doesn't give you a new respect for the wonder of words - nothing will.

February 24, 2008

Book Review: Joy Division: Piece By Piece

By the time I heard my first Joy Division song, the compelling and chilling "Atmosphere", lead singer Ian Curtis had been dead for almost a year. After only two years as a band, two studio albums, Unknown Pleasures and Closer, a twelve inch single version of the song "Atmosphere", and the day before they were to start their American tour, Ian Curtis hung himself May 19th 1980.

I'm sure many people have spent hours, days, months even, pouring over the lyrics and song titles, looking for any indication Ian might have given that he was planning on killing himself, and with power of hindsight have no doubt been very successful. Considering the fact that the band's lyrics were fixated on exploring the darker recesses of the soul, I'm willing to bet that if you were liberal enough in your interpretations, you could not only find the reasons for his suicide within the lyrics, but the exact time and location as well!

There were far too many people that I knew that liked the band for all the wrong reasons, as a kind of death cult sprung up around the memory of Ian Curtis. It was like the band had ceased to exist as a musical entity, and became a vehicle for worshipping suicide. After all wasn't suicide the ultimate expression of the nihilism that Punk and then subsequently New Wave music was all about?

That attitude never sat well with me, as I always found something rather life affirming about most of Punk rock, Johnny Rotten's rants about no future notwithstanding. You can't sing about resistance with the amount of energy that the Clash did and not have hope for the future. That's not to say I didn't like Joy Division, because I did. They had a unique sound, and their lyrics, while somewhat melodramatic, at least made a stab at emotional depth and itelligence.
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So when I saw that Paul Morley who had been the New Music Express'(NME) Manchester stringer (Manchester England being Joy Division's home city) had written Joy Division: Piece By Piece I was intrigued enough to want to check it out. What Morley has done is gather together the articles he wrote about Joy Division and the Manchester music scene from when he first started writing for NME back in 1976/77 up until a voice over he wrote for a 2005 radio broadcast about the band in commemoration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Ian Curtis's death.

Thankfully he's done more than just put together a book of old articles, scripts, and liner notes and called it a history of the band. Instead he has created a narration that recounts the background surrounding the writing of the articles, and places them in their context both professionally and personally. One of the things he makes clear is he was just as raw and untested as the bands he was covering.

Now anybody who followed the new music of the late seventies and early eighties will remember that seemingly out of nowhere Manchester became a hot bed of pop music. If London had been the home of Punk in England, than Manchester was where the Post Punk movement was created. Being one of the few cities where the town council didn't prohibit the Sex Pistols from playing, Manchester ended up being a stop on the "Anarchy In The U.K." tour twice.

According to Morely it was these two visits that were at the root of the explosion that not only saw the creation of Joy Division, but The Buzzcocks, Howard Devoto's Magazine, The Fall, and maybe most importantly of all was the impetus for the creation of Martin Hannett's Factory Records. Not only did they record and produce most of the above, they were responsible for Manchester's second wave of Post Punk performers in the early 1980s with bands like A Certain Ratio and Duretti Column.

In the mid to late seventies Manchester was struggling through a recession caused by being an industrial city without industry and in desperate need of an infusion of some type of new energy. As Morely was writing his first article for NME about the Manchester music scene he was also dealing with the fact that his father had just committed suicide. Morely makes it clear that his father's suicide and the state that Manchester was in at the time were definitely related. He's also honest enough to admit that it obviously coloured what he wrote, and because of that he couldn't write off a quartet of guys called Warsaw, who would become Joy Division, no matter how lost they appeared on stage.
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He never claims any precognition; no I saw the greatness in them before they were great. Instead the implication is that on some level because his father had felt so little hope that he wasn't able to continue, Morely wasn't going to be the one to dash anybody's hopes if he saw anything at all that suggested they could be going somewhere.

I have to admit that I found Morely's language a little too grandiose for the topic; popular music is fun, and occasionally intelligent, but is still more reliant on craft than artistry. Whenever I read people who write about popular music as if its of vital importance, I'm left with the feeling that they are working under the following premise: If what I write about is important, than I'm important, so I must make it sound as important as possible. Joy Division were an exciting pop group that were part of an exciting music scene in the late 70s and early 80's, but the real reason they are still remembered as well as they are to this day is because their lead singer committed suicide.

Paul Morely has done a good job of recreating the atmosphere and energy that was part of the alternative music scene during the late seventies when Joy Division were at their peak. He is also able to provide us with an insider's, as much as anybody can be an insider when suicide is involved, view of the turbulent and sad history of the late Ian Curtis. Yet in the end, no matter how hard he tries to make a case for it, there's nothing really earth shattering about the subject matter and nothing about the book justifies its 380 plus pages.

February 12, 2008

Book Review: Long River Joseph Bruchac

I remember as a child having an illustrated history of Canada whose early pages were filled with images of Native Canadian life. One of the images that still stands out in my mind was a picture of a group of Asiatic looking people struggling against the elements as they made their way along a land bridge across the Bering Straight separating Asia from North America. It was the accepted theory in those days that the first people had only been fairly recent immigrants when the Europeans showed up, having only come here within the thousand years prior to first contact.

It has only been in the last twenty years or so that the migration from Asia theory has been seriously challenged, and is now starting to fall out of favour. Of course if anybody had bothered to listen to the stories told by the people living here when the Europeans arrived they might never have come up with it in the first place. There isn't one story among any of the nations corresponding with people crossing from Asia over into North America. Nearly all the creation stories have them starting life here, not somewhere else on earth and travelling here.

Of course listening to the first peoples was the last thing on the minds of the governments of North America, in fact they did their best to ensure those stories weren't heard by anyone. Generations of children were stolen from their parents in one of the worst examples of cultural genocide ever attempted. Cut off from family, friends, and community they were forbidden to speak the language of their parents and were prevented from learning anything to do with their own people.
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It's a blessing that governments are as inefficient as they are as enough people escaped their nets to prevent the complete obliteration of all the stories. Today there are men and women across North America who have taken on the huge responsibility of keeping those stories alive for future generations either by writing them down, telling them like their ancestors did in circles around a fire, bringing them to life in theatre, or using them as the basis for creating new stories.

Joseph Bruchac is one of those people who have made it his life's work to preserve the stories of his people. A member of the Abenaki nation, one of the Algonquin peoples whose numbers also include the Cree and Chippewa nations, Bruchac has published over twenty-five collections of stories that deal with every aspect of Alogonquin life from how to live a good life to the history of the people. He is also in high demand across North America as a story teller and lecturer, and tours schools and universities bringing the old tales to life.

In the early 1990s he began a series of books set in a North America that none of us would recognize; not only is the time period pre-contact, it is far enough back that the land still remembers the ice age. I read the first book, Dawn Land, when it first came out back in 1993 and was very impressed with the way Bruchac integrated traditional tales, and descriptions of what life would have been like at the time into an adventure story. At the time I had no idea he was intending to make a series of these books, and it wasn't until a short while ago that I discovered he had written a sequel called Long River. Published by Fulcrum Books. Long River picks up the adventures of the hero of the first book, Young Hunter, where the previous one left off.

In Dawn Land Young Hunter had headed out on a journey to defeat an evil race of stone giants - known as the Ancient Ones - who would have rained ruin upon his people if given the opportunity. On his journey he discovered many things about himself, not the least of which was that he had some talent for "far seeing",what we would call astral projection, or the ability to send you spirit travelling to check out the surroundings while your body stayed in one place.

In Long River Young Hunter has returned to his village and is settling into life in the community with his new wife Willow Woman. But he doesn't have much time to enjoy the peace of regular life before he discerns a new threat to his people. A pain maddened Wooly Mammoth, injured by a spear that is stuck in it's mouth, is seeking vengeance against any of the creatures who inflicted the damage on it by seeking out their villages and destroying them and all their inhabitants.

Young Hunter at first only perceives a nebulous sense of danger approaching his people, but with the assistance of his people's elders and wise people learns how to hone his abilities until he is able to use them to devise a means of defeating the menace that faces them. Eventually with the assistance of one of the little people, the Mikumwesu, he succeeds but it is a near thing. In fact if it weren't for the assistance of a former enemy - a lone surviving stone giant - the outcome would have been far worse.

While the adventure part of the story is fun, the true pleasure in reading this book is the way Bruchac brings the past to life. It's not just the myths and the tales of his people that he is recounting, it is everything about their way of life that he has recreated. From their means of creating fire, hunting and curing fish, preparing maple syrup, building shelters, to the rituals involved with naming a child. His attention to detail also includes the moral codes that dictate the way Young Hunter's people treat each other, and the world around them.

We're not just limited to Young Hunter's view of the world either as Bruchac switches between his central character, his wife, village elders, and even the enraged Wooly Mammoth, in order to give us as wide a view of the world as possible. While anthropomorphism isn't something we might be comfortable with, it fits into the native belief that all creatures, indeed all living things, possess a spirit and awareness. In Young Hunter's world, where they thank the fish for letting them eat them and the tree for the bark that makes their shelters, it makes sense for an animal to have a point of view on what's happening around him.

Each character's observations on the world around them, and the way they interact with it, all give us a deeper understanding of how people would have lived their lives in pre-contact days. Bruchac isn't just making this up off the top of his head either, as he substantiates almost everything with a story that explains where the belief governing an attitude came from. (Okay there's no story that offers an explanation for a rational Wooly Mammoth - but a little suspension of disbelief never hurt anyone) Something else to consider is the fact that a culture develops based on the needs of the people it serves. This was a culture that depended on the natural world for survival - and so they developed rituals and attitudes reflecting a need to live in accordance to the rules they saw around them.

If you want there to be fish tomorrow you leave some to breed, you don't kill the predator animals because they eat the sick and the infirm creatures among the prey animals ensuring that they stay healthy enough to reproduce in the future, and you never take so much bark from a tree that you kill it, or there won't be any trees left to provide you with bark in the future. The stories that Bruchac has his characters tell or remember in order to help them lead a good life, are all ones that adhere to those tenets.

Long River is a wonderful book because its a great story to read, with interesting characters and an exciting narrative. At the same time it provides an amazing glimpse into the way life was in North America before the coming of the Europeans. Joseph Bruchac doesn't preach or say that we should all go and live in houses made of bark, he just tells us what it was like when people used to. Although, after reading this book, I'm certain the world would be a lot better if we were to follow their examples a little more when it comes to the way we treat each other and the world around us

January 24, 2008

Graphic Novel Review: The Complete Persepolis Marjane Satrapi

As a kid I used to love comics. Almost anything put out by Marvel, from The Avengers to Dr. Strange were read and re-read by myself and my older brother. We weren't the collector types, there wasn't a plastic sleeve to be found in our house, comics were to be read and enjoyed. Our parents were suitably appalled, that their otherwise well read sons could devote so much time, and money, to reading comics.

Around the time we stopped buying seriously, 1980, comics were just beginning to enter into the graphic novel era. It was still long before the days of people like Neil Gaiman but large format issues featuring stalwarts of the Marvel and DC Universes were starting to appear. Some were merely omnibus collections of a particular sequence of comics gathered together, but some were stories specifically written and drawn for the larger and more in depth format.

Since Marvel had brought out Spiderman in the early sixties, comics had begun to move away from the one dimensional heroes of the forties and fifties. The graphic novel, with it's full length story and fully developed character was the next logical step in that evolution. I seriously doubt that anybody at that time could have predicted that they would ever be anything more than glorified comics.

But with "serious" writers like Neil Gaiman not only adapting their work to the form, but writing directly for it, publishers, who ten years ago might have turned their noses up at the idea, have jumped on the bandwagon. Unlike other instances in popular culture where mainstream involvement has meant the watering down of quality to suit the needs of mass consumption, graphic novels have continued to evolve, tackling new and more complicated subject matter.
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One of the best examples in recent history has been Marjane Satrapi's excellent autobiographical series about coming of age in Iran. Originally published in two parts, and now a full length feature film of the same name, The Complete Persepolis, published in Canada by Random House Canada through its Pantheon imprint, gathers the whole story together in one volume.

Starting in 1979, the year that the Shah of Iran was overthrown in a popular uprising, Persepolis not only tells Marjane's story, but the story of Iran. From Marjane's father and her own studies, we learn the history of this unique country that lies between the Arab world and Asia. Throughout her history, whether as Persia or Iran, they were constantly under attack and being invaded by one foreign power after another. After World War Two the father of the last Shah of Iran led a revolt sponsored by the British in return for allowing them access to Iranian Oil. Instead of the republic that most people had hopped for, they merely replaced one dictator for another.

The uprising in 1979 started as a popular rebellion against the tyranny of the Shah, but was corrupted. A great many of those who helped ensure its success ended up imprisoned, tortured, and eventually executed by the new regime. Any chance that there might have been for the overthrow of the religious leadership was quashed by the American sponsored Iraqi invasion, as those in power seized upon it as an opportunity to quash what remained of the opposition. Political prisoners were given two choices - die on the front lines as cannon fodder or be executed. After eight years of war nothing was accomplished save for the deaths of close to a million Iranians and ensuring the elimination of any opposition to the religious authorities.

Primarily though, this is the story of Marjane from the time she was ten, until her early twenties. We see how in the early days of the revolution people protested against women being forced to wear veils and the oppressive nature of the new order. Marjane's parent's were among those who demonstrated and hoped that things would improve. But as the war with Iraq intensified and conditions worsened, they decided to send Marjane to school in Austria.

In Austria she experienced the separation anxiety felt by all exiles. While on one hand she was delighted to be out from under the rule of the Mullahs, on the other she didn't have anything in common with the her fellow students. She was studying at a French school, but since she didn't speak any German she could barely communicate with anyone outside of classes. The aunt she was supposed to have been staying with made her move into a boarding house for students run by nuns, which only increased her sense of isolation.

But life is no better in Iran as she discovers when she eventually returns home. The comfort of the familiar is offset by the suppression of individual rights. In order to go to art school she must be deemed ideologically fit, she must wear her veil in such a way that not a hair on her head is visible, and she risks arrest merely being seen on the street with her boyfriend. In the end, after she graduates from school with a degree in graphic arts, and her marriage to her boyfriend fails she again goes into exile, this time to Paris, where she currently lives.
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Ms. Satrapi could have told her story just as easily in a straight autobiography, and I'm sure it would have made for fascinating reading, but by telling as a graphic novel she brings a visual dimension to it that increases it's impact. The graphics themselves are plain black and white, pen and ink drawings, but her ability to use imagery to tell the story as a compliment to dialogue and narration makes them as effective as if they were in full colour.

The visual element allows her to include the offstage, and imagined, action as part and parcel of the main narrative flow. Instead of having to impart information as separate incidents, where its impact is reduced by removing it from the context of the story, we see things as they happen increasing the emotional power of the moment. There is something about the directness of her style, that allows her to do two things admirably; to distinguish between individuals easily with just small strokes of the pen (and when all the women are clothed in all over black that's very important), and the other is to make her depiction of horrors, death, torture, and anguish, emotionally realistic without being graphic or gruesome.

The other day George Bush got up and said that's its time for the world to "do something about Iran". What he has in mind, the bombing and destruction of the country and the theft of her oil reserves, won't do anything for the people of that country. All it will do is lead to the further anguish for people like Marjane Satrapi's parents and friends who suffered first under the rule of the American and British puppet the Shah of Iran, and are now suffering under the rule of religious fascists.

The Complete Persepolis doesn't pull any punches when it comes to depicting life under the current leadership, but it also makes you realize there are amazing and wonderful human beings who are doing their best to live dignified and noble lives. They love their country and would no more welcome it being invaded by a foreign power than you or I. I'm sure they would fight against any such invasion in spite of their disagreements with those in power. Just because you don't like your leaders, doesn't mean you don't love your country and want to see it taken over by a foreign power.

The Complete Persepolis is an amazingly powerful story about a person's struggle to find her place in the world. That Ms. Satrapi has chosen to tell it in the form of a graphic novel not only shows us how far that medium has come as a means of expression, but allows us a glimpse into a world that few of us know anything about. Before anybody makes any decisions about whether they think the world "needs to do something about Iran" they should read this book.

The people of Iran have suffered enough bloodshed and war since 1980, do you really think they deserve to suffer more destruction?

Canadians wishing to buy The Complete Persepolis can order a copy directly from Random House Canada or pick up a copy from an online retailer like Indigo Books

January 17, 2008

Book Review: Brave Faces Nasra Al Adawi

It's when we take things for granted that we are in the most danger of forgetting their value. When we forget somethings value, when we forget how important something is, we are also running the risk of having it taken away from us. It's easy for us to forget, for instance, the stigma that used to be attached to any open discussion about health issues facing a woman. In the not too distant past a young woman entering into her menses received no education about what to expect, and was convinced that any discussion about her body and its natural functions were taboo.

While the women's movement of the seventies managed to change some of the attitudes that had made it difficult for women to feel comfortable even talking to her doctor about the issues, the current backlash against women in North America could see even those small gains rolled back. Having taken for granted that they had won control over their bodies through land mark cases like Roe Vs. Wade in the United States, and the Supreme Court Of Canada declaring any law that hindered a woman's right to abortion unconstitutional, women in the United States have gradually seen control over their own bodies taken out of their hands.

Given prevalent attitudes towards women, and sex education its easy to see a return to the days when women's health issues, no matter how life threatening, are no longer considered topics for public discussion. It shouldn't take an act of bravery on the part of a woman to talk about the state of her health, but there seems to be a new chill descending over North America designed to silence woman's voices. Thankfully, any woman who is searching for a source of inspiration, an example of bravery in those circumstances, doesn't have to look very far.
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Nasra Al Adawi, a poet of Omani and Tanzanian heritage, has just published Brave Faces a collection of poetry and prose in tribute and honour of the African women she has met who are coping with either Breast or Cervical cancer. The prose sections of the book are either written by Nasra based on her meetings with individual survivors of cancer, individual patients recounting their stories, or by medical professionals discussing the state of female cancer patients in Africa and the disease itself.

With only two exceptions, all the poems are the work of Nasra (Nasra Al Adawi is a pen name), and are without a doubt some of the most purely emotionally powerful poetry I've ever read. In the opening chapter the book, "Breathing Africa", Nasra talks about how the death of her father from cancer roused in her the courage to become a bold poet, and his desire to be buried in his native Tanzania ignited her desire to leave her home in Oman and travel back to the country she was born in.

"I am not sure if poetry is a sensible way to fight cancer" she says in her introduction. While it may be true that words on a page or spoken aloud can't heal a body, there is no way of measuring the impact of the intent behind them on the spirit of the listener. Can you imagine the lift it would give to you knowing that somebody cares deeply enough about the circumstances of people in your situation that they are inspired to create poetry that speaks to your experience?

Nasra's poetry does just that. Without presuming to "know" what any individual is experiencing or feeling, her poetry speaks of universal truths that all of us can identify with. They're about the journeys of self discovery we all must take in order to grow and thrive, finding the strength that's needed to do what we want, and finding the means to keep going when the reasons aren't always obvious.

While Nasra says that the women she met in the Ocean Road Cancer Institute in Tanzania have been an inspiration to both her poetry and her life, the poetry she writes is inspiring to anyone who has ever questioned themselves. There's no false sentiment or cheery platitudes contained within the lines of her work. Instead she offers the gift of her own struggle with doubts, the hope of her dreams, and the compassion of her empathic soul expressed with eloquence and just the right amount of pride.

Those of you who have read my work before know that I deal with an acute, chronic pain condition.While, unlike cancer victims, I have the comfort of knowing its benign, if I were to allow myself to dwell on the fact of its permanence I could easily succumb to despair. Nasra's poems spoke to the struggles I cope with as if she had access to my innermost thoughts.

I can't speak for others, but reading her poems was like balm to a wound in my spirit. Hearing understanding from the voice of a stranger is an incalculable gift and one that I'll always treasure. I can't help but believe that the women who she has read these and other poems to receive the same presents of hope and understanding that I received.

But if it's examples of courage your looking for, the Brave Faces of the title, the prose pieces of this book are where you will find them. Here are the stories of individual African women who have had to struggle not only against the disease, but societal taboos that inhibit their ability to talk about their illness, let alone seek help. "I was ashamed", "I was alone", might be how they felt, and what their circumstances were, but that didn't stop them from taking care of themselves. Even if it meant questioning a doctor's opinion, travelling to foreign countries for treatment because Tanzania's state run hospitals are under-equipped and underfunded and only the very wealthy can afford the private hospitals. (Let's give a big round of applause to the policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. It's their insistence that developing countries like Tanzania cut funding to health care and other "frill" programming if they want debt forgiveness, that make these circumstances possible)
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But even more important is the bravery that each of these individual women have shown in standing up and telling the world their stories so that other Africans can learn from them. The message they are trying to impart is a vital one for women in every country, not just the countries of the developing world. Your body is nothing to be ashamed of, do not be embarrassed to seek help if you are sick - it's not your fault, it really is better to lose a breast than to lose your life, and you will be no less of a woman for its removal.

Reading the individual stories I could not even begin to understand the struggles they endured in their attempts to seek treatment or the difficulties they faced. To hear one woman casually talk about travelling first to India for treatment, and being so sick she could barely walk, but coming home anyway because she couldn't afford to stay any longer was heartbreaking enough. That the same woman was only able to continue her treatments at home because she purchased the medicines required for treatment herself, was incomprehensible. For a person used to free access to fully equipped state of the art hospitals its impossible to even begin to understand the level of courage any of this required.

Brave Faces is not only a book of poetry and prose about the courage to live one's life to the fullest no matter what is thrown at you, and it's also about people working together in common cause. Look at the opening pages of the book and who has paid for it's development and creation. Everyone from the Prime Minister of Tanzania, who wrote the forward to the book, private corporations like Avon and DHL, and medical professionals have come together on this project. Than there are the people who translated the book into both English and Swahili so it could be read all over Africa and around the world. Most importantly though, are the women themselves who volunteered to tell their stories, for without them there would be no book.

Breast Cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the world after lung cancer, and the most common malignancy among women. The incidences of breast cancer have increased steadily from 1:20 women in 1960 to 1:7 in 2007. It is an epidemic among women and nobody knows why. The only positive is that if Breast Cancer is caught early enough, the chances of survival are high, which makes being able to comfortably talk about it and access to screening procedures vitally important.

In North America we like to think of ourselves as forward thinking and enlightened, and in the past have been condescending towards the people of developing countries and their "backwards" attitudes when it comes women's health issues. Brave Faces not only refutes that opinion, it stands it on its head. The women we meet in Brave Faces are every bit as sophisticated and brave as their counterparts in the west, and the government officials and medical professionals, a great many who are men by the way, show a compassion and caring for these women that you hardly ever see in North America anymore.

Brave Faces was written to bring hope, encouragement, and education to the women of Africa when it comes to dealing with Breast and Cervical Cancers. In an attempt to help the fight against cancer all proceeds generated by the sales of this book will be donated to Cancer Awareness in Tanzania. However I think this book will be of benefit to anybody who reads it for the message of hope, courage, and faith in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles that it delivers. We all face various challenges in our lives; Nasra's poems and the women we meet through her will inspire all of us, no matter what we are dealing with.

December 10, 2007

Book Review: Legends Of The Chelsea Hotel Ed Hamilton

“I remember her well from the Chelsea Hotel” sang Leonard Cohen, about his brief sexual encounter (blow job) with Janis Joplin. Somehow that’s that type of song you’d expect to be written about an encounter between the melodramatic poet, and the saddest woman in Rock History - especially when the Chelsea Hotel was involved.

It’s not often that a building is as famous as the people who have live there, and you have to wonder, who made who famous? Was it the grand old lady whose doors opened 1883 as a luxury co-op residence who made her inhabitants famous - or was it the inhabitants’ fame (and infamy) that gave the Chelsea her status. However it came about, there’s no doubt that even though her time as tallest building in New York City was brief, she will always have her place in history.

It was as early as 1905 that she was converted into a hotel and she catered to the elite of New York’s literary and theatre communities. The forties and fifties saw her still home to her beloved artists, but the body was showing wear and tear and gradually she began the long slow descent into flophouse. Large suites were carved up into small rooms to better serve the down and outs with little money and she would have probably not survived if not for her long term tenants fighting to hold on their own rooms.
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For those of you, who like me, have always held romantic notions about certain geographical locations; the Left Bank in Paris for instance, The Chelsea Hotel has probably made herself known to you already. My generation at least knows her as the place where Sid Vicious finally brought his ignoble existence to a finale. However, if you really want to get to know something about anything these days, you need an insider’s input. Legends Of The Chelsea Hotel by Ed Hamilton is your pass key into the past, presents, and some very unfortunate sounding potential futures.

For those of you wondering about Mr. Hamilton’s credentials, well he’s been living in the Chelsea for the past nearly dozen years, which gives him access to the ongoing antics of her inhabitants of course. More importantly, he has been writing about the Chelsea on a regular basis for the majority of that time and is host of Living With Legends: Hotel Chelsea Blog.

He has made it part of his life’s work, as he is a writer by trade as well, to become the official collector, repository, and reporter on all things Chelsea. Trolling through the memories of older inhabitants he learns the history of events from the past (The Zombie in the cupboard for instance) that an outsider might not have found out about. It also seems that Ed is willing to give even those with the frailest grips on sanity a listen, meaning even some of the less likely legends are revealed.

But some of the genuine denizens have stories that are even more exciting than any fiction writer could have dreamed up. For instance, Storme DeLarverie; is probably not a household name to most of us, but if it weren’t for this brave woman gay and lesbian rights may have taken years longer to entrench. She through the first punch in what has become known as the Stonewall Rebellion.

The police of New York City were coming down hard on the gay clubs - rounding people up and arresting them for no reason except harassment and figuring no one would ever fight back. That was until Storme threw the first punch and cold conked a cop. That’s when the gays and lesbians threw up their infamous “Stonewall” and fought the cops to a stand still. All it had taken was one person to show they weren’t going to take it and everybody else found the backbone. That one person was Storme DeLarverie - the cross dressing Lesbian.

It’s Ed Hamilton’s introduction of people like this that makes Legends Of The Chelsea Hotel truly invaluable I think. He says at the beginning of the book that it hadn’t been his intent to write about the celebrities of the hotel, but that some of them were just strong of character to be denied. That doesn’t mean you can expect a typical, “So and so did this” while staying at the Chelsea - Ed is far to human a writer for the important people to be turned into gossip fodder.
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Two of my favorite episodes concern two survivors of the chaotic Punk years of New York, Dee Dee Ramone and Patti Smith. Dee Dee was an on again off again resident of the Hotel for most of his adult life it seems. He would use her rooms to hole up when he was trying to go clean, or even when he was just looking for somewhere to get away from the world. Ed’s recounting of his conversations with Dee Dee make him sound so human, lost, and sad, that his eventual death by overdose becomes unavoidable.

Patti Smith took a room in the Chelsea for a few weeks to work on a book of poetry, and one night Ed happened to come across her in the halls of the hotel. They didn’t know each other, and maybe still don’t, but from his description of her it sounds like she was out looking for ghosts from the days she spent in the hotel. There was just something beautifully haunting about his description of the whole encounter that removed many of the harsh planes from Patti’s psyche for me.

I think that’s what I’ve enjoyed most about reading the Legends Of The Chelsea Hotel; Ed Hamilton’s ability to keep everything low key and gentle. That’s not to say he can’t be judgmental, but it’s understandable when you spend a good deal of your time trying to keep junkies from shooting up in the bathroom you share with three other rooms on your floor. That would put the saintliest person on edge I would think.

As with so many other wonderful things now the fate of the Chelsea is uncertain. The owners finally managed to maneuver the manager of fifty years, Stanley Bard, out of his job and have started to do their best to rid themselves of all the long term residents. The fight continues today to keep the grand old lady as she has been since 1905 when she opened her doors as a hotel, but commerce and gentrification are tough opponents. Ed Hamilton’s Legends Of The Chelsea Hotel, published by Thunder’s Mouth Press and distributed in Canada by Publishers Group Canada, might just be the punch that’s needed to get people off their feet to save the old lady - but she’ll need some help.

Read Ed’s book, check out Living With Legends: Hotel Chelsea Blog, and keep informed. You may find a way that you can help save The Chelsea. The world is in desperate need of originality, even if it comes in the shape of an elderly and care worn hotel.

December 5, 2007

Book Review: Sovereign Bones: New Native American Writing Edited By Eric Gansworth

"Why do you insist on calling yourselves Indian?" asks a white woman in a nice hat..."Listen" I say. "The word belongs to us now. We are Indians. That has nothing to do with Indians from India. We are not American Indians. We are Indians, pronounced In-din. It belongs to us. We own it and we're not going to give it back"... So much has been taken from us that we hold on to the smallest things left with all the strength we have. Sherman Alexie, "The Unauthorised Biography Of Me" Sovereign Bones 2007
Why do you write? Me, I write because I don't feel whole unless I get my fix everyday. I'm sure the same goes for everybody who feels the urge to paint, sing, dance, yodel, build, photograph, chip stone, melt steel, carve wood, and recreate something they've heard, seen, imagined, visualized, conceptualized, or dreamed. Each day we get up and put fingers to keyboard, piano keys, guitar strings, paintbrushes, modeling clay, microphones, hammers, pencils, charcoal, and paint and take a stab at godhood by attempting creation.

A short story writer, you start to write but are brought up short when you realize you're writing in a foreign language. An Englishman or North American writes in English because that's the language of her people. French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Celtic, Zulu, Swahili, Mongolian, and Russian alike can all write in the language that their ancestors have spoken a variation of for generations.
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Your grandparents had their names stolen from their tongues and your parents have the vocabulary of infants, while you are illiterate and mute in the language of your people. The voice you once thought so alive, now sounds dead in your ears as it tell your stories, the stories of your people, in words that have no bearing on the subject matter, and that don't believe in the same things you do.

Sovereign Bones published by Nation Books and distributed in Canada by Publisher Group Canada is a collection of writings by contemporary Native American artists about what it's like to be an artist when your culture hasn't been yours for more than a century. It can't be "Indian" if it doesn't have braids, feathers, and buckskins riding a horse with mournful dignity into the sunset because today is a good day to die.

Anyone who does any creative work at all knows just how difficult it can be without any additional demands being made upon your already taxed brain. Can you imagine what it would be like to put your heart and soul into a painting, and be told that there is no such thing as contemporary art from your people? Artistically you only exist in the past as artefacts picked over by those who know that modern Indians have nothing to say; nothing to say that matches everybody's conception of what an Indian is anyway. Why doesn't your stuff look like other great Indian artists, like you know, Edward Curtis?

Actor's, writers, poets, painters, sculptors, photographers, film makers, fashion designers, and musicians alike have run into the wall of 'it's not Indian enough to be Indian', no matter how Indian they are. Indian men are noble stoic warriors or drunks who talk in short clipped sentences that are filled with meaning. Indian women are meek, and docile who over the centuries have been exploited by their lazy husbands, or beautiful Princesses waiting for the just the right European they can fall in love with for a little bit of that starred crossed lover stuff that can end tragically for all parties involved leaving everybody older and wiser. (It's okay to have your bit of fun with the pretty Indian girl, but don't bring her home to mother is the moral of that story)
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Yet in spite of this, or maybe if they're contrary enough, (it's no coincidence that in many traditions the creator is also a trickster who works in opposition to what makes sense), because of this, it hasn't stopped people from all nations from doing just what they are meant to do. Creating works of art that are about them and their people in the world around them, just like the rest of the world's artists.

Perhaps like Wayne Eagleboy's painting "We The People" near the beginning of this review they will make social political commentary? Perhaps like Shelly Niro's installation at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, (pictured to the right), of "Skywoman", they will tell their traditional tales. But she hasn't used any feathers or buckskin, and what's with the turtle – where's the buffalo?

Buffalo never played any role in the life of the Haudenosaunee, people of the long house, or Iroquois Confederacy, in the woodlands north and south of the St. Lawrence River in what are now New York State, and the provinces of Ontario and Quebec in Canada. Nor did men wear the full headdress of feathers; at least not until the 1950's and they wanted people to pay attention to them as Indians.

No one is surprised when they find out that German and French people have a history of different styles of dress, music, art, literature, and architecture, even though they share a common border. Yet these same people refuse to understand two distinct nations that live over a thousand miles apart can be just as different. From the food eaten, to the clothes they wore, the only thing the Lakota, or any of the other people from what is now North and South Dakota, Montana, and Minnesota have in common with the Six Nations who are the Haudenosaunee, is they were conquered by Europeans.

Sovereign Bones is by turns heartbreaking, life affirming, inspiring, and most of all real. Each artist, no matter what their medium, relate what it is they are trying to do as artists, and what it's like to be an Indian artist today. The burden of recovering what is so close to be being lost forever has been placed squarely on their collective shoulders. To each of them falls the task of keeping alive the collective unconscence of their people in a world that doesn't recognize that differences between their people exist.

Maybe I can think of something that would be as difficult to cope with as an artist, but not right off the top of my head. It's hard enough as it is getting published without having to fight against other people's expectations of what my work should be like for it to be my work.

"Sherman," says the critic, "How does the oral tradition apply to your work?"..."Well", I say, as I hold my latest book close to me, "It doesn't apply at all because I typed this. And when I'm typing, I'm really, really quiet." Sherman Alexie "The Unauthorized Autobiography Of Me" Sovereign Bones 2007

October 28, 2007

Book Review: War With No End Various Authors

I don't make any secret of my politics and the label most people would a fix to me would be left of (insert name of person furthest to the left you can think of) but you would probably be wrong. You see I usually end up despising the folk on the left almost as much as I do those on the right; if it weren't for that I tend to less violently disagree with the left than the right it would be a draw.

My problem with all political beings is the fact that they are political beings and forget that the majority of us aren't. Most of us are just trying to get by in a world that is getting increasingly fucked up with each passing day. The problems of the world are not going to be solved because one person's philosophy is more suited than another's to the circumstances we find ourselves in as a species. Political pundits on either side of the pendulum are those who are too stupid to have understood the lessons two thousand years of history have taught about political ideology's total irrelevancy to living.

Where I tend to agree with the left is the fact that they don't like the actions of the right. They don't agree with the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, neither do I. The problem is that they suffer from the same problem as the right in thinking that they know what's best for other people, their ideas and solutions are the only ones that are viable and everything else should be disregarded as heretical and dangerous.

This has been one of the main reasons that I've avoided reading the majority of what has been written over the last five years in terms of writings against the policies of the Team Bush & Blair. I already know whom to blame for what's going on thank you very much, so who needs to hear it repeatedly. It's just as tedious as having to listen to Bush, Blair, and company reciting their mantras of blame and self-righteous horseshit.

So far the only books I've read about the occupation that have made any sense are the novel The Sirens Of Baghdad by Yasmina Khadra and a collection of essays, poems, and other writings published by Perceval Press called Twilight Of Empire: Responses To Occupation. What separated these two works from others was they were more concerned with talking about the situation on the ground then talking about whom to blame, who benefited, or a world wide capitalist/leftist-Muslim conspiracy.
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When I decided to give War With No End , published by Verso Books and distributed by Penguin Canada, a try it was in the hopes that because it followed a similar format as Twilight Of Empire it would be as diverse a presentation. A variety of authors from different professional backgrounds; academic, artistic, and journalism, have the potential for making an anthology less political and more personal in content.

It's hard to believe now, but there was a time when Israel was the darling of the left. What with her collective farms and socialist governments she was one of the few left leaning countries that weren't under Soviet influence in the fifties and sixties. Now of course all the problems of the Middle East stem from Israel, her ambitions, and her ties to the United States.

I don't have much love the Likud party or the path of self destruction that the past few governments seem to have embarked on with their intransigence on issues, but that doesn't make the country evil anymore then George Bush makes America a nation of dangerous religious fanatics. Maybe I'm a little sensitive about the issue because I'm a Jew, but I'm sorely tempted to grab the next asshole that blames all the world's problems on Israel, paint a Swastika on his chest and put a white hood over his head and dump him on the South Side of Chicago.

It must be some sort of reflex action on certain people's part, they're writing along making an intelligent argument in their case about Iraq, when all of a sudden its Israel's fault. Look, I know Israel has been pretty stupid about settlers and the whole issue of Palestine, but they weren't the ones who invaded their neighbours with the express purpose of driving the "Jews into the sea" on a regular basis for a couple of decades.

That's bound to make you a little paranoid after a while and a little mistrustful. Everyone is always quick to say that they know there are members of the Israeli population who don't support the government's policy, but they don't seem to mention what would happen to people in Syria who openly defy their government about policy? Do you think there would be Peace Now demonstrations in Damascus when Syria was fighting Israel as there have been when Israel is at war?

So I was disappointed to find a couple of otherwise intelligent essays by Arundhati Roy and Ahdaf Soueif descending into that usual territory. Soueif's essay especially, as it had started out as an intelligent and insightful look at Arab identity, the disintegration of Egyptian culture, and the gradual intellectual impoverishing of the nation due to the many years of one party/military rule.

On the other hand the essay by Haifa Zangana about the role of song and poetry in the life of Iraq, and more specifically in it's vocalization of protest against the occupation of Iraq by the Americans and its allies gives a clearer picture of the lengths that the administration will go to maintain control. Even more telling are his descriptions of the desperate to the point of being ridiculous if they weren't so heavy handed and disgusting, actions of the occupying administration to shut down the music industry. They've yet to make singing illegal but have done everything short of that to try and make sure no one hears any of the protest songs.

It started with shutting down local media outlets, escalated into raiding recording studios, and finally has resulted in attacks on any store suspected of selling CDs, music DVDs, and videos. Sometimes it's the coalition troops involved in raiding record stores, but more often then not, they get mercenaries to do the job and make the owner disappear without a trace.

The other two contributions that helped to elevate this from being merely another series of political knee jerks on somebody's behalf were Joe Sacco's mini graphic novel "Down! Up!", and the contribution from the group September 11th Families For Peaceful Tomorrows. Sacco's piece is a great piece of black humour on the efforts of two Marine "lifer" sergeants attempts to turn uneducated, poor, middle aged Iraqis into the fighting force Bush has declared must be in place before American troops can withdraw. It's a brilliant example of satire, black humour, and sobering pathos that gives us some idea of the futility of creating local security forces.

There is nothing remotely funny about the contribution from one of the many people who lost a child on September 11th whose motto "Not In Our Names" does more to undermine the moral high ground that Bush and company have tried to seize through invoking those deaths then any speech or simplistic rhetoric could even dream of.. This piece makes the rest of the book meaningless, and elevates it beyond anything political rhetoric could ever hope to achieve.

At one point near the end of her contribution she talks of how her son Stephen, who died on September 11th, sat at a conference table with a group of other people sharing a phone so they could leave messages of love to those who they knew they would be leaving behind. There was no talk of vengeance or hatred – just love. She goes on to say that is the legacy she works to keep alive - the legacy of love.

She talks of how there are times when the temptation to despair is overwhelming, but that she is given hope by those people who won't let go of the belief that the world can be a beautiful place for all it's peoples. I wonder if she realizes what a beacon of hope she is with her ability to hold on to love after what has happened to her? Does she know what a high standard she is setting for the rest of us to live up to?

Could I talk like her if a loved one had been taken from me by violence? I'd like to think so but I don't know, and quite frankly don't want to find out anytime soon. If more of North America thought like her and less like George Bush I don't think we'd have quite the number of problems we have in the world right now.

War With No End is a collection of essays ostensibly about the War On Terror, but it seems to bounce all over the place and not keep to its central focus save for a couple of the essays. As is typical of the majority of anti-war, leftist writing these days too much of it is filled with as much anger and hatred as the rhetoric of those they claim to oppose.

Thankfully there are still a few voices out there who are able to lift themselves out of that quagmire and offer a perspective that doesn't depend on ideology or an ism for its survival – now that's a real policy alternative.

October 25, 2007

Book Review: "They Called Me Meyar July: Painted Memories Of A Jewish Childhood In Poland Before The Holocaust Mayer Kishenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett

In 1980, my mother and I moved into an apartment in the neighbourhood she had spent a large part of her childhood. Forty-seven years earlier when she'd been brought home from the hospital five blocks south of where she now lived just north of Spadina and College in Toronto Ontario. In 1933, Cecile Street and it's environs, The Kensington Market area of Toronto, was still primarily Jewish, and home to a good many immigrant families who had fled Europe one if not two generations ago.

Although some families had already gained a good enough measure of success by this time for Jewish enclaves to be established in slightly more affluent areas of the city, Kensington Market was still home to a large percentage of the city's Jewish population. By this time, many families had children like my mother who represented a second generation born in Canada but life remained hard for them. It was the middle of the depression and work was scarce, especially for minority immigrants.

When I used to walk through the neighbourhood in the early eighties when we moved back you, could still see traces of the old community. A sign on an old building advertising a kosher butcher, or a house on a back street that was still an active synagogue, reminders of an earlier time when a village had moved over together and people had done their best to create a familiar atmosphere in a foreign environment.

In the years from my mother's birth leading up to September 1939 when the German's invaded Poland, a thin trickle of new immigrants arrived with whispers of a new pogrom, far worse then any the Tsars had conducted, being carried out by the Nazis. It is to Canada's and the United States' eternal shame that they refused to lift their quota's on how many Jews were allowed entry at that time in spite of having impartial reports confirming the round up of Jewish people in Germany and the confiscating of all their property.
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Mayer Kershenblatt was one of the lucky ones who got out before the war started, and came to Canada from the village of Apt in Poland in 1934. When he had a family of his own he would regale them with tales of life in the Jewish community in the small city to the point that later in life his daughter, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, encouraged him to try and bring the people and places to life through paintings.

It wasn't until one day when he was meeting some friends and realized that no matter what happened their conversation would turn to reliving their days in the concentration camps. It was as if no life existed before the war for any of them. In his introduction to,They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories Of A Jewish Childhood In Poland Before The Holocaust, Mayer recounts these conversations as being the motivation for finally surrendering to his daughter's wishes that he set brush to canvas in an attempt to preserve the memory of Jewish life before the war in Poland.

At seventy-three Mayer started to attend drawing and painting classes in order to create a visual record of the time. His method for a painting was simple he says, first he needed a subject, and then the subject had to have a story attached; either one he knew first hand, was told by fellow citizens of Apt, or that had been written down in the "Apt Chronicles" the memorial book of his town.

When people began to show significant interest in the paintings; an exhibition and offers to buy work surely count as interest, Mayer and Barbara began to piece together the stories of life in Apt he had been telling her since her childhood to work as complements to the paintings. They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories Of A Jewish Childhood In Poland Before The Holocaust, published by University Of California Press, is the end result of their joint efforts to ensure that the life of a vibrant community won't vanish from our memories like the smoke from a chimney dissipated in the wind.

The narrative and the paintings are all from the viewpoint of a child, but filtered through an adults understanding of how the world works. What could have easily turned into an exercise in sentimental nostalgia for something that never existed, is instead a steadfastly honest depiction filled with the excitement and wonder that a child bears for the world.

On the one hand, we experience the author's joy at adventuring out into the millpond in a small skiff with his friends and pretending to be pirates, much as children the world over create imaginary worlds for themselves. However, we also read of the tenements where families sleep five to a bed while sharing a room with two or three other families. This is no simplistic singing of praises to the good old days that suggests we would all be better off if we only lived like they did back then.

Things that we take for granted now, such as a ready and easy supply of water, aren't available to the people of Apt. Either they hire a porter to carry the water to them as required or they make the trip to one of the town's two wells. Mayer describes in detail all of those who congregate at the water, from the town prostitute, the soldiers from the local barracks, and of course the housewives who would also stay to exchange the latest gossip.
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At first glance, the illustrations appear to be simplistic; work that any grade school student might have done with his or her mother's fridge door the intended gallery. But on closer inspection you realize you are looking at work of a sophistication that belies it's appearance. The detail that is included in each of the works is astounding, from the wall murals that decorate the interior of the synagogue to the elaborate ritual of the Black Marriage staged in the Jewish cemetery.

Of my mother's family it was her father's Romanian people whose stories I was most familiar with. Her mother's Polish family was always something of a mystery. I never heard stories of what their life was like for them back in Poland in spite of the fact that all my grandmother's brothers and sisters were born there. But after reading, and experiencing They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories Of A Jewish Childhood In Poland Before The Holocaust I can image in my head the streets they may have walked down before they came to Canada.

In the past century there have been attempts to erase various peoples from the annals of world history. From the Armenians and Kurds in the Middle East, indigenous peoples throughout the world, to the Holocaust. As a result, we run the risk of losing the stories of these people's lives in specific places and times. Each people are a unique strand in the tapestry that make up who so many of us are today that to allow those stories to vanish would be to throw away a piece of our selves.

Mayer Kirshenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt –Gmblet have given the world the precious gift of bringing the town of Apt back to life. Leafing through the pages of They Called Me Mayer July you can almost hear the sound of the Klezmar band as they perform in accompaniment to the Purim Play "A Krakow Wedding". As Mayer is peeking through a window in his painting of this scene to try and catch a glimpse of the performance, we are peeking through the window of his eyes catching glimpses of what life was like in Poland for Jews before it was ended so horifically.

No on can bring the past back to life, or reverse the course of time and history, but we can strive to ensure that people are not forgotten and that their memories are cherished. As long as one copy of They Called Me Mayer July exists the people of Apt Poland will live on indefinitely. Now that's a blessing.

September 25, 2007

Book Review: Rick Mercer Report: The Book Rick Mercer

According to the good people at Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary the definition of the word rant is as follows: "a noun meaning to speak in loud, violent, or extravagant language; rave". Seeing as rave is part of the definition, in an effort to be thorough I checked it out as well: "To speak wildly or incoherently."

According to that definition that means when we talk of somebody ranting, we're implying they are frothing at the mouth like a rabid dog, and spewing out massive amounts of insensible verbiage. It would seem to me that our current usage of the word is slightly more tolerant than that formal definition. In fact, I feel confident in suggesting that most people would agree that a rant is an impassioned statement about any subject a speaker or writer has strong feelings about.

Rants aren't even dangerous; usually they're just a really good way for a person to let off steam about something that's ticked them off in the moment. Unfortunately, some people live up to the dictionary definition, frothing at the mouth with hatred and ending up leaving a sour taste in most people's mouths. It doesn't have anything to do with political affiliations; hatred knows no party lines and left or right can be equally to blame.

The best types of rants are those done by intelligent people with great senses of humour. They are those people who won't be tied down by political affiliations or dogma, and have no problem with taking on idiocy no matter who the source is. The only people who need fear them are the self-righteous, the pompous, and folk who take themselves and their opinions far too seriously.
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A few years back Canadians were introduced to the comic genius of Rick Mercer when the satirical news/current events show This Hour Has Twenty-Two Minutes started being televised on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). More recently they have welcomed him into their homes as host of the Rick Mercer Report. Now thanks to Random House Canada and their imprint Doubleday Canada, we will now know him as an author. September 25th sees the publication of Rick Mercer Report: The Book, a compendium of interviews and editorials (rants) from four years of the show, and selected articles from his blog.

Rick is originally from the youngest province in Canada, and the one primarily known around the world for it's "barbaric" seal hunt; Newfoundland. Being from Newfoundland is an important part of Rick's makeup as a comic. Newfoundland didn't become part of Canada until 1949 and has been the poorest province since. When the Cod fish stocks failed and the seal hunt became unpopular, villages that had been first settled in the 1700's began turning into ghost towns.

Hardship like that can make you bitter, and sour your outlook on life. However, in the case of Mercer and the people he worked with on This Hour (who were either all from Newfoundland or the East Coast) it honed their bullshit detectors and gave them a healthy sense of scepticism when it came to the promises of politicians. Rick's opinions were made abundantly clear in his weekly "editorial" (rant) concerning something particularly inane that had happened in the world.

On the Rick Mercer Report, the editorials continued, but he also would do segments involving Canadian politicians, counting on their desire to be seen as "regular folk" with senses of humour. He arranged to sleep over at Prime Minister Harper's house, went skinny dippy with a leadership contender (Bob Rae) for the Liberal party, and took the leader of The Green Party out logging.

But I don't think the politicians would have done any of these stunts with Rick, no matter how popular his show is (and it is one of the most watched Canadian shows in Canada) if they didn't think there was more to him then caustic comments. Of course, it doesn't hurt that he treats everybody the same. If you insist on putting your foot in your mouth Rick has suggestions on how much further you can shove it down your throat no matter what political party you are with.
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But there's more to it then that; underneath the silliness and the satire you get the feeling he does what he's doing out of a genuine concern and love for Canada and her people. Perhaps it's not something you'd pick up on watching an episode or two of his show, but when the material is gathered together in one place as it has been for the book, it becomes a lot more obvious.

As you read through the various editorials and interviews, (the segment with environmentalist David Suzuki is worth the price of the book alone: middle of the winter and two men about to jump in a freezing cold lake – you take it from there), you can see that his indignity comes from politicians putting themselves ahead of the people and the country they are supposed to be representing. The only times you feel he is genuinely angry, not just teasing or sarcastic, are those when either people are being insulted or the country is being taken for granted.

When Prime Minister Harper showed himself willing to make deals with the political party bent on ensuring Quebec's separation from Canada (Bloc Quebecois) in an attempt to ensure he could stay in power, after promising never to do that in the election campaign, Mercer was more angry about the potential threat this posed to the country then the broken promise. When it was decided not to lower the flags on parliament hill when a soldier was killed in Afghanistan, in what appeared to be an attempt to hide information about casualties from the public, he was genuinely angry on behalf of the soldiers and the lack of respect he thought it showed for them and their families.

Whatever it is, and however he does it, and I don't think I can give concrete examples, reading Rick Mercer Report: The Book made me remember what used to make me proud of being Canadian. It's what has been missing from our leadership for a good long while now, compassion for those less fortunate.

Whether at home or abroad it was always what marked us and made us a distinctive country. If people were in trouble, we were there with help no questions asked. If people needed a safe haven from a dictator, we opened our borders to them – we have nothing if not room after all. Our armed forces were respected all over the world for being there to help settle disputes or bring vital supplies to people hit by a calamity beyond their control.

Reading this book it sounds to me that Rick Mercer wants to be proud of Canada again for those reasons. When he is critical of people for being selfish and self-serving, it is because they are doing it either at the expense of others or the future of the country. Rick Mercer Report: The Book is not just a series of political attacks for the sake of a few cheap laughs. It is a wake up call to all Canadians to remember what it was that made our country special.

If it can make an iconoclast like me think seriously about why I love my country, think what it can do for you. For those of you who aren't Canadian and wondered what makes us different from either the Americans or the British, reading this book will go a long way to offering an explanation.

Canadians wishing to buy the book can do so through Random House Canada or an online retailer like Amazon.ca.

September 23, 2007

Book Review: Who Moved My Secret Jim Gerard

Have you ever noticed how those guys willing to teach you how to sell real estate so you too can be rich like them always have a "Secret To Their Success", or that weight loss groups promise you the "Secret To Losing Forty Pounds In Six Months". Everybody's got a secret these days, from their own "Secret Sauce" guaranteeing great barbecue to the secret of "Being The Best Possible You".

Most of these folk seem to live either on the home shopping network or on infomercials late at night or first thing Sunday morning, the time slots most affiliate stations never seem to be able to sell. Some of these folk with secrets have also written books about how they became such success. If you're really lucky you'll be able to buy their collected speeches for just $14.99, including a full colour booklet explaining how you can best use these tapes to help you emulate their achievements and learn their "Secrets"

But the folk who are the hands down winners, and make these television pitch guys look like rank amateurs in the "Secret" business, are the New Age proselytisers. The Secrets they know! From ancient Egypt to the court of Arthur and all points in between, beyond, under, and so far out I don't think they'll ever come home again. They sell methods of telling your future based on their Secret knowledge of Lord Of The Rings which inspired them to create a Tarot Deck based on fictional characters.

Some of them have even channelled the secrets of the Angels and have written out their conversations with them so you can find out what Michael and Gabriel think are your chances of getting laid this weekend. Or, if you're into something a little more down to earth, there are plenty of womyn ready to reveal the Secrets of the Earth-Mother/Goddess/Bunny Rabbit.
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But now we are all so very lucky, there will no longer be any room for doubt, because someone has finally written a book called The Secret which I assume will make all those lesser secrets obsolete. In between the covers of that book you must be able to learn how to do everything from selling real estate with no money down, have buns of steel in just twenty days, and learn just what Michael and Gabriel are thinking about.

Proving once again that the majority of North American's are looking for a quick fix and somebody else to do everything for them, this book has become an immediate best seller. If it wasn't so sad that so many people think the answer to all their problems could be found in a book it would be funny. Thankfully comic and author Jim Gerard has come to our rescue to poke fun at the whole phenomenon of The Secret with his book Who Moved My Secret. Published by Nation Books an imprint of Avalon Publishing Group and distributed in Canada by Publishers Group Canada. Who Moved My Secret exposes the real "Secret" behind all these books, makes fun of the idea that a secret exists to make life easy, and generally pokes fun of New Age sillyness.
Of course the real secret behind these books is greed and gullibility. Everybody wants to be able to have "abundance" in their lives and of course interprets that to mean material wealth. Authors of books like The Secret use that as their hook, and rely on those same people to be gullible enough to believe that their book will either tell them something new or tell them anything at all.

As Jim Gerard points out the real "secret" for the author's success lies in being able to sell as many of these books as possible. Yes, you too can make massive amounts of money if you can figure out how to pray on other people's frailties. It's quite amazing how the more somebody promises you something wonderful, the more they end up taking from you.

What I really enjoyed about Mr. Gerard's book is how he's managed to nail so many of the worst characteristics of the New Age movement and expose them for the idiocy they are. So much of New Age centres on the theory of manifestation. You can call forth anything you want just with the power of your mind and positive thinking. Which is all very nice and good, but there's a flip side to that.

Anytime anything goes wrong it's your own fault. You get sick with cancer, well it's because you're far too negative and so you're only getting what you deserve. You stay poor all your life only because you keep having nasty poor thoughts – if you can't think positive rich thoughts well you don't deserve to be rich.

New Age teachings talk continually about energy; giving off positive and negative energy and how it affects your life. In Who Moved My Secret we learn that all thoughts actually have energy and vibrations. "Every time we have a thought it vibrates at a certain frequency. Some thoughts only dogs can hear. God has thoughts that only George W. Bush can hear."

According to Mr. Gerard's theory this is how we can manifest anything we want. If we think about it hard enough we can achieve anything from obtaining fabulous wealth to causing somebody's head to blow up. Of course, if we have negative thoughts and vibrate to a negative pitch, bad things could happen to us and they'd be our own damn fault for having bad thoughts.

For those of you like me, who have grown tired of the inane promises made by everybody from television sales dudes to New Age Snake Oil salespeople, than you will appreciate Who Moved My Secret. Not only does it poke fun at the recent best seller The Secret it takes a swipe at the whole New Age movement with intelligence and humour.

I'm sure you'll be able to find Who Moved My Secret in most bookstores, well maybe not New Age ones, and I can predict, without even having to consult my oracle, that it will definitely put a smile on your face.

September 20, 2007

Book Review: Postcards From Ed: Dispatches And Salvos From An American Iconoclast Ed Abbey, Edited By David Petersen

I know that I'm not being very original when I say that the current administration in Washington D.C. disgusts me. I know there is plenty of people the world over who hold the same, if not harsher, opinion as I do. The thing is that like so many others I find the way they have reacted to the horror of September 2001 by unleashing further horror on the world repellent, I believe that is only a symptom of the deeper damage they have done to the American character.

From the late nineteenth and through a good chunk of the twentieth century, America could realistically be called the champion of the individual. While on occasion that might have brought the country into conflict with the need for some universal and collective measures, for the most part it was an atmosphere that encouraged and fostered greatness.

I don't mean greatness of the country as a whole, although if a country is to be measured by the people it produces then it can lay claim to some of that greatness, but the people who through sheer force of their brilliance thrust themselves into prominence on the world stage. Where else but in America could people like the Beats have sprung forth, or earlier poets like e.e. cummings; the expatriate communities in Paris and Tangier that included Paul Bowls, Ernest Hemingway, William S, Burroughs, and F. Scott Fitzgerald?
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That's only a small sampling of people from one field of endeavour, and barely even scratches the surface of the men and women whom I believe could only have been nurtured in a society that encouraged individualism in its inhabitants from an early age. It was the feature of American society that distinguished it most from the other Western democracies.

But, with individualism comes great responsibility, something that has been conveniently forgotten in recent times. Being selfish is not the same thing as being an individual and neither is doing what you want without considering the implications of your actions and how they will affect others. But even that has become almost an irrelevant concern in the America of George Bush and Dick Chenny. Almost every act that this administration has take, every bill they have passed, and every power they have invoked, has had the result of quashing the individual in the name of what's good for the State.

It really makes me wonder what would have become of one of America's truest individuals of the late twentieth century, Edward Abbey, if he had survived until today. (Although the suicide of Hunter S. Thompson tells you more then you need to know of how well individuals fare in this time) Ed Abbey was best known as the writer of the novel The Monkey Wrench Gang which advocated direct action in fighting the exploitation of the West by the very people who have voted George Bush into power. Long before it was fashionable to be seen fighting for the preservation of the wild against development and so-called progress he was trying to teach people how to become the monkey wrench in the plans to further the rape of the South West.

In a new book edited by David Peterson, various letters and missives from Edward Abbey have been gathered together in an attempt to give people of a new generation an understanding of just who this complicated, and seemingly contradictory man was. Postcards From Ed, published by Milkweed Editions and distributed by the Publishers Group Canada contains letters he wrote to various people in his personal and professional life, and a multitude of broadsides directed at publications throughout the United States. (Funny, I just happened to flip open the book to a page containing a letter written in 1974 to Rolling Stone magazine complimenting them for running an interview with Glenn Gould, and pleading with them to publish more of the work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson)

Abbey was a walking contradiction according to most people's lights and probably had as many enemies on the left as he did on the right because of his strongly held opinions. Well on one hand having no problem in saying Nixon and Kissinger's bombing of North Viet Nam after the 1972 elections sank the government to the moral level of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia, he was also a charter member of the National Rifleman's Association. He advocated each household in America be supplied with a weapon by the government who could then form a civilian militia to replace the volunteer/draft army.

I'm sure he knew very well that was exactly the situation during the revolutionary war, when the British tried to break the militia by making it illegal for civilians to bear arms. (Hence a certain clause in the constitution of the United States guaranteeing the right to bear arms) He didn't think it would do anything for the crime rate, but with 150 million people "we've got plenty to spare". Anyway, he was more worried about the army and the police invading his home then any criminal.
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What he wrote about in his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang he tried to live as much as possible. Finding whatever means he had at his disposal of being the monkey wrench thrown into the works to disrupt projects that he saw as damaging pristine wilderness. He was very much the preserve it as is type of person. He argued against projects that would allow more people to have access to various natural wonders.

His theory was if they hadn't wanted to make an effort to see a place than they didn't want to go there badly enough to begin with. What was the point of going to somewhere like "Rainbow Bridge" if you didn't experience the six mile walk to appreciate it's wonder as part of it's natural environment? Nature shouldn't be a stop on someone's tourist agenda, where you spend ten minutes posing for photos and then moving on to the next stop. It turns the natural world into a commodity like everything else in the world and depreciates its intrinsic value.

While that attitude would have set many a corporate man's teeth on edge, the fact that Ed had nothing against hunting and agreed that hunters had a role to play in conservation, and in fact might even be better situated then most to do so, would have the vegans at PETA getting their knickers in a twist. What they wouldn't understand is that people who hunt for their food, and take responsibility for what they eat, aren't going to want to see stocks depleted.

A good hunter also knows the importance of the natural food chain and the role that large predators other than men play in it. They wouldn't allow for the wholesale slaughter of wolves, coyotes, or big cats to ensure a plentiful supply of deer. But a lot of these so-called environmentalist groups are just as ignorant of the way nature works as the people in their opposing camp are.

For those people who don't know who Ed Abbey is, or who confuse him with an American playwright of a similar name, Postcards From Ed will offer an intriguing glimpse into the mind of one of America's last individuals. His death in 1989 was the next to last death rattle of the spirit of individualism that supposedly makes the United States great. Perhaps people will be encouraged to search out some of his books after reading these cards and letters from the edge of so called civilization that have been compiled in this book.

While some of the battles Ed waged are being won, the Hopi of Black Mesa have finally been able to stop The Peabody Coal Company from draining the water table for use in their slurry line and closed The Black Mesa Mine down, more often then not these days we are losing our wild lands.

According to Ed Abbey, the monkey wrench is not a symbol of destruction, but a symbol of the potential in all of us to restore the world with our abilities. We have a choice, we can either set about restoring in an effort to try and save what we can, or we can sit back idly while it all comes tumbling down around us.

I think I know what Ed would have done; do you know what you're going to do?

Book Review: Other Colours Orhan Palmuk

One of the wonderful things about reading books is that occasionally you get to read about something from a whole different perspective then the one you are exposed to normally. Our media report on the world from the perspective of our society, which only makes sense, as they have to represent the philosophies that buy their publications.

But, that still leaves us with only one perception on events, only half a conversation, or one side of the story. When we work up the nerve to leave our insulated shores and read something a point of view other than the one that appears nightly on our television or continually in our mass media it can be both a shock to our systems and an eye opening experience.

For those who follow international events, i.e. the world outside the sphere of American interest, one of the bigger stories has been the application of Turkey to join the European Union(EU). There's a lot of history between the two, dating back to the days of the Crusades. That's when the Europeans first tried to reclaim what they called the Holy Land and the Turks called home. Open warfare between the two only ended with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War One and the capture of Jerusalem by the British.

Although, among the nominally Muslim known states Turkey has always taken pride in being secular with complete separation of church and state, the mistrust of the West towards the East still exists. In part, this is caused by what seems to be a state of continual political unrest in Turkey (the most recent coup having taken place in the 1980's) and the recent strong showing of non-secular parties in various elections.
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Therefore, the stories we do get in the news about the proposed entry of Turkey into the EU all express European concerns. Now there is no denying that the concerns about human rights and religious tolerance are ones that can't be ignored, but what about opinions from the other side? Do we even know the people of Turkey, or anything about their country, their society, and how they go about their days? What image do we have of them, if any at all?

This is where literature can help fill the gaps in our awareness, especially if the writer in question is a recent Nobel Prize laureate whose political independence is unquestioned. Orhan Pamuk newest release Other Colours published by Random House Canada through it's imprint Knoff Canada may not be the definitive book on the opinions and views of the Turkish people, but it still represents a perspective that we rarely see.

I have the impression that this might have been Mr. Pamuk's intention with this publication, due to the sections he's divided the book into. He starts the book off with short essays under the title "Living and Worrying", which detail his day-to-day existence with family and friends. Predominate in this section are descriptions of adventures he has with his daughter, and the earthquake of 1999 that shattered Turkey.

We also get his ideas about writing, descriptions of living in his home city of Istanbul, and the usual, overwhelming, impression that permeates all his work of a melancholy of the soul pervasive to the city's inhabitants. It's a city steeped in history and haunted by its past, troubled by its future, and worried about the present. Like Los Angeles they sit and wait for the "big one" which will obliterate them while playing the speculative game of "if it falls, will it land on us?"

While there are also a couple of other chapters that deal with his relationship to other people's writing and his own, the chapter that will interest those wanting a different perspective on the potential union of Turkey and Europe is "Politics, Europe, And Other Problems Of Being Oneself".

The picture that appears of Turkey from these pages is of a character full of contradictions and in some ways cynical enough to believe that in the end none of what they do or say will really have any bearing on their acceptance into the European Union. Why else would they prosecute a writer of Orhan Pamuk's reputation for speaking a truth that is universally accepted, but not allowed to be spoken in Turkey? In an interview with a European newspaper, Pamuk talked about the genocide of Armenians and Kurds by the Turks, and estimated that Turkey had killed around one million Armenians and fifty thousand Kurds.

For speaking that simple truth, a fact written down in history books all over the world, he was charged under Article 301, "publicly denigrating Turkish identity". Pamuk writes about the period in a very matter of fact manner; talking about how the ultra nationalists newspapers called for his "silencing", and that his books were burnt. Compared to some of his contemporaries the charges against him were slim, and he fully expected to win his case. The last thing he wanted or thought would happen was that he would become a cause celebre and a poster child for the rights of authors.
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He recounts how a fellow author and friend had congratulated him on hearing the news of his being charged, of finally becoming a real Turkish author. In fact, he says he wasn't at all surprised to find himself eventually on trial, because it seems the only way an author will be honoured in Turkey is if he has spent time in jail. But, he also places his arrest in the context of world affairs in a way that shows the extent of how differently the East's view of the world is from that of the West.

He says there is a dichotomy being faced by the people in countries like India, Russia, China, and Japan who have suddenly become members of the global economy. In order to compensate for their espousal of Western economic goals that contrast so much with traditional learning, and to prevent being overly criticized for their new found wealth, they resort to rabid nationalism. He doesn't spare the West though, because he says how could he sell their brand of freedom and democracy to his people when the war in Iraq and revelations of secret CIA prisons have so damaged its credibility?

It seems like the problem for people of conscience, like Orhan Pamuk and others, in countries that lie on the cusp of what is known as a democratic system of government, is what example do they have to hold up to their people of how life should be? That is what we never see on our news, or in our newspapers. No political leader, no matter what their stripe would ever dare get up in public and say what needs to be said.

In spite of what you've been told to the contrary, nobody beyond the borders of this country believes the United States or Britain (and I would add Canada to that list too considering our current government) to be a shining example of freedom or democracy. The light cast by our governments' endeavours no longer serves as a beacon guiding anybody to anything except hostility and resistance.

If Pamuk thought his words made him unpopular in his homeland for speaking the truth, these ideas he postulates aren't going to go down a treat anywhere in the world. Either in the United States, Britain, or Canada where the beacons have sputtered out, or in India, China, Japan, Russia and Turkey where they are embracing Western economic ideals and becoming less tolerant of diversity and truth.

Other Colours is about more than the world's politics, its about life in one of the world's oldest cities as seen through the eyes of a keen and passionate observer. But the world has intruded upon Istanbul – or Istanbul wants to step out into the world again with results that look similar to what is happening elsewhere. How else do you explain a secular country's sudden swing to religious political parties if not through fear of change and a compensation for embracing Western values that are alien to the society?

For whatever reason, Turkey is experiencing some profound changes, and reactions there are as good as indication as any, for gauging the moderate East's opinion of the West. I can't think of any man more capable or sensitive to document these events than Orhan Parmuk, and if you care about the world beyond your borders, it would be remiss not to read every word of this book carefully.

Somewhere within it lies the secret by which we might all survive the next decade or so while the balance of power in the world shifts. He might not come right out and say the answer, but he asks the right questions to put us on the road to discovering it.

Readers in Canada can purchase Other Colours directly from Random House Canada or through Amazon.ca

September 15, 2007

Book Review: The Unquiet Grave: The FBI And The Struggle For The Soul Of Indian Country Steve Hendricks

The United States has been at war with people living within its borders since the day the country was founded. Systematically the government has stripped them of their land, denied them of basic human rights, and tried to steal the very language they have spoken for thousands of years from their tongues. When they or allies have had the nerve to protest they are declared enemies of the state and treated as such.

If you thought acts committed under the auspices of Homeland Security were new, its only because the majority of the population of the United States has not been subject to them before. Welcome to a small taste of what it's like to be a Native American in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

Only a small taste however, the government isn't quite stupid enough to think that the majority of people would tolerate being treated like they still treat Indians today. Heck they never even treated the Blacks this bad - but of course they were an essential ingredient in keeping the economy going, slave labour to pick the cotton and minimum-wage slave labour to keep the service industry turning over.

But what damn good is an Indian, they don't make good slaves 'cause they just die, which why we had to import the Africans in the first place, and you can't teach him to be civilized either - look at how long we tried with residential schools. Not them, nope they'd rather keep speaking their own heathen languages no matter how much we beat, raped, or generally abused them. Well if the stubborn bastards don't want anything do with our way of life than screw 'em is what I say, and let them rot on their reservations.
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That might not be written down anywhere as official government policy, but it's certainly been the way the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have conducted themselves when it comes to their treatment of American Indians and their supporters. The Unquiet Grave: The FBI And The Struggle For The Soul Of India Country by Steve Hendricks is the latest book to try and wake the American public to the criminal behaviour of their government toward its first citizens.

Published by Thunder Mouth's Press an imprint of Avalon books and distributed by Publishers Group Canada and Publishers Group West. It joins Dee Brown's Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee and Peter Matthiessen's In The Spirit Of Crazy Horse as attempts to counter the lies and bullshit that have been propagated as the truth about events of the last thirty years and beyond.

For organizations who claim to have nothing to hide concerning their dealings with American Indians, and in particular people who were involved with the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the 1970s, both the FBI and the BIA were and are, very reluctant to release documents to Hendricks under the Freedom Of Information Act as required by Congress. In fact in an effort to research this book, he has had to sue both agencies (with some cases still in the courts) on a number of occasions to gain access to the files he requested.

For his investigation into the recent history of the American Indian, he starts with the biggest mystery that still surrounds events that took place thirty years ago on Pine Ridge Lakota Reserve in South Dakota - the death of Anna Mae Aquash. Anna Mae was a member of AIM who was found dead on a back road in South Dakota. Right from the discovery of her body, the FBI did their best to distort the facts. They even refused to come clean on how many agents showed up at the scene after the crime was reported.

Hendricks recounts the story again in all its sordid detail: how her hands were cut off and sent to Washington for fingerprinting, because nobody supposedly recognised her. How the first autopsy said she died of exposure even though there was bullet wound in the back of her neck leaking blood and the bullet could be clearly seen as a protuberance through her face. Thirty years later rumours and accusations are still flying on all sides about who killed her and why.

She wasn't the only AIM member or supporter to be killed or die under mysterious circumstances and whose real killers may never be found out. They may find the person who pulled the trigger, but those who labelled her an informer and sealed her death will never be known. Standard operating procedure for the FBI was to seed dissent among groups like AIM by spreading rumours via agency informants that key members were selling the group out. Therefore, it remains a very real possibility that they pulled the strings that resulted in the death of Anna Mae Aquash by convincing AIM she was as an informer.

Anna Mae isn't the only scab the Steve Hendricks picks at, some won't sit well with supporters of AIM, but their hands got dirty, and the less they attempt to cover it up the better it will be for them in the long run. Suspicion and paranoia seemed to be the normal state of affairs for the leadership of AIM. Not without justification as there were continual threats on the lives of Dennis Banks, Russell Means, and others. Still that doesn't excuse what were tantamount to summary executions of people suspected to be informers.

People may say, if Hendricks was so interested in helping Indians, why did he have to go and say things that throw the leadership of AIM in a negative light. In my mind that establishes the credibility of all the other information he unearths in his book. We've already enough history books that are written that cover up inconvenient truths, do we really want more of the same no matter whose side they favour?
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According to the United States Army the virtual execution of over three hundred men, women, and children at Wounded Knee Creek on December 28th 1890 by Hotchkiss gun was and is a glorious victory for the Seventh Calvary. Any attempt to pay even the least amount of compensation to the victim's families has been fought tooth and nail by the United States Army in their continued denial of an almost universally accepted truth. Supporters of Native Americans cannot reasonably condemn the American government for propagating a recidivist version of history if they are willing to do the same.

In the long run no matter how bad the leadership of AIM might come across at times, their actions will always pale in comparison to the activities of the FBI, the BIA, and various American administrations, up to and including the current one, in regards their treatment of American Indians. Books like Unquiet Grave and men like Steven Hendricks are necessary if we are ever going to find out the truth of what happened and what continues to happen in the war the government of the United States is waging against the American Indians.

You might not like everything he has to say, but unlike the official versions of these events, he has told the truth as much as he is able to based on what people have been willing and able to tell him. The story continues to unfold at his web site as he wins access to more and more information. Even since the book was published in 2006 he has added more to the story via that address.

For anybody doubting the veracity of his claims pages 383 to 474 of Unquiet Grave cites his sources for all his information, including excerpts from documents prised away from the FBI under the Freedom Of Information Act. It's all there, from their falsification of information in order to ensure Leonard Peltier's extradition from Canada for his alleged role in the killing of FBI agents, to the contradictory statements about Aquash's death.

Unquiet Grave: The FBI And The Struggle For The Soul Of Indian Country by Steven Hendricks should cause outrage and shock because of its revelations about the FBI and the BIA, but it will be lucky to attract any attention at all. We continue to wash our hands of any responsibility for the "Indian problem" or claim it doesn't exist. Hendricks answers those who would argue that it's not our responsibility what happened hundreds of year ago with these words about the land stolen from the Lakota,"If we know of the theft, as we do, yet do not right it, we are as guilty as our forbearers".

The same can be said about the FBI and the BIA. If, as according to this book they are, they are aware of the guilt of previous agents and agency heads, and do nothing to rectify it, they are just as guilty as those who committed those acts. It's high time that those two bureaus were held accountable for their crimes against the American people, and Steven Hendricks has provided sufficient evidence to justify just such an investigation.

Unquiet Grave is an unusual history book in that it attempts to tell the truth without favouring one side over another. It lays out the story in language anybody can understand without ever oversimplifying or assuming the reader already knows anything. This important book should be included on every high school's history curriculum in Canada and the United States as an example of what the truth looks like. It's not necessarily pretty, nor is it necessarily nice, but its reality and its about time eyes were opened to it. Only then can the long, overdue, process of redressing wrongs begin.

September 5, 2007

Book Review: The Shock Doctrine: The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism Naomi Klein

"It's the economy stupid" was the phrase that supposedly kept Bill Clinton's campaign team focused on what they needed to do in order to win the 1992 election campaign. Pound away mercilessly on the woeful state of the economic union in post Regan America, and lay the blame for it at his former Vice President, and incumbent President, George Bush sr.

What that consisted of was simply pointing out to Americans what they already knew. A great many of them were unemployed, real wages sucked, the government was billions if not trillions of dollars in debt, and the policy of cutting taxes and increasing military spending was ruinous beyond belief. Clinton's election over a sitting President was a major rebuttal to the supposedly free market, small government, and cutting of social programs measures practiced by the neo-conservatives who surrounded Ronald Regan.

Compared to the majority of industrialized nations in the world the United States has, depending on your point of view, lagged far behind in terms of the social safety net or led the way in cutting back on government interference in the economy. While the United States has never fully committed to either completely free markets or a real social safety net, it is the country where the two major contrasting schools of economic thought have battled it out on a regular basis.

John Maynard Keynes proposed government intervention in the economy in order to protect the populace from the vagrancies of economic fluctuations like recessions, depressions, and inflation. He advocated government run insurance programs to offer protection to people in times of vulnerability; unemployment, old age, and illness. His ideas formed the basis of what is known as the welfare state – which was never meant to be a derogatory term by the way.
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At the complete opposite end of the economic spectrum was Milton Friedman who advocated that the economy must be allowed to proceed without any government interference at all. Only then would it be able to operate at maximum efficiency and provide plenty for everybody. It's Mr. Friedman's philosophies and the manner in which they have been, and are being implemented that come under intense scrutiny in Naomi Klein's latest book published by Random House Canada through its Knoff Canada imprint, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism

The title refers to Mr. Friedman's contention that for his theory to work the economy has to be shocked back to a state of zero, where their is no government ownership or involvement in the economy. It is Ms. Klein's contention in her book that not only is the philosophy being implemented whenever opportunities present themselves, but that American policy over the last eight years has been geared to ensuring it's implementation when and where ever possible.

From the outset, Ms. Klein makes it clear that she doesn't believe Capitalism is an inherently evil system. What she does do is systematically lay forth a damning and convincing case in support of her thesis. She has spent the last two years travelling the globe conducting interviews, and investigating situations and circumstances where the shock doctrine has been implemented.

In Sri Lanka and Indonesia after the tsunami, fishing villages that had been on the coasts for generations providing families with their livelihoods have seen their land sold out from under them to hotel, resort, and condominium developers, while they've been stuck in refugee camps. In New Orleans, the destruction of the Ninth Ward has been called an opportunity to start over again from a clean slate. Never mind the people who no longer have any place to live – think of the condominiums that can be built. Think of what can be privatized!

Of the 134 public schools that used to be under the control of the local board of education only four have not been turned into privately run institutions. Of course with no students why should the schools be kept open. The fact that students have no homes to live in and are still scattered across the country is conveniently forgotten.
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It's when she examines the situation in Iraq, and the "security" arrangements implemented in the name of Homeland Security that Ms. Klein builds her case against the Bush administration. It is her contention that in order for the type of economic shock treatment required to make the clean slate, a government needs to have dictatorial power over its population to curtail opposition.

She sites as an example the first time this type of economic experiment was attempted in practice; following the American backed military coup in Chile. Pinochet's government had eliminated most avenues of dissent through the simple expedient of killing any opposition voices during the coup. When they implemented the economic policies of complete privatization and cutting spending across the board they simply continued the practice they had started of squelching opposition.

Ironically, the policy ended up being a complete failure. Pinochet was forced to start re-nationalizing industry in the 1980's, and many of the same social programs he had cut were re-introduced in order to stave off economic collapse.

In Iraq the American team charged with rebuilding the country, has been systematically selling all the country's industry and resources to American corporations. Contracts for everything from private armies to act as security forces to building swimming pools in public parks are awarded to American companies. Services like health care, electricity, policing are all being removed from the governments control and contracted out into private hands

When the Vice President of the United States has gone on public record as saying he advocates the use of torture against enemies of the state, and there is an army occupying your country that has no qualms about shooting and killing anyone it feels like – how loudly would you be inclined to complain? Looking at the American "slogan" for this invasion – "Shock And Awe" – the connection between it and Shock Doctrine economics becomes all too clear according to Ms. Klein.

The state control of personal freedoms in the United States itself may not be as obvious as troops in the street, but any person anywhere can be arrested without reason and denied access to a lawyer under provisions of the Homeland Security Act. The British perfected that one years ago with their anti-terrorist legislation allowing them to hold anybody without charges or access to a lawyer just by saying the magic word terrorism.

What constitutes a threat to security anyway? I'm sure a case could be made for disrupting the economy being construed as a threat to national security - don't you? Without a healthy economy, how can all those necessary security measures be paid for after all?

Naomi Klein has written a very lucid and convincing argument in support of her thesis that governments around the world are taking advantage of natural disasters to implement drastic changes in economic policy at the expense of their populations' well being. What's even more disturbing is the fact that she just as clearly outlines how governments are creating the circumstances enabling those situations to develop and taking steps to ensure that opposition to the changes is suppressed.

This is a book for people of all political stripes to read. Even if you disagree with Ms. Klein's politics, that won't matter. This is a book about "economics stupid", not about whether you are on the left or the right.

Canadian readers can purchase a copy of Shock Doctrine: The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism either directly from Random House Canada or from an online retailer like Amazon.ca

June 5, 2007

Book Review: Mo Te Upoko-O-Te-Ika/For Wellington Viggo Mortensen

Have you ever wondered what it's like to be traveling all over the world; going where your work takes you? How much would you really see of what each place has to offer away from your workspace? Would the travel become a blur of light, colours, and sound that blends together with other travels of similar nature?

Do you become adept at picking out distinctive patterns in the shifting shapes that whip by you as your body is propelled by one means or another through or past them? Do those fleeting glimpses give any real insight into your new environs or are they just the revelations of illusion?

Tourists are packaged up into buses and shipped through countries spending an hour here and an hour there so they can say they've done France, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and Holland all in two weeks. What do they see and when they get home and develop the pictures they have taken why don't they recognise what's on the prints in front of them?

Usually it's because they have tried to preserve something static in an ultimately kinetic experience and what is still in the frame in unrecognisable. Nothing but bricks and mortar or wood and plaster captured within the neat frame of a 5 X 7 inch postcard that says nothing about where they were and what it meant to be there passing through.

MoTe Upoko-o-Te-Ika / For Wellington is a collection of reproductions from two exhibits of photography that Viggo Mortensen presented as a gift to the city of Wellington New Zealand in the year 2003 after the completion of filming for the Lord Of The Rings movies. The images that appeared in the exhibition were of the places, including New Zealand, which he had traveled to in the years directly preceding the show.
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The pictures that form the first part of the book are abstract representations of the places he has visited. The shutter has been left open allowing it to capture every iota of movement that can paint its way across the lens. Layers of texture and colour are painted on negative, and then given life under the enlarger as Mr. Mortensen brings us a glimpse of how fast the world can be.

In some instances he is the one standing still watching the world zip by, and in others he is travelling at speeds that match or are faster than our poor planet can turn. Is that what we are seeing in these photos, visions of speed blurring everything until all that's left is colours and streaks of light?

Abstract art in any medium presents the conundrum of what we are to attempt to take away from the images. Do we stand in front of it and try to guess what the artist's intellectual motivation was for the work, or do we let the colours and configuration wash over us and feel whatever emotions they generate?

Sometimes the artist doesn't give us any choice in the matter and the images are so powerful we can only stare at them overpowered by colour, light and design. Mr. Mortensen's work in this instance falls into that category as they explode off the page in their vividness. Galaxies swirl in whirlpools of beams of white light etched into blues and blacks. Greens, browns, blues, and whites appear in splotches looking like a satellite image of some mysterious coastline.

Either one of these combinations is enough to be stirring but to turn the page from one to the other is to be aware emotionally of the contrasting environments in the world; feeling the diversity of the planet instead of just knowing it. It's exhilarating, but also tinged with sadness seeing how ethereal it all can be.

At least that's what I felt. Someone else, somewhere else at another time might feel something else, which is one of the beauties of abstract art. They give the viewer the freedom to feel emotions instead of being overtly manipulated by sentimental attachments to figures or real situations.

The second half of Mo Te Upoko-O-Te-Ika/For Wellington is composed of photos that are more easily recognizable. Landscapes, forest groves, trees, and other familiar objects are the subject matter. Judging by the titles in first section of the book and those that are given to the more figurative photos in the second, they are all, if not of the same subject matter, have been at least taken in the same locales.

Some are from other series that have appeared in other books. The "Hindsight" sequence for example has shown up before, and here again offers views in tight circles that appear to be looking backwards, or from a distance at the subject matter even when in a tight close up. There is something distancing about this effect that makes them almost as abstract as if they weren't figurative and removes the photographers influence from the shot as much as it was in the earlier part of the book.

Mr. Mortensen has always described his work as being a means of journaling and recording what he sees around him. Whether it’s a photo, painting, or poem the objective is the same. With that being his goal his work has no ulterior motivation; there is no manipulation of set to make us feel anything in particular.

He looks, he sees something that attracts his attention, and he shoots it with his camera and the result is what you see on the page in front of you or on the gallery wall. In some ways he stands a lot of notions of modern art on their head in that his realistic imagery is far less objective than his abstracts.

With his abstracts he has to "stage" the shot more and aims for a desired affect. But his figurative images are much more "of the moment" in that he is only recording what he sees with no other objective, and leaves it up to us to interpret it to our heart's content.

Mo Te Upoko –O-Te-Ika/For Wellington is an opportunity to see the two sides of Viggo Mortensen's photography, the abstract and the realistic, and reach your own conclusions about which you find more effective emotionally, artistically, and visually. Each has it's own unique perspective to offer on the world and each has something different to offer the viewer.

Like all items from the Perceval Press catalogue Mo Te Upoko –O-Te-Ika/For Wellington is half price until June 17th/07. Take advantage of this unique opportunity to explore the variety of works that Perceval Press has to offer before this deal disappears.

June 4, 2007

Book Review: Trance Jorge Luis Alvarez Pupo

Throughout the Caribbean and up into the United States slaves shipped over from Africa brought more than just their bodies and music. From the various tribal groups represented a variety of stories and belief systems were also brought over. Most of us have heard of Voodoo and all the misconceptions that accompany it, but other religions assumed some characteristics of the dominant Catholic faith in Latin and South America in order to blend in.

In Cuba one of those religions practiced among the African population was Santeria, or Regla de Ocho – the Kingdom of Ocho. Ocho was the primary deity of the religion, which chose the name Santeria – way of the Saints- in order to disguise their traditional practices of worship By pretending they were worshiping individual Catholic Saints and not the Gods who lived in Ocho's realm they kept the Catholic Church happy.

Of course if the Church had ever shown up at a Santeria ceremony they might have a different reaction; heck if they'd even understood any of the doctrine being taught they would have closed it down pretty quick. They would have been pretty appalled by the fact that Santeria didn't believe in the existence of Evil. All men are capable of performing good actions, some just haven't being able to get it together but don't need to be frightened by threats of hell into doing it.
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Jorge Luis Alvarez Pupo is an Afro-Cuban photographer who grew with this religion as the spiritual base of his community. So when he set out to create a record of the ceremonies and the way a belief system can affect a person's way of seeing the world around him or her, he had the advantage over the casual observer of already being in tune with the significance of events.

The images he has recorded and presented in his book Trance, which was released in 2003 by Perceval Press, capture people in moments of either high emotion or on the edge of entering the trance like state that enables them to perform remarkable feats with fire and metal. At first glance some of the photos are quite terrifying.

Faces contorted in what appears to be pain as they brandish flaming rods, swallow fire, hold a sword point to their throat, or exhale huge gouts of flames. But upon looking closer the body language is at odds with the initial interpretation; there is none of the tension that one normally associates with pain or fear knotting the muscles of the participants
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What I find remarkable about the pictures of these events is that they were taken at all. They look like highly intense and personal moments that I would not necessarily want recorded for others to see publicly in a book. It's not that there is anything wrong with what they are doing but there is a level of spiritual intimacy that's caught by the camera that makes one feel almost voyeuristic. Then again it's that emotionally charged nature of the photographs that makes them so powerful.

Jorge Luis starts off the series of photos dealing directly with ceremony with pictures of their beginnings; an individual lighting a candle in front of an alter, a woman slipping into a trance state, and a man caught in mid step while dancing and drumming. While not much preparation, they do give us sufficient warning that something unusual is about to ensue.

It's not until the midpoint of the book that explanatory notes are offered. Written by Mabel Llevat Soy they give us an explanation of what we have just experienced and what is to come. The second half of the book features photographs which in some ways are even more potent than those in the first.

While the earlier work has some shock element to them, and their power is genuine enough, the second half's offer an interpretation of how a believer of Santeria sees the world. These works are therefore the creation solely of the artist, not pictures of actual events. In my mind that makes them more powerful.

According to the notes in the book the creation story for the Santeria has men and women being pulled from the shadows and crawling out from the earth to be first brought to life. So there is life in the shadows of their world, lurking just outside of our vision.

Alvarez Pupo has made phenomenal use of light and shadow to give us a taste of what that must feel like in the mind's eye of a believer. One image that especially stands out for me is just a hand pushing up through grains of sand, but somehow he has made it so that the sand is slowly falling away from the hand and fingers slowly exposing them to the light.

Trance is a unique view of a world few of us have ever experienced. Normally the only time we see Afro-Caribbean religions are the twisted exploitive verions used in movies and sensationalistic novels. Jorge Luis Alvarez Pupo is able to make the real thing far less scary and twice as fascinating meaning he's a photographer of some talent through his ability to overcome those rather large preconceptions.

As with all titles available through Perceval Press Trance is half price until June 17th 2007.

June 3, 2007

Book Review: The Horse Is Good Viggo Mortensen

I wonder what it must have felt like for early man to first meet the horse. Did they hunt it to start with? How did they figure out that they could make use of it? Who was that first brave soul that said, "Maybe we should try climbing on and riding" or the intelligent one who thought of hooking it to a plough?

When the native peoples of North America first saw the horses that had escaped the Spanish conquistadors to roam free over the plains they were astounded. They had never seen dogs so big before. They soon became an integral part of their lives, replacing the camp dogs that pulled the travois and facilitating the hunting of the buffalo.

When the American government wanted to destroy the nation of Chief Joseph (Thunder In The Mountains was his real name) they ordered the destruction of all Appaloosa horses, as they were integral to the lives of the Nez Pearce. The rationale went that by destroying their horses the Nez Pearce would have to surrender and live on the reservation the government has so kindly provided for them.

Anywhere horses lived, their lives became integrated into the culture of the people who have lived there. From the Russian Steppes where the Cossacks raided, China where they were immortalized in statues of jade, Arabia where they were bred for speed, and in farmer's fields around the world they tilled the earth.
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There's something about a horse that makes it hard to visualize them as static; they need to be in motion or at least animated to capture their essence. For me this has always meant the majority of photo essays, or any type of attempt to capture a moment in time with horses, has been inadequate in expressing who they are. Too much attention is usually paid to the look of the animal, to show jumping and walking it around the ring, and not enough to out where it comes alive on the prairie.

Viggo Mortensen's The Horse Is Good is a horse of a different colour in that it attempts to capture moments of movement and non-traditional times of stasis. Through his involvement in movies where horses were utilized in the couple of years prior to the original 2003 publication date of the book, he had some unique opportunities to both observe and photograph horses in circumstances that showed off their unique qualities.

Instead of mere portraiture Mr. Mortensen's photographs show movement through shutter speed adjustments, point of focus, and perspective. By shooting from atop a horse he allows us to experience the sensation of movement as much as possible in a static format.

I'm sure most of you have seen photographs of car's headlights caught in a timed exposure where they become lazar beams that streak across the night sky. Horses caught in the same fashion in daylight leave pieces of themselves and their riders strewn in lines behind them while the background behind dissolves into a blur of unrecognizable shapes.

Of course freezing them in frame and capturing them as sculpted figures of muscle, sinew, and bone displays the power that fuels that speed. Looking at them from below, their rolling eyes, powerful neck muscles, and broad chests one can only imagine the terror people felt when first meeting mounted soldiers charging down on them.

The warhorses of old were bred for speed and strength – a mixture of a draught horse and a thoroughbred which, even encumbered by the weight of a knight and his armour and encased in metal itself, could obtain gallop speeds. Imagine having that bearing down on you with your only defence being a skinny post with a metal tip on the end?

Mr Mortensen also treats us to some of the more intimate moments between man and animal. The connection that can be forged between the rider and steed where each becomes an extension of the other to the extent that communication is thought and felt rather then indicated or spoken.

The hand that rests on the back of the horse against the bright blue sky and nothing else; one hand reaching out to a head and bridle while the other holds a mouthful to bring to the muzzle as reward; and two foreheads touching, human and horse, sharing something we onlookers can't begin to understand.

Of course not all people have affection for horses and wild Mustangs were almost hunted to extinction for the sake of politics, ranchers, and dog food. Others have treated them like machinery and use them until there's nothing left but to send for the knacker to come haul the carcass away.

But still they continue in their relationship with us in spite of that and we are honoured by it. The horse brings a certain dignity and romance to our life that nothing else can. How many motor carriage rides around Central Park or the Old Town in Quebec City do you think people would be interested in? Look at the pictures of the horses drawn up around a grave and on the march in honour of Big Foot who was wiped out at Wounded Knee in The Horse Is Good and if something doesn't stir in your breast than you should be checked for a pulse.

Mr. Mortensen has managed to capture aspects of the horse's character and our relationship with it that is very rarely depicted anywhere. Without words or descriptive titles I learned more about horses from this book than any encyclopaedia or reference book I've glanced through in the past. There have not been many occasions where I've been fortunate enough to be around horses, but this book brought back memories of those times as effectively as watching a movie. All that was missing was the quick hop to avoid stepping in something you'd rather not, but aside from that it was just like being in the company of horses.

The Horse Is Good has just recently come available again and can be purchased directly from Perceval Press until June 17th 2007 for half its list price as part of the spring sale. Horse lovers everywhere should rejoice.

June 1, 2007

In Praise Of The Small Press

To say that I do a fair number of book reviews is probably something of an understatement. The main reason for this is that I love reading; no matter how many books I've read I just can't get jaded. There's always something new and exciting if you know where to look.

Of course I've my preferences in genre and style, who doesn't, but on occasion I like to challenge myself in order to keep intellectually sharp. The brain is like any other muscle I figure, if you don't exercise it, it will grow flabby. I have to admit that I will always prefer a well written story over anything else though, no matter if it's an intellectual challenge or not.

Which explains why J.K Rowling is equally comfortable on my bookshelves as Thomas Pynchon and James Joyce. But if there is anything or anyone I have a soft spot for when it comes to books it's the smaller independent presses. I suppose you could put it down to a type of romanticism; the small press that puts out books because they love it rather than being in pursuit of the next bestseller of the moment like bigger presses are forced to be.

Of course that's not the truth in either situation, but larger imprints do have much more put on the line than the small ones and have to worry more about the bottom line. The small press with only a limited run of far fewer titles can afford to take a few more risks with the style and content of its releases. Whether it is true or not, in my mind's eye I will always associate small presses with work that is more concerned with artistic merits than commercial viability.

I know that is an awful generalization and that there are probably numerous instances of just the opposite, but how often do you find the work of a contemporary Cuban photographer in one of those luxurious coffee table books the large house's produce periodically? How many would risk publishing translations of detective novels by a former officer in the Algerian army?

Trance published by Perceval Press and the early works of Yasmina Khadra published by Toby Press are respectively the two small presses referred to in the paragraph above. Over the past few months I've come to appreciate both of them for the wonderful content they have to offer.

Perceval Press was founded by Viggo Mortensen and is primarily concerned with publishing books of artistic expression that would probably have very little chance of seeing the light of day otherwise. A good percentage of the work is Mr. Mortensen's wonderfully cerebral and emotional poetry and photographs. But this is much more than just the vanity press of a wealthy individual, as they also publish selected works by a variety of other artists.

The majority of their focus is on art for arts sake, but they do publish other work as well. There are the highly strange and brilliant musical collaborations of Mr Mortensen and the mysterious Buckethead (so named for the empty Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket he wears on his head while performing and his penchant for appearing masked at all times) available on CD. There are also a good variety of other photographs and visual arts on sale as well.

In a lot of ways Perceval Press epitomises the nature of the small press in that they publish a very specific type of book. The books they produce are not going to appeal to a mass audience, but they weren't designed to. The books they offer challenge us to see the world in different ways and not all of them are comfortable or pleasant. But than again there is a lot about our world that is not comfortable or pleasant.

Toby Press is a lot more like your traditional publisher in that they offer a variety of fiction and non-fiction work. Where they differ from their more mainstream contemporaries is the nature of their content. Aside from the aforementioned Khadre, they lean heavily towards authors from the Middle East.

Probably Toby press is one of the few places in the world where Jew and Arab are equally at home as they rub shoulders quite happily together in their catalogue. Whether it's an Iranian describing the days just before the overthrow of the Shah or an elderly Orthodox Jew who is devoted to his faith and his live in the city of Jerusalem the gulf that exists between them in our world is bridged in Toby's catalogue.

It is truly an international publisher as stories travel from eastern Africa to the Georgia Steppes, to the Golan Heights, and the street of Damascus and Algiers. Although on some pages the characters speak the polemic of the times, the authors are not endorsing those sentiments just ensuring that we know the reality in which they exist.

Like Perceval Press, Toby Press brings us the voices we don't normally get to hear. While now it seems like almost every publisher has at least one Muslim writer in their stable, to go with their Hindu, the only distinction that seems to have mattered at Toby has been the quality of the writing.

Over the next few days I'll be reviewing some more items from the Perceval Press catalogue, including more work by Mr. Mortensen, some from the forbidden island of Cuba (forbidden at least if you live in the U.S.), and surprisingly a couple of books for young adults. Until June 17th you can buy pretty much any title from their catalogue for half price – including all CDs, books of poetry, and visual art books as long as you purchase directly form the site.

There are numerous other small presses out there who do much the same thing that either one of these two do and you'd be doing yourself a favour if you checked them out. Who knows you might discover a gem of your own.

May 27, 2007

Book Review: Devices Of The Soul Steve Talbott

Since the industrial revolution of the 1800s the world has gone through massive technological changes. From the cotton gin of the 1800s to the assembly line of Ford motor plants of the early twentieth century to today's microchip technology the speed of production has increased. The faster the production schedule the faster our lives move and the quicker the world spins by.

What kind of changes has this imposed on us in the way we interact with our environment? Not just the natural world, although that is part of the equation, but with all aspects of the world around us. The people we come in contact with, our involvement in our work, and the way we see ourselves have all undergone changes.

In his new book, Devices Of The Soul, Steven Talbott sets out to examine how our relationship with technology, especially in recent years, has changed us. The subtle manner in which we have gone from an intuitive being who draws upon all the elements at our disposal to make a decision to being dependant on bodies of information that we access on purpose.
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This is not an anti-technology book, far from it in fact, for Talbott doesn't deny that elements of technology have made our lives better. It's a matter of how we allow the technology to define us and define how we live that is the problem according to him. By letting machines make so many of our decisions, or relying on them for doing tasks we would have done on our own in the past, we have removed the human element from the equation.

Now this may not sound like such a bad thing on a certain level, but how about our relationships with other people? If we only experience humans and cultures at the remove of technology, and what that technology tells us about them, are we getting a true picture of who and what they are? Maybe in the past we wouldn't have had access to any information at all, but is that any worse to having the information we do receive filtered through someone else's opinion?

Why is it that nobody looks at the sky anymore to see what the weather is going to be like during the day? "How cold is it out?" "I don't know let me check the weather channel?" What about going outside and experiencing it for yourself and feeling how cold it is? Will hearing someone tell you what the temperature is actually tell you how cold you will be when you step outside?

The number they say it is might give you an idea, but it won't tell you whether or not it's damp, or how cold the wind really is? You won't know that until you're outside so why didn't you check that way first? Convenience: or has our reliance on getting the answers from someone or something else gotten to the point that we don't trust ourselves anymore?
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Quick, where does the sun rise each morning? At which cardinal point on the compass does he come up in the sky? How about the moon, do you know the answer to that? East is of course the answer to both questions and to most adults I should hope it was obvious. But for far too many people of the next generation that answer is a mystery, as are many things that we take for granted in the natural world.

But think of the environment that most kids grow up in the West; television, computer games, computers, cars, and an urban landscape. According to Talbott what should we expect from them, that they be aware of things that they are never exposed to or think about? Maybe the question of where does the sun rise sounds a little extreme, but he sites knowing a high school graduate with good grades and very bright as an example of a person who didn't know the answer to that question.

I don't know about you, but things like that scare me and make me nervous. If we are raising people so out of touch with the natural world as to not know in which direction the sun rises, what will they care about the world outside of their own sphere of existence? Will we be able to entrust them with what little we haven't destroyed to keep safe for their children?

Device Of The Soul is not an easy read in any sense of the word. The language Mr. Talbott uses is heavy and specialized to the point of being nearly academic in places. But it is also necessary to use this language as it the only vocabulary capable of discussing the subject. Until you get used to it, and the dryness of the tone, you might have some difficulty reading the material.

But I think that's part of his point of how technology has taken away our ability to communicate complex ideas and thoughts because we are becoming used to a vocabulary that only allows for the expression of basic needs and wants. Higher intellectual ideas and concepts can't be put into text messaging short forms or cute smiley faces.

Devices Of The Soul challenges our conception of our self in an effort to make us examine our relationship with technology and how it has changed us. While change is inevitable, and there is nothing wrong with it intrinsically, blinkered acceptance of all aspects of it can be dangerous.

Steven Talbott has rung an alarm bell that is well worth our while to pay attention to and that we ignore at our own peril.

May 25, 2007

Book Review: Steve Goodman Facing The Music Clay Eals

I'm pretty sure that in years to come if you were to look up the word exhaustive in an English language dictionary that all they will need do is put a picture of Clay Eals beside the word and everyone will understand the meaning instantaneously. I guess other adjectives describing how completely he covers his subject in his biography of Steve Goodman, Facing The Music are also appropriate, but when a book is 800 pages long and over a thousand people have been interviewed in its making you can't go wrong starting with exhaustive.

If you've never heard of Steve Goodman, and I'm sure there are a sizable number of people who haven't, you're probably going to be wondering why so much effort has gone into writing a book about this guy. That's probably a fair question and can be best answered a couple of ways.

First of all there are the people who were interviewed for this book; starting with Arlo Guthrie who wrote the forward and Studs Terkel who wrote the preface and then proceeding down the line to Steve Martin (Yes the Steve Martin) Kris Kristofferson, Bonnie Rait, Jackson Brown, Randy Newman, Lily Tomlin, Carl Reiner, Martin Mull, Marty Stuart, and some woman named Hillary Rodham Clinton. Of course there were like a thousand more then that but those are just some of the highlights.
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This guy obviously had something in him that he could touch such a disparate group of people across generations and that's what Clay has taken great pains to study and understand. Who was this meteoric ball of fire that passed through the music world and left it long before his trajectory should have ended.

You see Steve's career was always going to be finite – he was diagnosed with leukemia when he was twenty but somehow held off the inevitable until 1984 – and played every song not knowing if it would the last time he got to play it. He was so successful at disguising what was going on with his body that it wasn't even until two or so years before he died and he had a major relapse that he even went public about his impending doom.

You might think you've never heard a Steve Goodman song, but if you've ever heard what Johnny Cash called the best damn train song ever written, "City of New Orleans" you've heard a Steve Goodman song. It was Arlo Guthrie who made the song famous and also kept Steve solvent. That song alone must have assured Steve and his family financial viability, especially considering his medical bills must have been substantial.
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It would have been easy for Clay to write one of those valiant tales of the little guy who fought against great odds to fulfill his dreams and turn it into something sentimental and smarmy. But that's not the picture he draws of Steve, because obviously no one can be that kind of saint.

This is a warts and all portrait, with friends recounting that Steve was victim to a temper that could lay waste to a city block. Getting into fights with hosts at restaurants for not letting him in for being in violation of the dress code, or running down behind home plate at Wrigley Field and getting into a ferocious argument with the home plate umpire. (When the umpire proved he was right and Steve was wrong he was able to laugh at himself, but he was still mad)

It's Clay's insistence on accuracy that actually makes Steve Goodman seem that much more amazing an individual. While the accolades tell us what we already gathered from the fact that book was written, that Steve was a remarkable, it's the warts that keep him human and someone who it is that much easier to identify with.

Of course some of the anecdotes about Steve and famous people are a lot of fun; Johnny Cash walking on stage and taking his boots off when Steve said all he need was Johnny's boots and he'd look just like him, or Kris Kirstofferson and Steve Martin both saying the biggest mistake they ever made in their lives was having Steve Goodman opening for him as he would do such an amazing forty minute set that they couldn't compete with him.

In 1972 Steve and his wife Nancy adopted their first child Jessie. They had been warned that the possibility of Steve passing the disease along to a next generation was a real enough risk that they should consider not having children. According to people Clay interviewed once they began to raise children (three in total) Steve's obsession became to leave them a legacy.

"City Of New Orleans" ensured that the family of Steve Goodman will probably never want for much. It also seems that in the minds and hearts of thousands of people, all those interviewed for this book at least, that Steve created an indelible impression on people that will also be his legacy.

Clay Eals has created something unique in the biographic genre and it took me a bit to pin down what the difference was in this book from others of the type. Every single source is first hand. All the stories that you read, all the anecdotes that are retold, are told by the people who were there to see them. He didn't go to a library and read books about Steve, but he has written the book that people will seek out in the future.

Piece by piece Clay has built a picture of this remarkable singer whose music and person touched countless people. A proud man who never used his illness to generate sympathy for himself but lived with the fact that he only had a limited amount of to accomplish all that he wanted. There is information in this book and stories that offer insight into some of the fear that Steve must have lived with, and the courage that it must have taken him to get up every morning and to keep going.

Some might make a lot out of the fact that almost none of Steve's immediate family agreed to participate in the making of this book, only his dauter Jessie agreed to be interviewed, but I don't look on that as a slight against the book or the author rather a way of the family respecting Steve's desire never to put himself before his music and never to spotlight his illness.

For those of us who knew and appreciated the wonderful music of Steve Goodman when he was alive, and continue to do so long after he's left, Facing The Music is a treasure trove that you will continually want to delve into. If you were unfamiliar with Steve before reading this book, by the time you work your way through he will be forever engraved into your memory.

It seems that as the years have passed Steve Goodman's legacy continues to grow. The past year has seen the release of concert footage packaged into a DVD and the restoration of a club date he did at his favourite bar in Chicago, The Earl Of Old Town. It was at this bar that he told one of Chicago' most notorious mob bosses off to his face in song and … well read the book and you'll find out what happened.

Included in with each book is a copy of a CD of music recorded by folk musicians whose lives were touched by Steve Goodman's, either through song or personal contact. You might not have heard of any of these people, but that just shows how far and wide Steve's net was cast. The songs are originals written in his memory and honour.

Facing The Music by Clay Eals is a fitting tribute to an extraordinary man, and will hopefully help keep the name of Steve Goodman alive for many years to come.

May 24, 2007

Book Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle Barbara Kingsolver

Some Facts:


  • Each item served in an American meal has traveled an average of 1500 miles before it reaches the dinner table

  • After automobiles food production ranks at the second biggest consumer of fossil fuels. Americans consume about 400 gallons of oil per citizen per year directly related to eating.

  • Almost 75% of all antibiotics used in the United States today are used by Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations – 1152 chickens can fit into a 6 X 8 foot room

  • If all the products with corn and soy included in them were removed from your grocery store the shelves would be next to empty – even packaging is now made from corn starch

  • Over 70% of the Midwestern United States farmland now only produces commercial soybean and corn

When author Barbara Kingsolver and her family made the decision to try and survive for a year only on produce they either grew themselves or were able to buy locally they were committing an act of near food heresy in North America. Government policy dictates that tax dollars in the United States subsidize the system of food production that results in the facts listed above.

Attempting to swim against that stream of government endorsed eating habits is as difficult as salmon trying to swim upstream to reach the spawning grounds. The advertising dollars of multimillion-dollar corporations have inundated us for years with messages that quicker and more convenient is better, until we've almost reached a point of no return.

But it comes at a price; increase in type two diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and malnutrition. Still, could you give up your chocolate bars, your potato chips, your out of season fruit, and microwave dinners? Would you even want to? Why should you?
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In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle Barbara Kingsolver and family not only describe their year doing just that, but spell out the whys, wherefores, and the rewards for and from doing it. At the beginning of the book they clamber into their car and leave the American South West desert where they've relied on food from all over the continental United States to begin a journey that will take them further then just the miles they travel across the country.

While most of us would look upon this as a voyage of deprivation and hardship, the way Barbara lays it out for us it becomes a glorious and exciting adventure of exploration and discovery. Who would have thought that there could be so many varieties of Tomato? Or that it's possible to have a party for a hundred people in May only eating locally grown produce and stuff you pulled out of your garden?

Why do such a thing though? Well through out the book she builds her argument using facts like the ones I started the article off with of course, but there are even better reasons. I have a friend who runs an organic garden. He has an acre of land that he has cultivated and sells shares in each winter. As the produce ripens he harvests it and delivers to the people who bought shares.

I helped him out for a couple weeks one summer picking beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, and anything else that was coming into season. For lunch we'd wander the rows and pick something fresh off the vine or straight from the earth. Have you ever tasted a carrot that came out of the ground ten minutes before you've eaten it? What you buy in your grocery store might as well be carved out of wood for all its similarity in taste.

Now imagine you have that from April to Octobe, from the beginning of the growing season to the end. Leafy greens that haven't been frozen and shipped a thousand miles and actually taste green; (I swear I know what green tastes like after eating fresh lettuce just grown in my backyard one year) wax and green beans that are so crisp they snap like kindling when you chew them; tomatoes that are so juicy and sweet that you just want to eat slabs of them forever; and corn that tempts you to eat it uncooked.

Of course if you are fortunate like the Kingsolvers to have bought some land that has generations of fruit tree on it, a cherry that's just turned black the day you eat it is nothing like the pulpy things you would buy imported in mid-winter. Once you know how something is supposed to taste chances are you're going to be more than willing to wait for it to come around on the calendar again.

Preparing for winter is a time consuming task it's true; canning, freezing, drying, and preparing proper root storage will eat up days in the fall. But on a cold rainy September or October day standing in the kitchen with the fruits (or vegetables as the case may be) of your labour and imagining how much better they are going to taste than anything store bought can make even the nastiest job seem pretty attractive.

In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle Barbara Kingsolver with an assist from her husband Steven Hopp and her daughter Camille Kingsolver have put together answers to all the arguments we all have been able to come up with about living a sustainable life. It's too expensive, it's too time consuming, and the food is so boring are all rebutted with a mixture of facts and anecdote.

Barbara has the zeal of a missionary but it is tempered with the soul of an artist and a woman who raised a child by herself. Not only does she advocate the lifestyle and share its wonders, she also has reams of practical advice on how it can be achieved no matter what your financial situation. Most of us don't have the options of raising our own livestock, or even growing our own vegetables like her family, but we probably all have access to a farmer's market where the produce from vegetable to meat is local.

This is a well written, fun, entertaining, depressing and optimistic book all at once. It's depressing to realize that while the government on one hand is telling us to eat a balanced diet they are propping up an industry that grows only two crops, both of which make up the lion's share of all pre-packaged food sold, The optimism comes from knowing that we can make a difference in our own lives and that we don't have to play by their rules.

If we are what we eat I would rather come from Barbara Kingsolver's garden or its equivalent than the shelves of my local grocery store.



May 18, 2007

Book Review: Cake Or Death Heather Mallick

It was a few years ago when I first was introduced to the joys of a Heather Mallick column. This is not to be confused with a Doric Column with a cap that supports old Greek ruins, but a collection of around 900 words that was written usually in a fit of pique by a woman writer for The Globe And Mail newspaper in Canada.

On alternate Saturdays I would eagerly click the generic link "Columnist" on the newspaper's home page (they very rarely gave her a name link maybe hoping people wouldn't find her so as to cut back on the irate letters to the editor) and jump into her pool of righteous indignation. It was wonderful – somebody was actually writing about all the issues I would have written about and in a style that made me weep with envy.

Not only was her wit so acerbic that it could eat through the walls of the Teflon uber-bunkers that politician, pundits, and other spewers of lies, and garbage live behind, but she could also break your heart with her minimal description of real misfortune. She doen't have a drop of sentimentality in her blood, just real emotion and a formidable intelligence.

When she had occasion to turn upon herself and remark upon her own idiosyncrasies it wasn't to enlist our sympathy or even out of some masochistic need for public self-humiliation. It was more along the line of showing people how easy it was to admit to your humanity and to revel in your own eccentricity. Who needs to be the same as everyone else – even if it's only in the way you've planted your rows of flowers this year – it is still a statement of your uniqueness as an individual and you should be proud of it.
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On occasion I would be moved enough by one of her writings to email a commentary or words of approval. To my surprise she actually would answer her mail, and not just with a thank-you for writing form letter either. I was beginning to enjoy our sporadic correspondence and I think she was beginning to recognise the name at the end of the letters when all of a sudden it ended.

A polite form letter informed me that she was no longer able to answer her mail as she was writing a book and she hoped I'd (and everyone else I assume) understand how she just couldn't spare the time anymore. I was a little disappointed but that was nothing to what was to come.

One Saturday as usual I clicked over to the Columnist section only to find her gone. There was no notice, no hints as to her whereabouts, nothing. It was if she had been abducted by Aliens or worse spirited away by some secret government plot to abolish free speech. Of course it was something far scarier – she was on publicity tour for her first book Pearls In Vinegar: The Pillow Book Of Heather Mallick.

Maybe it was some dark recess of hidden resentment, or the fact that I was broke, but I never got around to either buying or reading book one. Now that Knoff Canada has released Cake Or Death, her second collection of essays on modern life I decided to let bygones be bygones (the nice people at Random House Canada sent me a review copy) and see if she's changed at all in her new digs.
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Will she have moderated her tone in the hopes of increased sales? Will she stop accusing Tony Blair of being the most duplicitous man on the planet and describing George Bush as the ultimate spoiled rich boy in the hopes of attracting the moderately well heeled to shell out the necessary readies to buy her book?

I guess Heather figures there are enough people out there (here) with as highly tuned sense of outrage as she has because she has not moderated her tone a whit. Oh certainly she might spend some time ruminating on the finer things in life. Those that allow her a respite from the reality of a world where in certain countries she's unable to leave her hotel room without crying because of how the people are forced to live.

I'm not going to deny her those two weeks in Paris because she is astute enough to know that the glamour she is revelling in for those fourteen days is an illusion, is in fact a glamour, a spell. If she were to live there all year round, as she occasionally fantasises, she knows that reality will exist in spite of where you live. That death and cake are always going to be our choices and the former in all its shapes is far more plentiful than the latter.

She makes no secret of her loathing for what she calls the unfeeling nature of conservative politicians who justify everything through greed and the bottom line. She declares her unstinting support for those people everywhere and anywhere who are appalled by what their leaders do in their name. She avows undying love for the Americans who have sent photos to the site apologizing to the world for re-electing George Bush. And she loves taxes. (Read the book)

She's opinionated, gutsy, bull headed, pretty much all the things that most people who use the words family values in a sentence despise in a woman. She has a marvellous conversational writing style that let you walk alongside her through the pages of her opinions. Even if the chat is a little one-sided in that you can't address her directly with your response at least you feel like you're involved and not just being lectured.

When I started writing articles, if I was attempting to emulate anyone, it was Heather. She sees no shame in expressing how something makes her feel, and doesn't hesitate in using herself as an example when the need arises. She's honest in a world where that means something and she speaks from the heart. Those are two attributes I will always admire and that still haven't changed an iota in her writing. Obviously fame hasn't gone to her head.

Readers in Canada can order a copy of Heather Mallick's Cake Or Death from Random House Canada or through some other equally reputable online retail outlet like Amazon.ca



May 6, 2007

Book Review: Istanbul Orhan Pamuk

I have to admit that the one genre of writing that I've never had much liking for has always been the autobiography. There are just so many ways a person can be self-serving when they write about themselves, either by talking about the amazing things they've done (according to them), or detailing the incredible sacrifices they had to make on their road to fame thus ensuring we know just what martyrs they've been.

Worst of all is the playing down of their accomplishments in alluring displays of false modesty. That way, it is hoped I assume, we readers will be quicker in anointing them with a seal of approval that ensures them their "rightful" place in the annals of history. How many times have you heard it said of a politician that they are attempting to ensure his or her place in history? I can't think of anything scarier to be honest.

It's bad enough the damage they inflict just through their day-to-day interference with our world without them attempting to leave their mark so that they will be remembered and have a reason for writing their memoirs. In some cases you have to wonder, which came first, the need to write the memoir or the need to do something to be able to write a memoir.

That's not to say there aren't worthwhile memoirs where the author has used situations in his or her life as an example of how to overcome a difficulty. In those instances they aren't technically writing a memoir as they are not the subject matter and are only relevant because of what their presence adds to the topic.

After reading all that it probably won't come as any surprise to you me saying that if I had known that the Random House Canada publication Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk was a memoir I wouldn't have been so hot to read it. Maybe it was the comparison to Joyce' Ulysses that confused me into somehow thinking it was a novel, I'm not sure, but I do know that it wasn't until I had the book in my hands that I realized it wasn't fiction.
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Thankfully Mr. Pamuk is not the type of writer who feels the need for self-aggrandisement and has merely included himself in the proceedings as a reporter on events and an example. He isn't writing about himself, he is merely participating in the telling of Istanbul's secrets.

As he describes the city, he acknowledges her past and the spell she exerted upon Westerners. The jewel of the Orient, The Mysterious East, and all the other stereotypes that were perpetuated by 19th century romantics are examined and found to be inaccurate even at the time of the their conception. By the mid to late 1800s the Ottoman Empire was already shrinking back to the borders of Istanbul, and she was starting to reflect the decline.

By the time of the author's birth in the 1950's, in the brave new world of the Republic of Turkey, empire and royalty are fading into memory as quickly as former palaces become apartment blocks and rooming houses. Even those remnants, which were mainly along the Bosphorus River that bisects Istanbul, had been built by bureaucrats of the Empire in a bid to escape from the crowding of Istanbul's core by waves of immigrants. (It 's apparent the concept of moving to the suburbs to escape the poor huddled masses is not a modern or solely Western concept)

Mr.Pamuk describes the yahs, the Turkish word for these waterside mansions as mere shadows of a destroyed culture. In other words they weren't even a pale imitation of the architecture of the Empire at its heyday that inspired the Romantic urges of 19th century Europe. So when a painter would come to Istanbul to record the mysterious east with all of its splendour he would find himself forced into "orientalizing" his work to make it "authentic"

The Bosphorus is obviously central to Istanbul as she repeatedly pops up in the book. She exerts a magnetic pull upon the author that keeps him returning to her banks at various stages in his life. That the word Bosphorus in Turkish means throat, and that the river delves deep into the middle of the city, gives the impression that if you were to follow the river to its furthest extent you would be able to delve deeply into the heart of Istanbul's secrets.

The river has its own mythology, stories of bodies disposed of in her murky depths that are quickly pulled out to sea by the fierce currents. But in spite of her fierceness she is also the site of many a family outing as parents and children head to her banks for a weekend afternoon outing. Of course there is also the known curative powers of the sea air, which doctors would prescribe patients in the final stages of their recuperation as a tonic, to spend time upon her waters in one of the many fishing boats that were for hire.
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But that too is in the past, from the author's youth of the 1950's and 60's, although he does say that to this day he will always associate the Bosphorus with good health. But even those thoughts cannot dispel the overlying air of melancholy that is described as the constant state of being for the people of Istanbul.

Hûzûn is the Turkish word for melancholy, but according to Mr. Pamuk it has little in common with the word as we know it. In Istanbul especially it takes on a meaning that goes beyond sadness or individual grief. It is a shared sense of loss that is felt by all her inhabitants. In every neighbourhood no matter how poor or how wealthy one can find ruins of the empire.

The constant reminder of what once was and can never be again imbues the soul and spirit of the "Istanbullus". According to the author one can attempt to pretend it doesn't exist for a time, but then when it does hit you, another building collapses into ruins revealing some little piece of princely past, it hits you even harder.

Istanbul is a voyage into the heart of a city as seen through the eye of memories, history, and a person who has lived his entire life on her streets. Orhan Pamuk is so sentimentally attached to his city and its past that he resides again in the apartment of his childhood as if he's trying to regain the lost empire of the city of fifty years ago. Would the Istanbul of his childhood tried to have jailed him for writing "Anti- Turkish" thoughts? Or is that part of what he sees as part of the decline.

The irony of course is that the Ottoman Empire was seen by those under its rule as cruel and despotic, something to be thrown off like shackles. Here in Istanbul it appears that while they may not long for the actual Empire, they are preoccupied with the loss of its trappings and ostentatious displays of wealth. But to think that would only to see the veneer of feeling that affects life within this city that's older then most of the post Roman Empire western world.

Orhan Pamuk has written an amazing story of a city and how it's people relate to it. Using himself and his family as examples he manages to convey how Istanbul and her people are irrevocably interconnected. Istanbul is more than a memoir, and much more than a travel guide. It's not only a voyage into the heart of a city, but also an anatomy of the soul of a people


April 9, 2007

Book Review: Skip by David Newsom

The man standing in the foreground; successfully cuts off the distant horizon line we can see to either side of his stooped shouldered, lanky frame. He is either chewing on a fingernail or picking his teeth with it in an attempt to clear a particularly stubborn piece of food.

Being that, while his body is in profile his head is turned slightly away from us, what he is looking at is unclear. Truth be told there doesn't appear to be anything to look at aside from stubble poking through fields of snow that surround the frozen, snow covered, dirt road his sneakers are perched on.

Looking at him you feel like there might not be something quite right. Has he survived some horrible shock? Is he the veteran of one of America's wars; one of the forgotten who have come home damaged more by what they've seen or had to do than any physical scars they bear.

The sky is as white as the road he stands on, but endless. In one of those weird tricks of light or perspective it looks like it might end at the mountain range in the background. For a moment making it look like the man on the road is girded in by walls and a ceiling, but that thought is ridiculous so it can be dismissed easily. Although the next time you look at the image it comes back to you again just as strong.
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The picture I've done my best to describe is the cover of a book by David Newsom simply called Skip

Perceval Press has published this loving collection of images that David has shot of his brother living a life freed from the confines of the institutions. He tells of how when his mother died his older brother and sister had taken Skip to Iowa where they had land and settled him in a group home.

Skip had never lived outside of New Jersey, never outside of an urban area, and now he was in the wide-open spaces of the Teton Valley in Iowa. On his first visit in 1994 when he and his mom came out he seemed to fall in love with it. In 2005, after Skip had live there four years, David Newsom reports that his sister wrote to say that at first she had been scared of him wandering town on his own – but now he's mayor.

It's like when they were kids again because she is known as Skip's little sister. She ends it on a note both funny and touching. "Skip can be trusted to take the (4) dogs around the thirteen acres without any of them disappearing. Now if he could just learn to brush his own teeth before he turns sixty…"

This isn't a book filled with words about living with an adult with the mind of a child and what heroics the brothers and sister have performed for their brother. Or of how Skip is something more then what he is; an almost sixty year old man living with that mind.
There is no romance in the images Mr. Newsome has shot of their lives in the Tenton Valley. The sky is huge and full of beauty, and part of that beauty comes from the wildness that is also a threat. Black storm clouds shot with colour as the sun breaks through in one last feeble attempt to stave off whatever danger is building. This is world of stark realities where there is no place for illusions.

If Skip were at risk because of his health, or put anyone else at risk, you know it would be a different story. But he has managed to make a place in this world for himself. The author makes the comment while observing a thistle, a plant considered such a threat and a pest in the valley that orders exist to exterminate it on sight, that like the thistle his family are strangers here, but that some of them have found a home.

The dogs respond to Skip when he calls them to heel, Skip knows when it's time to return to his sister's yellow house for supper time, and Skip isn't behind the walls that at twenty-three he never wanted to return to. The picture on the front cover makes sense now when you go back and look at it again, but for reason different then what I had first assumed.

This is one of the most beautiful books I have ever had the privilege to hold in my hands. It breaks your heart with its honesty while making you laugh at the bittersweet nature of life. The author in his acknowledgment states that these images prove that his brothers and sister were and remain his heroes.

Without any cheap sentimentality or "heart-warming" bullshit he has indeed created a beautiful homage to three remarkable people and an equally beautiful landscape. In this day and age of fake emotion and false idols this book should be required reading for every person in North America.

April 8, 2007

Book Review: La Revancha - Revenge by Henry Eric Hernandez

History depends on the point of view of the person doing the telling, or as it's more popularly said, history is written by the winners. The funny thing about history is how easily it changes. You've been chugging along for years thinking one thing happened – well at least that was the way your father's father- father saw it happen when he was young.

So everybody thought it happened that way. Then one day some other people come along and they're telling the story in a completely different way. When you ask them who they know who was there,,nm who told their father's father that it happened that way, they just smile and laugh and say isn't that cute they have an oral tradition.

We don't know anybody who was there, we read about it in this book.

Was the book written by somebody who was there? Which you think is a reasonable question to ask. How can you write about something if you haven't seen it with your eyes or heard it told by someone who had been told by someone who had seen it with their eyes?

But they laugh again and say oh know this was written last year by an historian. If you let someone who had been there write about it they would be too emotionally involved to be able to discern what really happened. An historian is able to tell everybody a nice neat summary of the events.

Here we will show you. And they bring out a big shiny leather book with the words History of Men in big gold letters across the front. They open the book to a page somewhere in the middle and begin to read a story. Now it is your turn to laugh, and they stop. They look at you and say what is so funny that you are laughing so hard. This is history and it's serious business.

Well you, you wipe the tears from your eyes and say but that is wrong – your book doesn't know the story – it’s a very funny story the way you tell it – it's a backward story. Well now they get really mad and say well you may think it's funny now buddy, but that's history and that's the way it happened. It says so right on the cover. People are going to believe the book and not somebody who was told about it by their father who heard it from his father and his father before him.

How do we know when we are living if we are part of history? Even if you're a soldier serving in a war do you have a sense that you are part of history, or are you simply trying to keep alive from moment to moment? Anyone who thinks of themselves in terms of history probably has too much power over others.

Presidents and generals, leaders of industry, militant labour leaders, rebels both successful and failures; they all have their names recorded in the annals of history. But what about the people who served under all those leaders? The foots soldiers who carry out the orders of the President and General, the workers who sweated on the assembly line or starved during the strikes, or the desperate men and women who fought and died in the hope of changing their circumstances following the person they believe will give them a better world in the here and now.

Does anyone remember their names or even care? Not as one of the many, but as an individual like the leaders. Without people their can be no history, but history seems to be able to exist without the people who were responsible for it.

La Revancha – Revenge by Henry Eric Hernandez is a chronicle of his attempts to turn the tables on that notion of history. Through a process he refers to as Interventions he went about Cuba commemorating either a person or a place that played a part in its history but have been relegated to the shadows by neglect or official policy.

He makes it clear that this has nothing to do with Cuba politically, but is a comment on the nature of history everywhere. It's just that he happens to be a Cuban and have its history at his fingertips. The same process could be carried out in any country around the world. In Cuba it actually might have been easier due to the fact that poverty has forced many buildings that were once used for one purpose to now be seconded into a new function.

The book is a type of commentary, or narration even, of the histories that surrounded the sites involved with the interventions. Whether the story of the person whose body is being exhumed and honoured with a commemorative tomb or the derelict washroom being renovated in a school which at one time had served as an army base, they carry a history and a symbolism that reflects his objective.

Take for example the case of Columbia's Post # 6 which was the army base that saw the beginning of every revolutionary army's entrance into Havana and served notice of their having seized power. This was where Sgt, soon to make himself General Batista, led his force into power in late 1933. By 1936 the post had been turned into a full-fledged army base complete with airport and became the Headquarters of the army.

In 1952 when Batista again led a rebellion it was through the Columbia barracks that he entered the city. When Fidel's forces entered Havana, it was also through the portal offered by the base. It was also here that Castro had one of his political opponents arrested. Shortly after that it was decided to decommission the base and turn it into a school.

According to Hernandez's theory changing the identity of the building has gradually made its place in history forgotten. Instead there stood a symbol of the revolution's successful promise to bring literacy to the masses. But by the late 1990's the effects of continued poverty and insufficient funds for education could be seen in the state of the building's washrooms.

Garbage strewn and looking like they aren't even remotely functional, it makes you wonder what the students of the school are using for facilities. In fact I wondered if there were even students. Hernandez's intervention in this case was a complete renovation of the washrooms. He rebuilt them and returned them all to working order. But in an added touch he worked into the tiles that run over the sinks pictures of both the state he had found the washrooms in, and the building's previous function as a military base.

So his renovation was to not only the physical aspects of the building but also its place in history. Now anyone coming in to use the bathroom can't help but know what has come before them and a small link to the past has been restored.

Revenge documents the series of interventions and the history behind each one them that Hernandez undertook over a period of a couple of years. Whatever the reasons for people and places to be omitted from histories record he has carefully assembled the stories that place them in their proper places in the timeline of Cuban history.

So in spite of what those guys said, sometimes history doesn't have to be written down in a book for it to be history. There is always some sort of record that can be found to exist, somebody who remembers what their great, great grandfather told their great grandfather and so on down the line.

History is a narrative made by the people, and only if their narrations are told can it be fully understood, says Kevin Power in his Introduction to this book. What Hernandez has done with Revenge is to tell five of those narrations as a way to fill in gaps in "official" Cuban history.

At times it is a challenging book in that it is hard to follow the author's jumps from story to story and back again. But one soon gets used to that pattern. What might be even harder for some people to understand is the concept he's expressing. We have all been conditioned to the notion that history is the actions of the powerful. Individual stories don't usually have a place inside that definition. After reading La Revancha/Revenge hopefully your opinion will be changed.

All of us are part of history; it's just a matter of fighting to hold on to it.

April 6, 2007

Book Review: Twilight Of Empire Responses To Occupation

Have you ever heard the term the Fourth Estate? For Americans it would be along the lines of the three branches of federal government, but this I believe came from the Brits. Or it might just have easily been the French the founders of democracy (You didn't know that did you, all you hate mongers in the United States who feel the French should have gone into Iraq with you – is that a finger I see the Statue of Liberty giving you – a present from the French on your centenary by the way – or just the cheerful wave of someone saying I told you but would you listen? At least the French learnt from their history and don't want to get bogged down in the Middle East again – they split after Algeria and aren’t in any hurry to come back) It refers to the three Estates of their governments (The British and The French), plus the fourth whose duty is to question, and examine the policies of the government on behalf of the people – that would be the Press.

Supposedly a free and separate body from the government who are at liberty to go and see whatever they want and report on it, the press were given their almost official title in recognition of the valuable role they can play in making governments toe the line and respect the rights of the people. Haven't you ever noticed that the first thing that happens in any civil war or insurrection is one side or another will always attempt to seize control of the television broadcast facilities and the radio stations? Control the information that gets to the people and you control the people.

A very simple truth. One that every single government in the world practices as much as they possibly can today. They can be a so-called democracy or a one party state and the way they treat the media will be exactly the same. The number of ways in which you can prevent information from being published in North America are greater then the number of independently owned media outlets. In fact that's one of the easiest routes to take in controlling the press – allow fewer and fewer people to own more of the media.

When the major media outlets across the country are only owned by one or two corporations – under many different names of course but ultimately the decisions are all made in one boardroom by the same group of very wealthy people whose best interests are at heart? Why their own of course, or at least people in their tax bracket who go to the same country club and belong to the same church as they do.

In other words the media represents the interests of the 3% of the population who control over 90% of the wealth one way or another. If you think they vote socialist or support free health care or anything that might sound like it would cost them a cent of profit you've got another thing coming.

So in this Brave New World of free speech and freedom of the press that we live in the reality is that we are only allowed to hear what the people who own the media thinks is good for us to hear; what they want us to hear. Now of course they don't make those decisions on their own, they leave that to the people who have the authority to let them own even more of the media pie – the government regulators.

Here's an interesting little aside for you that you probably don't know about. Before the American led invasion of Iraq took place and Coin Powell was Uncle Tomming at the United Nations for the current Bush administration, assuring the world (lying through his teeth) that weapons of mass destruction existed – his son over at the F.C.C was busy rewriting the laws making it legal for corporations to own more of the media pie. While daddy was selling the soft soap to the world son was buying the support of the American Media so they could control the flow of information out of Iraq when the war started.

The whole idea of embedded reporters would fall apart if the big four television networks in the U.S., N.B.C., C.B.S., A.B.C., and CNN, and the major papers all said no thanks, we'll go by ourselves like we always have – see you there. I think even the people of the United States would be suspect if none of them were reporting any news from the front. But instead they've all meekly, or more likely obediently, gone along with doing what they are told.

What's even scarier is us the audience going along with it because we don't any better. We are kept so far in the dark that we don't even know there is something that's not being reported. It's only when you read books like Twilight Of Empire, Responses To Occupation an anthology of writings reporting from on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan the stories that the supposed Fourth Estate hasn't bothered or been allowed to report.

For instance if we went into Iraq and Afghanistan to help preserve the rights of women in those countries how is it that it has become less safe in Iraq to be a woman now then it was before the invasion? Why hasn't it been reported that violence against women has increased to such a state that most women are afraid to go out alone because they are so scared of being kidnapped and raped. If somehow they survive that, then they have to live in fear of some male relative killing her because she is now "spoiled goods" and he has to preserve his honour by killing her.

What the hell are the Americans doing there? When they talk about security issues they don't give a shit about the people who live in Baghdad. They say things are getting more secure now, which is true if you happen to be an American soldier armed to the teeth living in a concrete bunker protected by gun emplacements.

They don't care about how many Iraqi's are killed. When asked the General staff replies – oh we don't do body counts of the enemy. They are not the enemy first of all, they are the people you came to liberate aren't they? Or is it now everybody is an enemy.

According to Christian Parenti in her article "Stretched Thin, Lied To, And Mistreated" the American soldiers on the ground now treat every Iraqi as a potential enemy because they have been forced to by the very nature of the occupation. Everybody they see is living lives of abject poverty; unemployment is rampant, the electricity was still off in the majority of the city, there was no fresh water and the only people making money are foreigners coming in and privatizing all of Iraq natural resources thanks to George Bush selling it all out from under them to his cronies in Huston.

So the American soldier who goes out on to the street is now seen as being the oppressor not the liberator. This article was written in 2003 only shortly after the "war" was officially ended, but today the violence on the ground against American soldiers is even worse then it was four years ago.

The scariest thing about a book like Twilight Of The Empire isn't reading the details of how horrible it is for people on both sides of the wire, civilians and the soldiers who are caught in the middle of policy and human decency, in Iraq. Or reading how the only thing the overthrow of the Taliban has done in Afghanistan is allow the guys who were in power before them back in. They were so bad that the Taliban were welcomed as liberators at first in some places.

These things are bad enough but what really gets me is that these stories have never been reported. That almost everything that we've been told in the mainstream press has been a lie. When the Canadian government says we are there until Afghanistan is rebuilt they are lying because they don't even talk about the fact that women are worse off then they were before our troops came. It's as Lauren Sandler reports in "Veiled And Worried In Baghdad" there can be no democracy without "himaya" – security for women.

Reading the articles in Twilight Of Empire brings home the realization of how much we've been lied to. I've known all along that most of what we have been told about the war is bullshit, but this book shows just how deep the lie runs. It wasn't just the reasons for going to war were non existent, it's also the fact that everything it was supposed to have accomplished was a lie right from the start and nobody really gives a shit about the men or women who live in these countries.

From the top down nobody really cared whether women are raped, kept from going to school, deprived of liberty, or faced with the threat of execution when they are raped, because if they did they would have done something about it by now. They wouldn't have let the same folk back into power back in Afghanistan, they would have made a concentrated effort to restore normalcy to Baghdad instead of trying to figure out how to sell off the power companies to foreign ownership.

What's more important, turning the electricity on so that people can carry on with their lives and businesses can open again or figuring out a way to sell the power company? If you opt for the latter and everybody knows that is what's happening don't you think they are going to get mad. How is it that 130,000 heavily armed soldiers, plus tanks etc can't police the streets of Baghdad and make them safe for women?

Why were all the police fired? Why were there no provisions made to replace the ones that were fired? Why are these stories never reported in our papers? Why does our government only talk about how things are getting better and that we don't understand why we have to be in these countries.

You're damned right I don't understand why we have to be over there making things worse for people on a daily basis. I don't understand why we are letting our governments steal everything the people of these countries own and sell it to their friends.

I think everybody who cares about the truth needs to read Twilight Of The Empire. It will not only show you how utterly incompetent Western media have been in reporting the story of what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, it will show what a real member of the Fourth Estate can do when they want to.

There is not excuse for the actions of the major networks in not trying to do their jobs properly – anybody with press credentials can go out into the streets of Baghdad and get these stories. But they haven't and they won't because they have been bought and paid for by the administration.

You don't need to close the television stations or run them from government offices to control them – all you have to do is offer them a bigger piece of the pie and they will do what you want.

This is my favourite story about the media in the United State from the start of this current War. A chain of pro-Bush radio stations organized a series of pro-war demonstrations in major centres across the United States. They shipped people in, handed out banners, and signs and got all the necessary permits to allow them to take place. Then they reported on them as news of how people were spontaneously taking to the streets across the United States in support of the War.

So much for the Fourth Estate in the United States; freedom of the press doesn't exist there anymore than it did in Nazi Germany or in Communist China. Question authority, but most of all question the newspapers – if all they do is quote the government and the military you know they are not doing their jobs. We need more books like Twilight Of The Gods, and more people willing to search out the truth like the men and women who have written the reports in this book, and the men and women who have talked to the reporters in this book.

We need more truth.



March 22, 2007

Book Review: Viggo Mortensen 45301

I'm probably going to show my age by asking this, but how many people remember being in public school and being shown filmstrips? The teacher would bring out a type of projector, basically a high wattage light bulb with a couple of mirrors and maybe a magnifying glass, over and through which a partially developed negative would be pulled, sending a still image onto a screen.

It was primitive but effective, getting information across to thirty restless students who were so grateful for the reprieve from the normal tedium of class that they would pay attention for a while. Looking at the strips outside of the machine gave you no clue as to whether or not it contained a history of Canada or the common cold – both of which were options in grade school.

Like all negatives their secrets were only revealed under certain conditions. These ones were developed all ready so they gave up their images with exposure to light like a slide in a slide projector. Other negatives require more work to be turned into an image that can be used. It's in the preparation of the negative, the transferring of its negative image onto whatever will be used to take the positive that a photographer has his or her last chance to effect the photo.

Using the equipment in a dark room will allow a photographer to determine exactly how much of the picture comes to light, how deep the colours, and make final adjustments to composition. The art of the photographer doesn't end with the clicking of the shutter, it continues right on through until the image is laid out for display or reproduced in book form.

45301 is the title given to a 2003 publication of Viggo Mortensen photographs. The name is derived from the number found on a strip of negatives, and considering the contents of the book, I assume it is in reference to the importance that Mr. Mortensen placed on the development process for the works in this book.

Unlike the images presented in earlier works like Recent Forgeries or Signlanguage or even those from his more recent publications Linger and I Forget You For Ever the majority of the work in 45301 are deliberately abstracted. In some cases it is to the point where the subject matter is unrecognisable, others where it appears like you are viewing the image in front of you through thick, flawed glass, causing the figures or objects in the frame to distort.

In some he has gone beyond even bothering with subject matter and they are pure experiments in colour – the object distilled down to its barest essence, light. Colour can be subjective to the human eye as it involves how light affects surfaces and in turn how our eye reads that reaction. How often is it that two humans will ever see anything in exactly the same way?

At the risk of sounding like some new age flake: light is the essence of everything. Without light what would there be? No shape, no colour; nothing. A photographer works with light and manipulates it to create images. What he does with the light impacts on his finished product. In 45301 Mr. Mortensen experiments with light, image, and how they are both perceived by the human eye.

Using all aspects of the photographer's art he creates various situations for light, dark, and colour either to form an image or just to exist. There are those times when he leaves the lens aperture open in order to capture a moment of motion so that an object is blurred up to the point where it begins to break down into its components of light and energy, and past, to where it is beyond recognition.

The second image in the book itself, entitled "Ride 76" is a shot down into the ground at the front hooves of a horse. We can make out the tops of thr hooves and leg just above them; the hooves themselves are blurred to the point where they are almost indistinguishable from the ground they trod upon as it moves under them. The most substantial thing in the picture is the shadow cast behind the legs.

Created by the one constant in the world, light, a shadow isn't affected by the speed an object travels at except in how it changes the play of the light. Like looking out the window of a speeding train and seeing the ground whizzing by but seeing the solid lump of the train's shadow as it races you to your final destination. It never wavers in its objective no matter what obstacle might stand in its path or how distorted the ground it runs over becomes.

How we perceive speed and movement is dictated by how we see light; we might be able to tell a train is moving by the feel of it during the night, but we have no means of proving it by our eye. No light exists for our shadow to pass through to give definition to the moment.

At one point during 45301, towards the middle, you come across a series of pages on which strips of film have been laid out running into subsequent pages until the roll ends, and new ones begin. At first glance the films seem to be devoid of much, just endless rolls of extremely overexposed negative.

But there is a pattern within them that to my mind has turned them into another form of motion – the slow passage of time as the day changes. Some strips appear to start in the darkness before daylight and continue through the searing bright light of midday, the blues of twilight, and back again to the absence of light. Time moves without showing anything more tangible then colours shifting and light changing. If we could find a still point where we could observe a day like those film strips we would see it just as they represent.

Almost all the images in this book seem to involve motion of some kind or another; even the act of waiting to begin involves an activity of sorts as the body gathers adrenalin and prepares itself for whatever it must do. One of the final images in the book depicts a person sitting in the dark beside a gleaming light.

In spite of the fact he, or she, is in silhouette by looking closely some detail is discernable. While it may look at rest, it could also be said to be gathering itself for action. What lies just through the light? Is the person hiding from something and preparing to be found? What action will it have to take in the next minute, hour, or day?

Motion is anticipated by the contrast in light and dark. We don't need to know anything more then what the image provides before beginning to develop scenarios on our own of the possible and the potential. Unlike other pieces where Mr. Mortensen has captured motion in an attempt to hold onto time, here he has captured stillness and made it clear that it is only a momentary respite from activity.

Viggo Mortensen works to capture moments in time in many ways, one of which is his writing. In a more recent book - Linger - he talks about this while recording the details of cremating his beloved companion Brigit. He has made the conscious decision not to record the event with his camera, he writes to her in his journal, and in fact he had to go back out to his vehicle to dig out this journal to actually write down the events of the day. He can't help himself he seems to be saying, I have to have some record of events.

While there are no writings in 45301 the pages of the book are almost entirely scanned copies of his journal writings blown up and enlarged so that only occasional words can be seen peeking our from around the photos. Or the pages used have been so overwritten and scrawled upon that it would be impossible to discern what each page is about.

As far as I can tell the journal pages selected have no direct relationship to the photographs on each page. So why do it than? One potential is that he is showing us how much he is concerned with grabbing moments of time and making a record of them. This, he is saying is about his photographs, is what the world can look like, always moving, and the eye can do no more than record that motion no matter what implement it uses.

Maybe we can slow it down somewhat and stop it in the frame of a picture. But it will keep going beyond the boundaries of that frame even before the camera is put down or pulled from the eye. But in the journal there is no such notion of eternal motion as words can effectively capture a moment and give the illusion that nothing more will happen after that.

45301 appears to me to be a collection of works in which Viggo Mortensen is exploring the interrelationship between motion, colour, light, and dark. Whether through the lens of his camera or in the darkroom afterwards, or even in the production of the book, he has created examples and captured moments that exemplify that theme.

Of course as with all abstract art, reactions to pieces are entirely subjective, and you might look at the images in this book and think I'm full of shit. The sign of a good artist is that he or she is able to create work that causes people to think and form opinions that they can argue in favour of coherently. You heard my opinion, what's yours?


March 21, 2007

Book Review: Viggo Mortensen Signlanguage

In the interview that prefaces the book Recent Forgeries Viggo Mortensen's home is described as being filled to the bursting with art work under construction, completed pieces, materials that he has accumulated with an eye for what they might become some day, and piles of framed and unframed photographs everywhere. In order to carry out simple tasks like getting a drink for Kristine McKenna, who conducted the interview, out of the fridge requires moving a coupe of canvasses so the door can be opened.

"The garage is full of paintings even bigger than these" he says, and is described as sounding as if he was confessing to some transgression. It's no wonder than that only two yeas after the show that was catalogued in Recent Forgeries Mr. Mortensen has been able to pull together enough material for a new show at the Track 16 gallery in Santa Monica California.

As with the previous show Mr. Mortensen has released a catalogue of the work that was on display. Unlike the earlier show Signlanguagecontains only works of visual art, photographs and paintings. Well, that's not exactly true, for as is usual for Mr. Mortensen's painting he has incorporated writings from his journals into the works, it's just that none of the writings appear on their own as individual works.

At first glance the paintings appear to be simply colour- bold and vivid eye-catching colours that reach out and grab your attention with all the subtlety of an act of violence. But with careful regard images or ideas can be seen shyly showing themselves through the brilliance.

At first there might only seem to be a meaningless scrawl of words barely discernable through the layers of paint and texture. But, deliberately or not is left for you to decide, certain words or specific images will push themselves forward. They might be slightly darker in their outline, or be a little more exposed, that their presence becomes obvious. However it's happened they are what the eye will be drawn to after settling down from the initial assault of colour.

In one painting the rough line drawing of a tree climbs the right hand border with a dark moon or sun framed between two major branches. The contrast of the images with the predominate rose colour makes one wonder about the scrawl of words that is underlying the whole. Not legible to the reader of the book, part of me wants to know if the poem, or journal entry if that's what it is, are what the title "Volsung 2001" refers to – or is it some reference to the tree and what appears to be an eclipsed moon or sun.

Other paintings are a little less enigmatic; for example "Isolation And Its Effects On Colour Perception With The Passing Of Time 1999" shows a figure – perhaps the artist you wonder because that would make sense in some ways – down on all fours with head hanging between arms. Above the flat back of the figure, near the centre of the canvass has been scrawled Isolation.

The figure itself is the dark mauve/blue that brings depression and despondency quickly to mind, while as the canvass retreats upwards away from the figure the colours gradually lighten. Near the top of the canvass, halfway between Isolation and the top, there is a break in the solid surface, which looks like where the plaster has fallen away in an old house to reveal the lathe work in behind.

Could it represent a possible exit – an end to isolation – or is it a symbol of the isolation in its decay. When we think of people who cut themselves off from the world, it is usual to think of them living in surroundings dingy, depressing, and falling into decrepitude, embolic of their no longer caring about anything.

While Mr. Mortensen's paintings seem to be intense expressions of personal emotion, his photographs in this period are still more concerned with recording events and moments in time for our contemplation. In the interview I mentioned earlier on in this review he talked about how he started photography back when he was still in highschool.

It seemed there was always something going on that I could be taking a picture of, and I suppose I eventually started feeling a little removed from life. I'm actually shooting more these days, but I'm thinking primarily about colour now and assuming the framing will take care of itself since I've been doing it so long. It's a much looser and more relaxed way of working. Mortensen, Viggo: Recent Forgeries Smart Art Press 2006, pg. 8

While I didn't notice that relaxation as much in Recent Forgeries, although there were some examples of it, in Signlanguage it seems like Mr. Mortensen has removed restrictions from himself that had existed up to this time. Images spill over the edges of boundaries; a forest refusing to be constrained by any human element giving proof to the saying of not being able to see the trees for the forest, as they become a dark, dense mass of matter.

Film is pushed past its maximum to until slightly grainy and the resulting image takes on an almost fantastical element suiting the subject matter. Scenes from the set of The Lord of The Rings shot inside Chetwood Forest are full of foreboding. It becomes a place where the an Orc could lurk or other denizens of Middle Earth would feel right at home.

People appear on the side of the frame in the foreground so our eye is drawn to them off to one side, but the pull of the rest of the world is still exerted upon us. No one exists in a complete vacuum, they are part of the environment, or part of that moment in time that Mr. Mortensen has captured and held onto for us to witness.

On occasion where the person is dead centre the question becomes who are they; characters from the movie, Eomer or Gimli son of Gloin, or the actors who portray them? Karl Urban in full makeup and costume is no longer there, whose eyes are looking out at us from the frame?

Or then there are the simple statements of fact that can't be disputed. A woman laying on her back on a large rock in the middle of what looks like a field of grass in the late afternoon sun – the photo is called simply "Paradise". Immediately evoking the joy of basking on a sun baked rock in the middle of a quiet field, perhaps only hearing crickets or grasshoppers.

Somehow Mr. Mortensen manages to capture just the right moments in time with his photographs that he is able to trigger an instantaneous reaction like that. The series of images that make up "Lost", three photos of ghostly tree braches in the winter, and one final shot of the back of a cabin with a ladder leading up to the roof and the trees which contain the branches, combine to give a feeling of being lost.

Not lost in the sense of not knowing where you are while traveling perhaps, but being lost in the ghostliness of a winter day when it feels like the world has gone into a trance. I think it's almost something you have to experience, because it escapes my ability with words to express it. But Mr. Mortensen has captured it perfectly and if you know the feeling you will recognise it, even without being able to describe it.

Signlanguage is an interesting step back in time in the career of Viggo Mortensen the photographer and painter, as it shows him starting to trust his emotional instincts with camera more and more. Gradually he is starting to use black and white film as often as colour and showing a willingness to let things happen as they will instead of trying to wait for or frame the perfect moment.

Comparing the work in this book to the work in Recent Forgeries I found it to be more assured and confident. The colours in his colour photography seem bolder and more assertive then before, and the black and white images show more freedom then earlier work. While his paintings may not appear to show the same significant amount of change, there are some subtle distinctions and nuances of image that began to appear at this point in his career.

It's always interesting to go back and look at an artist's earlier work and see where he has come from and how he has progressed. Signlanguage is one such stop along the way in the path of Viggo Mortensen; like his photographs it is a moment taken out of time and preserved for us to look and think about.



March 1, 2007

Book Review: Miyelo Viggo Mortensen

When they had come to your land you had given them what they needed. Soon they began to take without asking, and then they took what was yours. You fought, but they were too many and they had better weapons.

Some of you they forced to move to somewhere else when they wanted your land. Some of you they killed all the game that you ate and built your homes from, so you could no longer live. They took all your land and pushed you on to small islands of reservations where slowly starved to death and went mad.

It was amongst the people of the plains, from the Paiute, in the late1800s that a man rose up named Wovoka. Wovoka said that if the people at the end of every six weeks dance this dance, "The Ghost Dance", the Europeans would go away, the buffalo would come back, and all those who had been killed would be returned.

The people were desperate, they were hungry, they were dispossessed, and so they danced. All the plains peoples; The Crow, The Cheyenne, The Arapaho, The Shoshone, Lakota, Ogala, Dakota, and others – they all danced.

In 1890, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, beside Wounded Knee Creek, a group of families had gathered at Chief Big Foot's Camp to dance the Ghost Dance. The remnants of the 7th army were sent to oversee, and put down. It became a massacre. Eyewitnesses who came upon the scene two days latter found bodies thrown hundreds of yards from the camp – only cannon fire could have done that.

The American government at the time proclaimed it a heroic victory over renegade Indians. It was recorded so in the history books, and for many years the killing of unarmed men, women, and children was believe by all people to be a great military victory. It wasn't until the 1970's that the truth was finally printed in books like Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by Dee Brown and the lie was exposed.
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Thirty years on in 2002 film makers gathered to recreate the massacre for the movie Hidalgo. Twice in the shooting of the movie they recreated the "Ghost Dance". Once just before the massacre, and once latter in the film when the character played by Viggo Mortensen is close to death in the desserts.

Miyelo is Viggo Mortensen's recounting of both the past and the present versions of the Ghost Dance. During the filming of both the recreated camp by Wounded Knee Creek and in the California desert where the dance was shot a second time he used his camera to record the events.

Shooting mainly in Black and White his pictures of extras and the recreated camp feel like a record that has stepped out of time. Modern shots and technology have been dropped through a time machine to bring us back images of what it was like so many years ago.

Even those shot with colour, specifically the series entitled "Hindsight" appear to be looking backwards from a great distance. Whether the focus of the camera is set off to a far horizon, or he has developed the photos so that only a tight circle of image remains, these images live up to their series title. We are only able to see the past through our own lens of opinion and thought.

In the California desert where he has shot the dancer involved in the hallucinatory Ghost Dance from the end of the movie, he has used colour film, but maintained the illusive contact with them that his character in the film enjoyed. The dancers do not exist here anymore, they have long gone on to another world where maybe they are hunting buffalo and they have been reunited with the spirits of the their grandparents.

Mr. Mortensen's images capture the intangible quality of their figures, causing them to flit in and out of reality on the static page of a book. Now you think you seen a glimpse of a figure through the mists of time, but you can't be sure. Other time they gather in a watery circle, so it looks like you are seeing them reflected in a puddle; a puddle that somehow shows both ends of a tunnel between times.

While Viggo Mortensen's images are the dominant focus of the book, he has included some very important texts as support reading. There is the first hand account of the discovery of the bodies at Wounded Knee Creek that I referred to earlier, an account of the work of James Mooney, who worked for the Smithsonian Institute during the period of the Ghost Dance, written by Mike Davis, an extract from the work of James Mooney about his travels among the people during this time, and an article written by Clement "Sonny" Richards a contemporary Lakota medicine man.

Don’t be looking for any words of good cheer among these writings, because you won't find them. They serve to drive home the horror of the events that took place during those times, as well to place the Ghost Dance within its context.

Someone once wrote that the truth shall set you free, but I offer this codicil of if you are willing and strong enough to face up to the truth. Miyelo is the truth of the history of North America, may you have the courage to observe it and absorb it.

Miyelo is currently available through Perceval Press in both hard cover and soft cover editions.

February 16, 2007

Book Review: I Forget You For Ever Viggo Mortensen

There is something about poetry and photography that seems to keep them both on the fringes of their respective areas of expression. While most writers and visual artists are considered as somewhat suspect by the mainstream of society, poets and photographers appear to occupy their own special niche even further removed.

While writing prose for a living is still considered a slightly freakish thing to do with your life, especially if your not the one in a million who makes a fortune from it, at least you write in plain English which most decent folk can understand. But poetry hardly ever makes sense and when it does its always about emotions and things that you're not supposed to talk about in public.

How can photography be an art? Everybody has a camera and take pictures of trees and people – what's so special about some guy taking photos that he can't even get in focus. At least with those painter types you can see that it might be difficult to pick up a brush and paint a nice picture of a flower or a bowl of fruit. But my Aunt Mavis has a camera and she doesn't get her pictures hung on a gallery wall even though she takes some pretty snaps of flowers and the kids.

In spite of those attitudes, and the fact that fewer and fewer people seem willing to make the effort to appreciate and/or see beyond what's in front of their faces, there are still men and women out there willingly laying bare their emotions on paper and offering glimpses of how they see the world via the viewfinders of their cameras.
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Admittedly they are a much more difficult medium to appreciate than say television or the majority of movies. The instant gratification factor is noticeably thin on the ground in poetry and in photography, but with a little effort the rewards are significantly greater.

One need look no further than Viggo Mortensen's recent book of poems and photography, I Forget You For Ever for confirmation of that fact. On a purely visceral level alone the work in this collection has an immediate impact through the sense of urgency that pervades the whole collection.

This is how we pass the little time we have, what we do in our waking hours while we may or may not be dreaming, planning, rehashing, regretting, and occasionally feeling that we understand what in the world is happening. Mortensen, Viggo; "With These Hands While We Can"; I Forget You For Ever, Perceval Press 2006, pg. 6

In the paragraph directly before these lines is a listing of the numerous things we do to "pass the time". What little time we do have to accomplish anything, is being wasted by our willingness to fill it with trivia and inconsequential activities. We have lost sight of our own mortality and its significance in regards to our actions and therefore don't pay enough attention to what is important.

Open the book to any page, photograph or poem, and you'll either be given a moment stolen out of the while of time and frozen for you to look at and think about. Or there will be a presentation of time speeding by so fast as to be nothing more than a blurring of light or the flicker of images from an old super-eight-movie camera.
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In "Leaves", the books opening poem, he uses missed opportunities to play with his son when a small boy as an example of a failure to realize that one day there won't be another day for you to do that thing you've been putting off. Sometimes the deadline on later comes due and we're not ready for it but it doesn't matter because clichés are right some of the time and time really doesn't wait for any man no matter how many regrets you have.

In the same poem Mr. Mortensen also reflects on how even when time is made, we are jealous of sharing ourselves, surrendering our valuable time, and parts of us are off somewhere else. In his case it's his imagination thinking about images for photos or ideas for poems. He says of himself that "I am what I imagine, not what I what I am". In other words he's living with his next creation somewhere in the future, not in the here and now with his son.

The photographs that stick out for me the most are the ones like "Toronto, 2004" where the lights of the city speed past and everything is a blur of visual noise. Toronto Canada isn't the only city to be depicted in this manner; Sao Paulo Brazil appears a few times as bright oranges and reds blurring past your eyes.

Time can vanish in cities on occasion and gets eaten up by distractions. It's very easy to lose track of where you are, where you're going, and even to an extent, who you are. Any time that I have ended up in a foreign environment it has taken me a certain amount of time to adjust to my new surroundings. When they are a city it's even harder for all the reasons listed above. Sometimes it really does feel like everything is a blur whizzing by you because you feel so out of your depth.

In contrast are those photos that Mr. Mortensen has taken of places he is familiar with, or comfortable with. The series known as "Winter Light", which depicts him and a group of other artists going out into the desert and each using his or her own media, recording the winter light. If one wanted to stretch a point you could say they are an example of an attempt to freeze a very specific moment; immobilize time so to speak. Why else call it "Winter Light" if not to immortalize that specific moment in time?

In the final long poem of I Forget You For Ever called "Forever". (You could make a real meal out the fact that poem uses one form of forever and the title of the book the two word format, but I figure why bother, just ask yourself what you feel is the difference, or if there even is a difference) Mr. Mortensen talks about feeling like he's on borrowed time, or has gone into extra time.

It's not that he feels his life is any imminent danger; it's just that perhaps if we stopped taking it so much for granted we would get more out of it. "Surely we could learn to look at our entire life spans that way…?" As a fluky bonus gift from creation we are given the opportunity to be on this planet, which quite frankly couldn't care less about us. Except perhaps it may wish that we didn't all hold on so tight. It's not like she is about to throw us off into space or anything so there is no need to cling to her like leeches.

I Forget You For Ever cements in my mind that Viggo Mortensen is a poet and photographer to be taken seriously. This isn't the idle passing fancy of a bored star; this is the work of a dedicated and thoughtful artist, who at a way station in his life, his child leaving home to go out on his own, reflects on his life and career.

It's probably a topic that quite a few people would be able to relate to if they would take the time to sit and read the pieces in this book and then look at the photographs keeping the words in mind. Poetry and photography really aren't what you think them to be; one is a lot more sophisticated then you think, and the other a lot simpler. Give them a try, especially the work of this man as he does speak to universal themes that we can all identify with.

I Forget You For Ever doesn't seem to be listed on Amazon.com yet so you'll have to pick it up from the publishers Perceval Press I think it's running for $38.00 US, but considering that its trade paper back size and full of colour and black and white photographs, plus the poetry, you're getting good value for your money.

February 14, 2007

Book Review: Adjusting Sights Haim Sabato

In 1973 Israel faced the last real concentrated invasion by the armies of the Arab world. An attacking force spearheaded by Syrian and Egyptian tanks invaded on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. On "The Day of Atonement" the majority of Jewish people spend the day fasting and in Synagogue.

If there was one day of the year where the Arab armies had a chance of taking the Israeli forces by surprise and perhaps ending the war before it could even get started, this was it. What made it even more of a shock to the Israelis was that the Arabs chose to attack during Ramadan, the holiest days on the Muslim calendar. Devout Muslims will fast from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan then break their fast with a feast in honour of Allah.

In the first two days of the war it looked like the Arab armies might succeed, but after sustaining significant losses of tanks and men, the Israelis regrouped and by the end of the fifth day were able to start pushing the attacking forces back. In Adjusting Sights Haim Sabato plunges us directly into the middle of those opening days of confusion as seen through the eyes of a gunner and the gun sights of a tank.

Adjusting Sights is the author's recounting of his own experiences as a tank gunner in an Israeli armoured division during that period, so this is no fictional recreation of events. Instead the author writes with unflinching honesty about the confusion, chaos, fear, and fatigue he felt during the initial onslaught.
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He and his closest friend, Dov, had been together since the early years of school, studied for their Bar Mitzvahs together, so it was only natural that when it came time to do their National Service in the army that they should serve and train together. On manoeuvres and throughout basic training they had been loader and gunner together in a tank.

Naturally, they assumed, when the call up came for the war they would be assigned to the same tank, but it was not to be. When they arrived at the depot it was total chaos. They were standing with the rest of their crew when an officer came up and asked "who's a loader"? When Dov steped forward – he said, "Come with me, so and so needs a loader now". And Dov was gone to another tank, to another gunner; Dov was gone period.

Shortly after leaving the camp and heading out towards where they have been told the enemy might be – but that's impossible how can they be so close already, was everybody's thought, including the author. The ambush that they drove into almost killed them all. Haim and the rest of his crew had to abandon their tank and try to walk back to camp through the middle of a pitched battle.

Between the four of them they had two Uzi submachine guns, and one grenade so when the helicopter full of Syrian commandos landed almost on top of them they were sure they were done for. Then out of nowhere an Israeli troop career pulls up and out pours a brigade of soldiers who open fire and take down the Syrians.

Things like that happen throughout the author's whole ordeal – the timing of events is such that the engine of his tank starts just in time to reverse before a shell hits. Or at one point walking back to the camp they hid in a culvert for a few moments and then continued on. Another tank squad did the same thing a little later and a Syrian troop passing by tossed some grenades in and killed all but one, the one who told that story to Haim.

Adjusting Sights is not about patriots; it's not about glory; it is about survival. Individual soldiers trying to survive each moment they are under fire when they don't know where the enemy tanks are. How do you fire back when you can't see who's firing at you?

Only occasionally do they say to each other anything that sounds remotely patriotic, and it is more desperation than anything else. "We can't lose, because if we lose Israel loses", is not a speech guaranteed to make the blood boil with patriotic fervour. But it's what they felt as they fought in order to live so that their country could live.

I've read a fair number of stories and a fair number of histories about various wars and battles, and this book has to have the most genuine feel to it of any when it comes to recounting the fighting. The confusion, the panic, the moments of frustration, and the relief when it's over are all communicated without any embellishment.

Nobody cheers when they blow up another tank, or when the enemy retreats. They just are grateful to survive. Another day that they survive is another day that their country survives. But something about Sabato's matter of fact approach manages to transmit the state of shock that most of the men are in. When he describes them watching two comrades rolling on the ground to put out the flames that are threatening to engulf them in same manner as he describes trudging through the sand it's not hard to understand their state of mind.

Haim Sabato is a man who takes his faith seriously, and therefore faith plays a large part in this book. But it's not the way that I'm accustomed to seeing religion or faith employed during a book about war. There is no group prayer where they gather to hear someone tell them that God is on their side and that should go out and kill in his name.

Instead for the men who serve in the tanks their faith and their rituals are their tie to normalcy. Getting up every morning to recite the morning prayer, wrapping the Tefillin (prayer boxes worn by orthodox Jewish men for the morning prayers signifying the covenant between them and God) on to their forehead, arms and fingers, and facing the east to greet the day are something you all the time, not just in during a war.

After the fighting has ended Haim and his troop are stationed on the Golan Heights and they keep the Sabbath ritual every week. It becomes almost even more important here than it would be at home. Their faith is as much a part of their lives as breathing for some of them, so maintaining the practices and rituals makes them feel alive.

After the author was finished running to escape the ambush where his tank had been immobilized he and his fellow crewmembers were finally able to rest for a moment. As he was sitting there he remembered that he had been taught that no man may make a vow in the hopes of expecting assistance from heaven – except in moments of extreme distress.

He sits and wonders what it is he would vow and the only thing he is sure of is that the world will never be the same again. At the end of the book on Golan Heights he remembers that vow, that the world will never be the same again. He thinks about how he lived and his friend Dov din't, or how that one crewmember lived while the rest of his crew died from the grenade blast in the culvert.

That is a debt that needs to be repaid, but how do you change the world? You aim higher then you've aimed before, just as a gunner in a tank adjusts his sights to allow for the change in trajectory, so must we all adjust our sights and set higher goals if we want to change the world.

It is often said that soldiers are the ones who most apposed to war. They know on occasion that it becomes necessary to defend your homeland from invasion, but there should be no other reason for it. Haim Sabato is that type of soldier. This is a book about war which tells us we need to adjust our sights away from fighting and lift them up to a more worthy goal.

Who holds in His hand the souls of all that live
And the spirit of each mortal man
The soul is Yours and the body is Your handiwork
Spare the work of Your hands

Lord of all souls, the soul is Yours
But the body is also Your handiwork
For this it was made, to sanctify Your name in this world
Master of all worlds, spare the work of Your hands.
Hebrew Prayer of penitence

January 26, 2007

Where Have The Lions Of Literature Gone?

When Hunter S. Thompson died a couple of years back it felt like the end of era just because of what he represented as an icon of the anti-establishment movement of the America in the 1960's. But in the years since his death I've also come to the realization of what else his passing has meant to the world of literature.

He represented one of the last of the larger than life literary figures who seemed so abundant in the twentieth century, but who now have gone the way of the dinosaur. When you add the death of Irving Layton last year to the Grim Reaper's harvest of writers it becomes even harder to think of any great characters left in the field of letters.

These were men and women, but primarily men the world being what it was in those days, who through dint of personality as well as talent were able to capture people's imaginations in ways today's best sellers couldn't hope to accomplish. John Grisham may sell millions of books but do you truly think he could inspire anybody to become a writer?

I'm not saying they're aren't great writers out there right now, because there are some truly amazing authors whose writings are not just illuminating but luminescent as well. But where are the personalities to capture our imaginations; where are the characters who added mystique to the writer's art?

Perhaps Paris in post World War one and Morocco in post World War two, and all the writes associated with those movements (whether they were ever there or not) are unique in the history of the written word. There have been very few other occasions when such diverse groups of talent were gathered together in a single place.

Of course there were other pockets, The Bloomsbury group of artists headed up Virginia Wolfe and her husband Leonard made their abode London and it's surrounding environs. Greenwich Village in New York City and parts of San Francesco came later, and were more part of the Beat movement out of Morocco then anything else.

Paris in between the wars was a favoured destination for writers, painters, dancers, and all the hangers on that go with an artistic scene, from all over the world. Ernest Hemmingway, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Morley Callahan, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Hart Crane, Henry Miller, and Anis Nin were all to be found among the tables and chairs of Paris' cafes in the day, and her salons and bars at night.

Perhaps it was the whole circumstance that lent itself to creating the Romantic image of the writer that came out of that period. But the absence of any one of the above mentioned figures would have surely diminished the impact. Paris in the twenties without Hemmingway or Joyce doesn't even seem conceivable as they represent the two poles of personality and expression, boisterous emotion and cool intellect respectively.

For it was not only content that these wonderful writers wrangled with, but form as well. Joyce, and Wolfe in England, experimenting with writing as the mind worked. Leaping from thought to thought and letting a "story" develop from those thoughts. Similarly poets like Crane and e. e. cummings were taking apart the formal structures and producing new sounding poetry

At the other end of the spectrum was Hemingway with his big and bold emotional stories about war and life, and his big and bold emotional approach to his own life. The boxing match with Callahan, which he lost, was the only blemish on an otherwise spotless record for coming out a winner for most of this life. It was only when he started to lose his creative powers the depression that killed him set in, but even that only adds to his mystique.

Even in death they were figures of romance to emulate for the young writers who were to follow them, in the post World War two Beat movement. The Beats were probably the first almost uniquely American literary movement, in that not only were it's members predominately American, they also represented the best and worst aspects of the triumph of the individual.

From the selfishness of addictions to the brilliance of independent thought and free spirited action they epitomized individuality. The Beats and their contemporaries shattered conventions about morality, sexuality, and the other symbols of the staid and stable middle class to ignite a flame of passionate creativity.

William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Allan Ginsberg were at the centre of the movement that opened the way for people like Ken Keasy , Charles Bukowski, Richard Farina, and Thomas Pynchom. They also became the touchstone for whatever rebellion against convention that occurred in North America in the 1960s.

But who has there been since able to inspire or excite people in that way about literature? Yes there are individuals who people want to read and whose books provide pleasure to millions which is a great thing in of it's own. But there is no one, or group of people, out there who seem to have caught the public's imagination like any of those other authors did during their heyday.

Maybe they still have the ability to inspire new generations of authors years after their passing; I know they provided me with the desire to create, but how long can the force of their personalities endure? Where will the next great group of literary lions come from to inspire creativity and genius? Is it even possible for these types of people to achieve the acclaim they did in years gone by?

Will our formulaic and conservative publishing industry even allow for such original and creative individuals to flourish? Or has the environment changed so radically we will never see those days again? Perhaps I'm overly romanticizing days gone by because of my own personal biases, so take the thoughts expressed here with as many grains of salt as you wish.

But without an infusion of some sort of energy soon the contemporary North American novel seems destined to continue to obtain the heights of mediocrity at best.

October 29, 2006

Book Review: MirrorMask: The Illustrated Film Script Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean

I've never been one for reading scripts for pleasure, they just don't seem to be designed to read inside your head. All that dialogue rattling around unspoken starts to get really noisy after a while and I can't even hear myself think. Even when I was acting I would never read a script for fun. If I were going to be appearing in or auditioning for a role in a play it was another matter, but that was work and completely different from picking up a book to read for the story.

What's true for stage scripts is even more true for film scripts as they are not only filled with dialogue but usually include camera instructions and other details that detract from whatever literary pleasure might have been extracted from it. However, since I was looking to find as many and varied works of Neil Gaiman as possible, and I had enjoyed the movie so much, I obtained a copy of MirrorMask: The Illustrated Film Script which he had co-authored with Dave McKean.

It was the promise of illustrations that intrigued me, McKean's work is amazing, and the fact that whatever Mr. Gaiman writes seems to be able to transcend whichever media he is working in. There was also the promise of it containing information about the process of making the film and relationship between the two writers. Although the MirrorMaskDVD had contained some of those details, I was hoping that the book of the script would elaborate on what had been talked about earlier.
mirrormask-comp.jpg
The book starts off with an introductory/historical note from Neil Gaiman about how the movie came to be, and how he and Dave came to work on it together. Someone from the late Jim Henson's company phoned and asked if they thought they could do a fantasy movie, something like Labyrinth, but with only a tenth of the budget. (The Henson company was so obsessed with their earlier movie that they kept asking for goblins to be put into the new one – they had even pre-sold it to Sony based on the title The Goblin King I wonder how they reacted to a story of a young girl who runs away from the circus).

Mr. Gaiman also explains what they've done with the layout of the script. Since they didn't have a final edit of the film when they went to press with the book Dave and he had decided to print the entire script a la story boards and indicate if possible whenever a scene had made the final cut or not.

Due to the story boarding, and the fact that it was Dave McKean who drew the illustrations, it's like reading a black and white comic. At the beginning of each scene they indicate the location of the shot and what the actor's are supposed to be doing. What I found especially pleasant was their willingness in letting a great many "frames" pass where there is no dialogue, only illustrations.

Especially for those familiar with the film the lack of dialogue and the use of comic "box" illustrations to convey the action is not a detriment to the telling of the story. Just as in the film itself, there is no narration of events in scenes only the action as it unfolds. On occasion Mr. Gaiman will insert an explanatory note where needed, but that's just to set the stage for the action to follow or to describe something that would otherwise be confusing. They have also included scenes that a some point they had deleted from the final project. What's surprising is how little of the movie actually ended up on the cutting room floor.

It's a sign of how well these two work together that so little extraneous material made it into the final script, or how little needed to be added on after the fact. But by the time they started working on this film together they had already been collaborating for sixteen years so it should come as no surprise that their work complimented each other so well.

Something that was mentioned in the special features of the DVD of MirrorMask was that although they had worked together in the past, they had never actually been in the same room together while doing so or written together. Either Neil had supplied words and phrases for illustrations or Dave had illustrated Neil's words but they had never sat down together with the intent of creating something from scratch together.

It's testament to the respect they must have for each other that they were able to survive the process with their friendship intact as it sounds like they have creative approaches that are diametrically apposed. According to Mr. Gaiman he needs to talk an idea until he gets to a point where he is able to start writing. Then he still doesn't know exactly where it's going to end up until he's finished.

Dave McKean on the other hand has to have everything planned out before he can even begin to put words down on paper. He would compose little notes to himself about dialogue, scenes, and characters and then proceed to incorporate them into the whole that he had created. Perhaps it's because of their contrasts that they are so well suited to each other; and produce such wonderful work.

Of course no book of the movie MirrorMask would be complete without stills from the film. The visuals in this movie range from the opulent and spectacular to the stark minimalist of a black and white sketch depending on what is needed to best reflect the mood of the characters or the atmosphere of the scene.

It's a good thing too, because of the nature of their budget, miniscule, they could afford very few location shots and the majority of the film was done against a blue screen where McKean's art was pasted in after the fact. When Neil wanted to do a scene in the character Helena's classroom, he was told that it would be too expensive, but if he wanted he could have the world crumple up into a ball of paper. That made him happy.

MirrorMask: The Illustrated Film Script is not a book that you are going to pick up and read over and over again like you will one of Neil and Dave's other collaborations. It is really a companion book to the film that would not make any sense if you haven't seen the movie already. But you could also call this book a fine collection of Dave McKean reproductions and you wouldn't be too far off the mark.

September 9, 2006

NaNoWriMo Notes #31: The Return Of NaNoWriMo

It's September 9th today and the nights have been starting to get cold for the last little while. The daylight hours are getting less and less with it staying dark until six am and the sun setting before eight at night now. When the air starts smelling crisp and the leaves begin to turn, men and women brave of heart and weak of mind begin to think of NaNoWriMo.

There are only fifty-two days left before you set pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, and begin the slow ascent towards the goal of writing 50,000 words within the month of November. There's the thrill of the first day that you easily surpass your daily word requirement, the agony of the days where you struggle to make the bare minimum needed to ensure you'll scrape in under the wire, and of course the greatest feeling of them all passing the finishing line as your word count clicks over the magic threshold to equal 50,001.

Labour Day weekend has been and gone, so the "Three Day Novel" writing contest has passed you by yet again. The only literary competition left which has nothing to do with merit, or lack there of, left is the National Novel Writing Month. (Or NaNoWriMo as it's more familiarly known)

Let us face it, what else are you going to do in November anyway? Talk about a depressing month; it's not winter yet so it doesn't have the redeeming qualities of snow to alleviate its greyness. It's not fall anymore so the trees are just naked sticks shivering in the dank wetness with no colours to brighten your day.

Sure you can go for walks in the freezing rain and look at the Christmas displays that the stores put up the moment Halloween ended or there's always the fun of … well I'm sure if you thought hard enough you could think of things to do in November. But why bother when someone has saved you the effort of figuring out how to stave off Seasonal Depression by driving yourself crazy with an attempt at achieving a goal that's difficult but not impossible.

Perhaps NaNoWriMo is a little too much like the old Chinese curse of "May you live in interesting times" for some of you in terms of the demands it will make on you emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually and psychologically. But I would think it's a fair trade off for avoiding depression. Instead of being like all the other grey spectres around you, bummed out by the weather and the very Novemberness of it all, you'll be frazzled, anxious, inspired, and ecstatic.

You ever see the movie Sean Of The Dead? It has these wonderful opening shots of people walking around like zombies going about their daily routines; cashiers at a supermarket scanning items and putting them in bags, people walking down a street in headphones all listening to the same music shuffling and jerking. All before anybody becomes a zombie; in fact some of them seem to have a little more purpose after they become undead – a focus is a marvellous thing.

That will be the difference between you and the November zombies that surround you. You'll have a focus. Something that will give you a purpose outside of your normal existence, something that will break you out of any rut that you may have fallen into with or without knowing it.

It might drive you crazy at times, but at least you'll be alive. Every morning you'll wake up and have something to do that matters to you, something that you've decided you want to do, not that someone has made you do or is demanded of you by what you do for money. The fact that it is something creative is almost a bonus.

But what a bonus; how often in your everyday life to do you get to express yourself creatively? When was the last time you took on a project of this magnitude that would force you to stir your creative juices on a regular basis? I know that's probably where a lot of your anxiety is coming from, but don't worry about it, it's part of the process.

In fact if you want to deal with that anxiety the best thing to do is to start planning your assault on the 50,000-word plateau in advance. Start thinking about your story now; the characters, what they are going to be doing, how they are going to be doing it, where they are going to be when they are doing things, and who they are going to be doing what things with.

Oh and you'd better come up with a plot as well. They usually help to give your characters a sense of direction, a focus for all that who, what, where, how, and why stuff that I started to mention in the previous paragraph. If you are so inclined you can make up big charts that show how each character is going to interact with other characters and hang them on the walls around where you will be working. It will give you a feeling of accomplishment before you even get started.

But if you use them for the actual project, think of them as guidelines not rules. The last thing you want to do is have something that's going to stifle your creative juices. If you get an idea from something you've just written don't ignore it because it's not on your list, go with it and see where it takes you and it will make for much more interesting writing and maybe even reading.

The real reason for doing any planning is to reassure yourself that you're not in over your head. Once you lay stuff out like that on paper or in chart form you'll realize how few 50,000 – words actually are. Once you understand that, you'll be amazed how what at first seemed insurmountable begins to look eminently doable.

The National Novel Writing Month is a wonderful way to spend November and who knows it may even be the beginning of your great novel, the one you always knew you could write if you ever had the opportunity. If you want to make a stab at it then you can go on over to the NaNoWriMo site and sign up. They don't usually open for registration until October so you still have time.

Enjoy.


August 9, 2006

NaNoWriMo Notes: Accomplishment

So your book is published and that first burst of excitement and adrenalin has coursed through your veins like the hit of a great drug. You wrote up a press release and emailed it to everyone that you could think of inflicting it upon; banner ads now adorn all the pages of your web site advertising the fact that the book is on sale, and links to a point of purchase are splattered like grape shot throughout your whole electronic presence.

A PDF version of your manuscript has been sent to Google so that your work will be available for the whole world the search for on line, and you've managed to obtain as ISBN so that anybody can walk into any bookstore in the land and find your book in the great big computerized database of books. Short of taking out paid advertising you've done everything possible to let the world know that they can now own a piece of your mind and heart.

It has now been a month since your publishing debut and you've sold exactly one copy of your work, and if you're being honest with yourself you know that you're lucky to have done even that well. The fact that it was a friend who purchased it, and according to his initial reactions even liked it to date, doesn't diminish the brief glow of pride at your accomplishment, but even that doesn't prevent your heart from sinking slightly each time you check your sales figures and see it stuck resolutely at one.

The worst of it all is that it all seems so anti-climatic after everything that's come before. Putting aside the initial writing of the pieces, which was spread out over the space of about six months, the work began with having to reformat the original material into shape for publication. There was a certain fun to the frustration of trying to get Microsoft Word to do what you wanted it do to when it came to juggling boxes of text into position.

You may have noticed the standard format for books is that all chapters begin on an odd page. It's not often that your writing will conveniently work out that way, and in order to compensate you have to insert the occasional blank page into the proceedings. Of course there was also the delight of trying to figure out how to work the chapter and page number insertion in Word.

I'm sure that there is someone who has figured out how to work the headings arcane so that it will work, but that wasn't me, so I settled on having the book title in one header and the chapter number written out on the facing page. Of course there was also the fun of coming up with a title page, acknowledgments, and, perhaps most fun of all, the copyright page. (I personally believe my copyright page alone is worth the purchase price)

But that's all in the past now and the only reason for revelling in it is to help compensate for the feelings of emptiness that come with having completed something and waiting for the other shoe to drop so to speak. Shouldn't there be more to this than what I'm feeling now, which is pretty much nothing whatsoever.

When the copy I had ordered came in the mail the other day that I needed to send off to The National Library of Canada in Ottawa in exchange for my ISBN, my wife asked why I hadn't ordered one for us to keep. "It's your work after all" she said; "we should have a copy in the house". It hadn't even occurred to me to think of owning a copy. Even when I had been holding a copy of it in my hands, I hadn't felt any real sense of accomplishment or fulfillment of purpose so why would I want to own it?

For one thing it felt this book was sort of cheating, like I said it was merely a reformatting of something that I had already written, so it wasn't as if I had written it especially for this moment. Oh perhaps when I had started writing the posts months ago I had had some vague idea of gathering them together to publish as a companion piece to the novel whose creation they had reflected on, but that was it.

Perhaps that's part of the disquiet right there. NaNoWriMo Notes doesn't have the same investment that The Paths Live Takes has, and was merely a diversion. To me at least it's not the real thing. The real thing has been in the hands of an editor at a publication house for close to four months now awaiting a decision on its fate.

Than there is the whole legitimacy issue that raised it's ugly little head around the whole question of self-publishing. It doesn't take any special talent to publish your own stuff; anybody with a computer and a remote association with literacy can publish a book if they want to. It's no big deal.

There's a reason these sorts of services used to be called vanity presses, because they fed the vanity of people who believed they were authors but whom no publisher would touch with a ten-foot pole. No matter how I slice it there is not much of an accomplishment in my mind associated with publishing through Lulu.com.

This was a pleasant distraction, but it had nothing to do with actually creating anything or furthering my growth as a writer. In fact it may have even been in some ways a hindrance because through it I lost track of why it is I write. I got caught up in the idea of publishing and all that entailed, instead of the idea of writing. Product replaced process and in forgetting that I lost my way and could no longer be in the moment of my characters' story because I was too busy looking into the future.

When I decided to self publish NaNoWriMo Notes I said it was going to be an experiment in how successful you could be self-publishing with a minimum of funds. Only accomplishing what I could without spending any money on advertising and promotion, just using whatever tools I had at hand and that were free.

When I working in theatre the companies I used to work with would apply for grants from both the Canada Council and the Ontario Art Council. Periodically I would even apply on my own for funding of a personal project. Each application was judged based on your history as an artist and a proven ability to be able to complete what you started. Juries of your peers who worked within your discipline made all decisions.

Much like book publishing receiving or not receiving a grant was not a final judgement on your abilities, but the sense of accomplishment when you were awarded a grant was like the seal of approval for your professionalism. Self-producing a play was one thing, but to be able to have the support of the Canada Council for the Arts or the Ontario Arts Council took you to another level.

I feel much the same way now about self-publishing a book through a print on demand company as compared to being published by a publisher as I did about the difference between an Arts Council supported play and a self-produced one. In the later case there has been no appraisal of the work made by anyone in the profession before it is produced or published. In the former you have elevated your work to a certain standard that is recognised as sufficiently proficient that it deserves to be supported by an outside body.

Perhaps for some the feat of completing a book and than self-publishing it is accomplishment enough, but I have discovered that it is insufficient for me. Perhaps that's a weakness in me, needing the approval of others to feel like I've done something, but I won't really have a feeling of accomplishment from the writing of a novel or full length book until it is published by someone other than me.



August 4, 2006

NaNoWriMo Notes 27: Pride, Price, And Profit

I received the most amazing book in the mail yesterday. It was witty and erudite, full of insightful anecdotal evidence, and just an all around must read for anyone… There are probably two reasons why authors shouldn't be allowed to review their own books, and that's the first one. The second would be the complete opposite reaction. Replace all the positive adjectives with the most negative ones you can think of, the more pertinent to defecation the better, and you'll get the picture.

Okay so it was my own book that came in the mail yesterday. As I had explained, I think, at some point in time, in exchange for giving out free ISBNs to all and sundry, the National Library and Archives gets at least one of everything that is assigned a number. That's no sweat for the big houses they just lop off three copies from the first run and trundle them out the door to Ottawa.

But since I'm as far removed from them as possible, print on demand means never having to say your sorry for inflicting your tedious prose on an unsuspecting world as no copies are printed unless somebody buys one, and won't be doing an initial run of 10,000. But it does mean I was forced to shell out $18.20 including shipping and dollar conversion for one of my own books. Before you ask I didn't collect a royalty payment out of that, that's just the printing and mailing costs for one book mailed from the United States to Canada.

I hate to think how much this thing would cost if it was a regular sale. I've asked for $6.50 payment for each book, figuring I'd sell them for between five and ten dollars on my own. On top of that Lulu.com adds their percentage, the set up fee and printing costs of $7.49, and of course you then have to pay the shipping costs as well.

The full price of my book before shipping comes to $15.50 in American dollars, which isn't too bad for a trade paperback. Although the number of pages may not merit that cost I thought I was being reasonable in what I wanted to charge. Unlike a regular book deal where the author is paid an agreed amount up front then a percentage of sales, royalties, on top of that, I only get what I ask for.

There's that age old question which so many of us struggle with; how much am I worth? To be honest I think the $6.50 price I ended up with was more a result of wanting to keep the overall price under sixteen dollars before shipping than anything else, so that didn't really end up being too much of an issue in this case.

But in other instances, I know myself and others always seem to struggle with the question of what to charge. Part of it is the fact that since nobody really knows anything about the quality of my work, I shouldn't expect anybody to pay any great amount. Sure I've got someone to say something nice about it on the back cover, but how much influence does that really have? Hell somebody is using a quote from one of my reviews on a back cover for goodness sakes, and that's a professionally published book.

Like I said the figure of $6.50 was dictated by the costs that go into making the final purchase price for customers. The price I had been considering was actually ten dollars, but that would have made the final cost quite ridiculous, and I wasn't prepared to have anyone pay over $20.00 for a book that's less then 150 pages.

I had come up with the $10.00 figure going by the size of the book, the nature of it's content, and knowing what the market price for stuff is in the real world. These days you'd be hard pressed to find even a mass-market paper back for less then $9.99 (slightly higher in Canada due to exchange rate). Trade soft covers can range in price from around $15.00 to as much as $30.00 depending on their page count and flamboyancy.

The final edition of NaNoWriMo Notes is nicely bound, with original graphics for covers and of comfortable size. It's geared towards a specialized market; people who are interested in what goes into writing a book, is reasonably well written, enough humour to leaven the more serious elements, and relatively easy to read without being simplistic.

Then there is the psychological aspect of the price. Ten dollars is an amount people are usually willing to spend when there is a risk involved concerning whether they'll like what they're paying for. If they were to come across an unknown author selling a book the size of NaNoWriMo Notes for $20.00 they would probably wonder something along the lines of "who does he think he is" or "where does he get off".

Even $15.00 would raise some questions and cause hesitation; after all you can buy a fairly decent DVD for that amount or a CD. But when you get down to $10.00 people begin to see it as something akin to a deal. There is also the ease of purchase factor that makes only having to use one bill much more conducive to impulse purchases than having to go to the trouble of fishing around in your wallet for change and second bills.

Now, even if I were to order a number of copies of the book to sell on my own, I wouldn't be able to charge less then $15.00, and even than I might only be breaking even. Lulu does offer some sort of deal on bulk purchases, but if the cost of shipping one book were over seven dollars what would ten cost?

To make any money now I have to sell each book for $19.00, and then I only earn about eighty cents. If I wanted to make my $6.50 the price becomes almost $25.00, an amount I wouldn't pay for a book by an unknown author, so how can I expect anyone else to?

It doesn't make life easier for someone to price their work when they have little control over what the price is actually going to be. Print on demand may give you the convenience of not having to pay for a whole run of books, but if you want to recoup anything close to the real value of your effort, you end up charging more then most people are prepared to pay.

The thrill of seeing my words in typeface bound between two covers and laid out in chapter format was mitigated by the fact that I won't be able to sell it at an affordable price. I would love for people to be able to read NaNoWriMo Notes, but not at a price that is insulting to me or one that is more then its worth.

May 15, 2006

Book Review: Broadcasting The Blues: Black Music In The Segregation Era


Back in February of this year I reviewed a triple disc set released by Document Records called Broadcasting The Blues: Black Music In The Segregation Era. Quite the mouthful for a record title actually, but it was an important distinction the producer/compiler Paul Oliver was trying to make.

You see the word broadcasting has an older, deeper, meaning than the one we currently associate with it:

…there was a time-honoured method of sowing seeds. The sowers carried wide-mouthed sacks filled with seeds… As they walked over the fertile soil of the newly tilled fields, they would dip their free hands into the sacks to scoop up a quantity of the contents. With a swing of their arms in a broad arc they would "scatter the good seeds on the land"—a technique which was called broadcasting… the term lives on in the transmission of sounds on the radio. (Oliver, Paul: Broadcasting The Blues Routledge, 2005 p vii)

Broadcasting means more than just getting airtime on the radio, it also means getting the word out there about the people and the music. During the segregation era in the States, especially in the South, it's not difficult to imagine how hard it was for black people to get their music out to a wider audience. Oh, sure there were the Jazz clubs in some cities, but that was only for a small minority of audience, music, and musicians.

Besides that's not the music we're talking about here. Jazz had been given a veneer of acceptability due to the many mainstream white acts that were incorporating elements of it into popular music; the big band sound of the forties, the crooners like Frank Sinatra. All of their music and arrangements were lifted from Jazz.

No what we're talking about is the music of the back porches and the delta, the stuff that a white person wouldn't hear on their local radio show. If you were really brave you might sneak across the tracks into a "coloured persons" bar and listen in. But those people would have been few and far between with names like Elvis, Ronnie Hawkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. They incorporated the music they heard in the black churches and clubs into their own country traditions and began "broadcasting" the music to white people.

Did you ever wonder why in the early sixties the British Invasion of rock bands happened? American music was Neil Sedaka, Paul Anka (I know he's Canadian but you can have him), and Pat Boone, and all of sudden these British kids show up playing this down and dirty blues from the American Deep South. Listen to early songs by the Animals, the Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, and Led Zeppelin and tell me you don't hear the Mississippi River lapping at their feet.

Unlike their American contemporaries they were listening to people like Lightening John Hopkins, Muddy Watters, and Howling Wolf. Of course some of the American musicians were listening as well but they postdated their British contemporaries by six or seven years. Remember, the Rolling Stones were playing music and doing their versions of Delta blues before they hit America. The blues were being broadcast in England, and Europe, ever since the twenties when American black musicians were finding a home in Paris France, on the radio and through sales of records in the shops.

Paul Oliver espouses the idea that perhaps because the music was removed from its social context and brought into a new environment it was allowed to be judged on its own merits, not by the colour of the performer's skin. What else could explain that in spite of there being radio stations broadcasting the blues in the 1950's in the United States (Blues Boy King had a very successful show at radio station WDIA in Memphis before his equally successful career as a blues performer under the name B.B. King) there wasn't the wide spread dissemination of the music like there was in England and Europe?

Paul Oliver, for lack of a better description, is a blues scholar. He describes how in the 1940's when he was living in Suffolk, England, he watched and listened to two Black American soldiers working on setting up a base, and singing the work songs of their field working ancestors. He was lucky enough to have a friend at the time that had a collection of old 78rpm recordings of the blues, many of which had been produced in England.

He was hooked. He began scouring Europe and England for old recordings in an attempt to listen to and learn more about this amazing music that he called, "the most strange and thrilling vocal sounds that I had ever heard". From this starting point in a field in England he began his one-person quest to "legitimize" the blues as a genre of music.

His initial broadcasts and publications were included as part of either Jazz radio shows or magazines, until he was able to convince others that Blues could and should be treated as a distinct form of music. While Jazz and Blues may have had some elements in common at birth, they quickly went their divergent ways, with the Blues holding on to its rural roots a lot more securely than Jazz ever did.

In his forty plus year of broadcasting Mr. Oliver travelled the world compiling tapes and information about the music he's so devoted to. From drum circles in Africa, old recording of field hollar's stashed away in dusty libraries; to the radio stations and back porches of the Deep South in the early sixties he was a man on a mission.

What he has done in both the book and the companion triple CD set with Broadcasting The Blues: Black Music In The Time Of Segregation is compile a collection of radio broadcasts from throughout his career to build a history of the blues. When scanning through the book you might notice that according to the dates of the broadcasts there seems to be particular order or sequence. How can something recorded in 1957 come after something recorded in 1967?

What is important is the content of the broadcast. Mr. Oliver has very successfully created an oral/musical history of blues music on both the CDs and the book. I know these things are written down in a book, but I can't help thinking of them as being read aloud with the music interspersed throughout the scripts.

Having heard the music before I read the book, it's been fascinating going back and reading the scripts that were written originally for the periods covered by the music. While Oliver's style is at times, by necessity more than anything else, academic and factual, when read I'm sure these scripts would have been more story then lecture.

Each of the first three sections of the book: "Before The Blues", "Blues, How Do You Do?", and "Meaning I