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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)

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)

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 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.)

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 2, 2011

Book Review: The Conference Of The Birds by Peter Sis

There's a fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. Whether intentionally or not the line is crossed by the majority of writers who attempt to write about another's culture as an insider. No matter how long you've lived somewhere or observed people you can't help but be a visitor. Without the weight of generations of tradition laying heavy on your shoulders and the awareness of how you are part of something larger than yourself, you can only interpret what you see, not believe in it.

At best the results are merely insulting, but most of the time they are also misleading and give people horribly inaccurate ideas about the cultures in question. Taking somebody else's mythology or beliefs as the basis for a horror story is probably the worst offence carried out by Western writers. What would you think if you were to read something in which the story of Jesus raising Lazurus from the dead was used as the basis for a Zombie novel? (Although the more I think about it the more fun that idea sounds - literally born again christians go on a rampage to convert everybody to their faith and the sacrament of communion really begins to make sense.)

Thankfully there are writers like Peter Sis who instead of slapping their own interpretation onto something offer recreations of the original stories which not only capture their artistry but keep their original intents intact. Proof of this is offered in his most recent publication, The Conference Of The Birds published by Penguin Canada on November 1 2011. The original poem was written by Farid ud-Din Attar, a twelfth century Sufi poet and mystic who divided his life between what is now modern day Iran and Northern India. As with many Sufi poets and mystics his works were parables whose hidden messages offered everything from spiritual advice to the relationship between man and his god.
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One of the reasons why Sufis wrote in this manner was then, as today, they would often deviate from mainstream interpretations of Islam and running afoul of the clergy could result in accusations of heresy leading to exile or death. As Attar could have attested, having been exiled for heresy, sometimes they weren't careful enough. The Conference Of The Birds, which was also known as A Parliament Of Birds, doesn't appear controversial on the surface, but I'm not an Islamic scholar and have no idea if its underlying message would have been considered heretical by people of his time.

In Sis's retelling he has Attar waking from a dream and realizing he is a hoopoe bird, an Afro-Eurasian member of the same family as Kingfishers, who has been entrusted with a message for the birds of the world. The message is they are to undertake a great journey which would involve flying through seven valleys to the mountain of Kaf where their true king Simorgh lives. The names of the seven valleys they must fly through are; The Valley Of Quest, The Valley Of Love, The Valley Of Understanding, The Valley Of Detachment, The Valley Of Unity, The Valley Of Amazement and, finally, The Valley Of Death. Naturally some of the birds quail (sorry couldn't resist) at the idea of making the journey and surrendering their comfortable existence for the unfamiliar. However, the Hoopoe is able to turn each of their arguments for staying put into their reason for making the trip. When the Peacock says he shouldn't have to go because he's special - "look at all my colours" - the hoopoe responds by telling him he should share his beauty with the whole world.

Needless to say each stage on the journey brings a new lesson for those birds who stick with it. Some of them give up even before the first stage is complete while others don't survive to complete the journey. In fact of all the birds in the world who had set out on the journey in the first place, only thirty make it through to the very end to meet their true king. "And they saw Simorgh the king, and Simorgh the king was them".

Unlike other translations or interpretations of ancient stories Sis has not only resisted attempting to interpret the parable for his readers he manages to to tell it in such a way that the beauty and mystery of the original are retained. For this is not just a translation of the text, it is a visual feast for the eyes as well. You see Sis is a magnificent illustrator and this is as much a pictorial retelling as anything else. I suppose some would want to call it a picture book, and dismiss it as being for children only. However, not only would that be doing it a disservice, it ignores the quality of the illustrations and the depth of meaning in the book's message. Each page not only furthers the story of the journey of the birds, its also a work of art.
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As with the text the longer you contemplate the illustrations the more you discover their hidden meanings. A change of hue here, a change of perspective there and what at first looked straightforward is revealed as having depths of meaning. If you were to flip through the pages as a casual reader you'd miss things like the explanation for the transformation of the poet to the Hoopoe bird. An illustration of a human eye within which you see the reflection of a small human being either walking towards us, or maybe even walking out of the side of the poet's head. Taken with the opening lines of the story, "When the poet Attar woke up one morning after an uneasy dream, he realized he was a hoopoe bird", we have to wonder what Sis is trying to tell us. Did the Sufi mystic really believe he had changed into a hoopoe or is Sis giving us a glimpse into the ways in which the inspiration for the original came to the poet?

Those who have any familiarity with Islamic art will know they don't have a tradition allowing figurative representation. Instead, the majority was decorative with designs made up of beautifully executed geometric patterns. In The Conference Of The Birds Sis' artwork pays homage to that style without either simply imitating or claiming it as his own. Instead he has incorporated it into his illustrations - clouds made out of the countless bodies of birds float across the page and the shape of a labyrinth shows up on page after page. Not only does the latter echo the motif of repeated geometric shapes common to Islamic art of the twelfth century, as a symbol long used to represent an inner journey or the path of a person's life, it emphasizes the overall theme of self-discovery so important to the story.

Like the Sufi mystics of old Peter Sis' reinterpretation of Farid ud-Din Attar's twelfth century epic poem, The Conference Of The Birds, works on many levels. Children and adults will delight in its glorious illustrations. The story of a poet turning into a bird and then leading all the birds of the world on a great adventure to find their king is sure to be one that will appeal to young people, while adults can ponder the messages of the story and perhaps even find ways of conveying them to younger readers. There are many different paths leading to self awareness, and Sis and Attar prove they don't have to be devoid of beauty and you can enjoy yourself along the way.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Conference Of The Birds by Peter Sis 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.
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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)

April 5, 2011

Book Review: The White Luck Warrior: The Aspect Emperor Book 2 by R. Scott Bakker

For a group as supposedly radical and freethinking as artists are supposed to be, the history of Western art, especially literature, prior to the twentieth century is marked by its adherence to convention. Perhaps it was economic need, if one wanted audiences to attend your plays or read your books, you had to give them what they had come to expect. There were few troubling grey areas when it came to morality as questions of good and evil were defined by however Christianity was being filtered by the society of the day. Nineteenth century Britain, with its need to justify moral superiority over what it deemed inferior races, produced works that might question certain practices, but not even Dickens ever questioned the system which gave rise to the conditions described in his books or the morality that allowed them to exist.

A whiff of Aristotle's Poetics, with its definitions of what constituted tragedy and the other genres, kept pages and stages home to heroes from the noble class and the baser elements of society to supporting roles or villains., While there was nothing wrong with a funny servant who would want to read an entire book about him?And of course, while there were occasionally female characters taking a central role, headstrong individuals who attempted to control their own destiny would end up rescued by a man or falling into ruin. A woman's usual place was in orbit around her man's gravitational pull and it was a rare thing to see one make her own way in the world.

However change did come, eventually, with the twentieth century and fiction and stages began to more accurately reflect the faces of all society. Instead of heroes we now had anti-heroes, men and women who embodied few if any of the noble qualities that were once considered essential for a lead character in a play or novel. Not only aren't they royalty or even nobility, most of them have lived on the fringes of what society would even consider normal. Yet somehow they have struck chords within readers and developed followings.
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Still, it's only been recently that one of the oldest forms of literary story telling, the epic tale, has received the same treatment. Both the fantasy and science fiction genres have kept the epic tradition alive, even to the point of maintaining the tradition of the heroic quest. From Lord Of The Rings to Star Wars heroes set out across their universes, in spite of long odds to right wrongs and win the battle of good over evil. Now fantasy writers have begun the process of deconstructing the epic and putting it back together again to reflect the world's lack of black and white definitions of anything, let alone good and evil. The White Luck Warrior, released by Penguin Canada, is the second book in R. Scott Bakker's Aspect Emperor trilogy, the sequel to the Prince Of Nothing trilogy, and part of a series that promises to be eight books in length upon completion, and a fine example of the new anti-epic fiction at its best.
Anasurimbor Kellhus, the Aspect Emperor, is leading the armies of mankind, on what he calls the Great Ordeal, into the northern wastes against an ancient foe and the threat of the Apocalypse. Although only a few years ago the few wizards who preached warnings of this very threat from the north were ridiculed and laughed at for believing in unseen enemies, the entire civilization has set aside their petty enmities to seek out their hidden vastness, the near mythical city of Golgotterath. At first they proceed with no enemies lined up against them save for lack of supplies as there is only a finite amount that could be carried. Such is the distance they have to travel before they even fight, it had long been planned the Ordeal would have to forage. What wasn't planned was an enemy who would scour the land ahead of them, poisoning the water and laying waste to game and fodder.

Herding their enemies ahead of them. the sub-human Sranc, the Ordeal is forced to split into three armies in order to feed itself. While their enemy's numbers grow as they run in front of them, the men of the various armies start to feel the effects that a lack of food and water can have on a body. Slaves and servants are put to death in order to conserve supplies, the sick are abandoned, and spare horses are eaten. Compounding their troubles are worrysome rumours from back home in the Empire. There's a chance that even if they win through in this battle out in the wastes they could return home to find themselves no longer ruling in their own lands.

The Empress, Esmenet, is under siege from the priests of minor gods who resent the rise of her husband as prophet, rebellions on the outer edges of the Empire from those who don't accept the divinity of her husband, the madness of her own children and what she thinks is a plot by her brother in law to replace her. As he is the head of the church and half-brother of the Emperor, she knows he not only has the power base to carry out a coup, he has many of the same powers of persuasion her husband possesses and could easily sway the masses to support him once she's gone. Beset and bewildered she can only hold on and hope for some sort of reprieve, but it feels like the empire is crumbling beneath her and she can do nothing to prevent it.

As one of those who had dealt with the ridicule of the world for his belief in the ancient enemy of the north you'd think Drusas Achamian would be one of Anasurimbor Kellhus' biggest supporters. Yet while his "school" of sorcery, The Mandate, has allied themselves along with all the others and joined the Ordeal. Achamian rejected the Emperor as a phoney twenty years ago and went into self-imposed exile. He too is making the long journey north, though in the company of bounty hunters instead of knights, and to look for proof of Kellhus' deception in the ruins of a once famous library. Accompanying him is the Empress Esmenet's daughter, Mimara, from before she married Kellhus, who sought him out in an attempt to force him to teach her his magic.
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They too have barely survived their trip to this point, and in fact if not for the unearthly powers of the bounty hunter's wizard, an immortal survivor from the days of the first apocalypse, who goes by the name of Cleric, their entire party would have perished. As it is their numbers have been reduced greatly and they still have great swathes of wilderness to traverse and countless numbers of Sranc to either avoid or kill before they obtain their destination. Yet somehow, in spite of facing overwhelming odds against them. all three of these groups, The Great Ordeal, The Empress, and Drusas Achamian and his party, find a way to continue. But at what cost, and is the reward worth the cost paid? Or do such equations even matter anymore when you have travelled as far beyond the boundaries of normal human behaviour and reasoning as each of these groups have done in their own way?

Kellhus has preached to his army about the cost they will pay in order to succeed in their goal of preventing a second apocalypse. A cost that has already included having to kill servants, the near extermination of one of the armies of the ordeal and the slaughter of countless Sranc. Drusas Achamian and Mimara have seen their party killed one by one around them as they inch closer to their goal and the Empress must decide what she is willing to do in order to preserve her place on the throne without her husband's presence to support her. Does there come a point where you can no longer justify the means you use to obtain your goals, no matter how right you goal might be?

To save the world from the apocalypse the men of the Great Ordeal are living through their own minor version of one. Death, famine, disease and war ride with them on their journey into the north. The lines between good and evil are blurred beyond recognition but it also seems easier and easier to justify each new act that allows the armies, Drusas and the Empress to survive. Bakker has pushed his characters so far over the edge of what we would consider normal behaviour that we in turn have to stop us ourselves from accepting what they do as only matter of course and not thinking there is anything abhorrent in their behaviour.

This is the secret to what makes this work so great, the way in which we as readers are pulled into each story line to the point where we begin to identify with whatever point of view is being expressed. Each of the characters and their circumstances are documented with such perfect clarity that we can't help but believe in them and their goals no matter what the repercussions of their actions portend. Bakker has done such a great job in creating what feels like a typical epic adventure, we are almost lulled into accepting the character's actions as normal and almost miss noticing the moral vacuum they are acting in. The contrast between their high sounding ideals and their actions is the only reminder of just how far they've fallen.

Our world has seen countless so called moral crusades against what's been called evil used to justify any number of sins. Acts that under normal circumstances would be considered abhorrent are instead accepted as being perfectly reasonable because they are committed in the service of some glorious purpose. In his White Luck Warrior R. Scott Bakker leads us down that slippery slope towards accepting amoral behaviour and forces us to see how easy it would be for any of us to be swept up by events into becoming willing participants in terrible actions. This mirror onto our world is extremely difficult to look into, but is so well written we are held spellbound for its entirety. He has ripped aside the veil, and we will never be able to read about acts of so called nobility done in the name of the greater good in the same way again. This is one of the more brilliant pieces of writing that you're liable to read for a long time, just be prepared to start questioning a lot of things you might have previously accepted at face value.

(Article first published as Book Review: The White Luck Warrior: The Aspect Emperor, Book 2 by R. Scott Bakker 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.)

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 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.

May 7, 2009

Book Review: Censoring An Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour

The imagination has always been the enemy of repressive regimes or any group hoping to dictate the way people think. For, how can you control a person's thoughts if they are constantly wondering, "What If"? The time honoured method employed for controlling people's imagination is to control those who do their best to inspire them to pose the question which opens the door to a million possibilities. Writers, film makers, playwrights, musicians, and anyone else involved in artistic creation, have always been the target of those wishing to ensure a population's thoughts don't stray in directions they shouldn't.

From the pressure groups who try to have films and books banned because they disagree with their message, to governments who prevent works from seeing the light of day because they encourage people to think in ways that they don't approve of, censorship has been the favoured means of controlling artists. Whether it's by the simple expedient of locking troublesome individuals up, dictating what is permissible to be published, or editing work to make it acceptable for public consumption, they do their best to stifle anything that would encourage thinking they deem unacceptable. Yet such is the creative impulse, that artists of all stripes will continue to try and produce works no matter what the circumstances, and attempt to encourage those flights of fancy considered so dangerous.

In its first English translation Censoring An Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour, that was just released by Random House Canada, depicts an author's attempt to write the novel he wants while doing his best to assure its approval by Iran's censors. In a society where it is forbidden for men and women not married or related to be seen in public together, writing a love story that will win permission to be published is fraught with difficulties. Simply figuring out the logistics of how a couple can meet in a way that's acceptable to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance under these circumstances is probably more of a creative challenge then most writers face writing an entire novel.
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Mandanipour's Censoring An Iranian Love Story is written from the point of view of an author as he tries to tell the story of how Sara and Dara meet and fall in love. Told in the form of a conversation with the reader, our protagonist guides us through the ins and outs of writing one thing and meaning another, the importance of "..." at the end of an incomplete sentence in contemporary Iranian literature, and how to best make use of stream of conscience to express forbidden thoughts. While the author is telling us the story of his two characters, he reproduces excerpts from the manuscript he's writing recounting the same events in a manner he hopes will meet the approval of Mr. Petrovich, the censor who decides if a book can be published or not.

Obviously he can't include such details as Dara's history of being a political prisoner for selling illegal videos, as Mr. Petrovich would never allow such a morally degenerate character to be the a romantic hero. Nor can he describe their clandestine meetings in Internet Cafes, their fear of arrest for being seen in public, or any of the thoughts they might have of each other. For Mr. Petrovich couldn't allow anything to be published that would encourage people to commit similar offences or encourage immoral thoughts. However, instead of dampening people's imaginations, it seems as if censorship has had the opposite result. For according to our author the modern Iranian reader has become very adept at filling in the blanks left by those three dots at the end of a sentence and interpreting the hidden meanings behind seemingly innocent phrases.

One of the more fascinating aspects of Censoring An Iranian Love Story is the way in which the relationship between the author and the censor Mr. Petrovich is described. For instead of hearing the voice of a muse of inspiration in his ear while he is writing, our narrator carries on an internal conversation with his censor. The manuscript he periodically shows us is full of sentences with lines through them where he's gone back over his text and censored it himself in anticipation of what Petrovich won't allow. While most writers only have to struggle with finding the words they require to tell their story, our author spends a great deal of his creative energy on devising the means to tell his story in such a way that it will be published or marshalling his arguments to convince the censor that a sentence will not lead anybody to have sinful thoughts.
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While Mandanipour's book does nothing to dispel the image we have of Iran as an autocratic theocracy, it brings to life the faces normally hidden behind the veils and beards imposed on its population. The Persian culture is one of the oldest civilizations in the world and has a tradition of poetry dating back more than a thousand years that was redolent with sensuality and passion. However, we also learn that the Sufis, who were the greatest of the Persian poets, almost never used explicit language. Instead they wrote in such a way that their words could be interpreted as praise for the divine as well as more earthy matters. So, ironically, a modern Iranian writer who is forced to write one thing and mean another, is actually carrying on the legacy of these long dead poets.

Censoring An Iranian Love Story is a beautifully written book in which moments of satire rub up against examples of humanity found in the most unlikely of places. (The blind film censor "watching" Al Pacino playing a blind character in Scent Of A Woman, understanding and appreciating it better than his sighted advisors and demanding they leave him alone to watch it.) While it could have easily been a bitter and angry book that railed against the tyranny of censorship and the Iranian regime in general that merely reenforced our perceptions of a monochrome society, he's elected to take a different approach. By focusing on the dilemma of the author trying to write his story, and the efforts his characters go through to establish their relationship, Mandanipour has infused a difficult subject with warmth, love, and humanity. This is not the Iran we read about in the media, and that makes his message even more powerful.

Censoring An Iranian Love Story can be purchased either directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

October 14, 2008

Book Review: Isaac's Torah By Angel Wagenstein

In the 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed, followed by the communist governments in the Eastern Bloc, and Yugoslavia, countries that the majority of us had never heard of before started appearing on maps of the world again for the first time since the beginning of WW Two. Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Slovakia, and Macedonia were just some of the new place names that cartographers had to try and squeeze onto maps of Eastern Europe. While this might have seemed like an upheaval of unsurpassed proportions to some of us, at the other end of the century, from 1900 to the end of WW Two things were just as tumultuous.

In that time a person could literally not move an inch and wake up one morning to find yourself living in a new country. At the onset of WW One parts of what's now present day Poland were part of the Austo-Hungarian Empire. When the end of that war resulted in the dissolution of the Empire, out of its ashes were formed countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and many other Eastern European countries. Those borders didn't last long as the European powers gave Czechoslovakia to Germany without a fight in attempt at appeasing Hitler. The Russian - German pact of 1939 split Poland between them, so when the Germans invaded Poland from the West, the Russians came in from the East for their bit. Of course those was some of the first territories "liberated" by the German armies when they invaded Russia in June of 1941, only to see them revert back to Russian control four years later when the tides of war swam the other way.

For those keeping score that meant if you lived in Eastern Poland between years of 1900 - 1945 you would have had to change your passport five times, if you somehow lived through it.While your chances of survival weren't great no matter who you were, they were reduced dramatically during the period of German rule if you happened to be Jewish. Only with the greatest deal of luck could you have survived the liberation of Poland by the Nazis if you were a Jew.
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In Angel Wagenstein's Isaac's Torah, his most recent work translated into English, published by Handsel Books and distributed in Canada by Random House Canada, we follow the life of Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld, one of those "lucky" few to have survived. I'm not normally one for reading "Holocaust fiction" as I call it, books that detail the suffering and horrors of the camps, but the way the book was described made me think this would not be the usual book about this period of history.

Among the Jews of Eastern Europe, long accustomed to poverty and persecution, humour was one of the few reliefs they had from the drudgery of their existence. Aside from jokes that deflected anti-semitic attitudes around them, or deflated the pompous in order to remind people they were all equal in the eyes of God, one of the more popular comic traditions the fool. While this fool is very often an object of ridicule, he is also like the Fool in Tarot decks who, although always of the verge of falling off the cliff manages to somehow never quite topple over the edge. So it is with Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld as he weaves his unsteady way through life.

From a very early age he learns that if you act the fool chances are that not many are going to take you seriously enough to consider you a threat or worry about what you're doing. At various points through-out the story Isaac draws upon this rich vein of Jewish humour to help tell his story. Aside from providing momentary relief from the events that Isaac finds himself helplessly propelled through, these jokes also often serve as moral lessons and parables. They offer a kind o backwards logic that throws the absurdity of a world in chaos into relief that helps you see just how ridiculous life can be.

For example, Mendel was looking to take the train from his home to Moscow and he goes up to the wicket where's he's told the price of a ticket to Moscow will be twenty rubbles. When he tires to bargain and offer fifteen he's told to go away. So, he goes to the back of the line and eventually ends up at the wicket again where he again he offers fifteen rubbles for the twenty rubble ticket, and is again told there will be none of that and to be off with him. So, again he goes to the back of the line, and this time when he gets to the wicket the train to Moscow is pulling out of the station - and he looks into the wicket and says to the clerk, in his most satisfied voice, "Now look, you've missed out on fifteen rubbles".
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How ridiculous is Isaac's life? Well he's drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army just in time to for the war to end and comes home to discover that he's now Polish. In 1939 he's drafted into the Polish army to defend his homeland against the German invasion in the West, and just as he and his troop are preparing to head out Russian tanks pull into their village. In June of 1941 when he's drafted into the Russian army to go East to Manchuria to fight off the invading Japanese, the train he's travelling on is bombed by the German airforce as he gets caught in the opening salvo of that invasion.

As he says, it's a good thing they come from a small Jewish town. Russian trains never stop in Jewish villages, so he'd become adept at boarding and disembarking trains through the windows while they are moving. Otherwise he might have been scattered around the wheat field with the rest of the train. As it is, he is now a Jew in German occupied Russia, which isn't exactly the healthiest of circumstances. Lucky for him though he is able to acquire identification papers that recognize him as a Polish national which should keep him safe. However, he has the misfortune to be caught out on the street when three trucks pull up and grab everybody off the street to come and do emergency war work for his new fatherland - and he's shipped off to Germany.

However things don't turn out so bad for him. As a Jew he speaks Yiddish, which is as close to German as you can get without speaking German. So when the labour camp's commandant asks if any of new workers can speak German without sounding too much like an idiot, Isaac volunteers. All is well, until one day a general roll is called and two Gestapo agents come into camp and take every tenth person away in trucks. The hundred men, among whom of course Isaac finds himself, are taken to a prison where they are locked up with other undesirables of the state; Jews, Communists, Gypsies, and even some real criminals. In the middle of the night the guards come into the cell blocks yelling Jews move, and foolishly Isaac responds only to find himself on a train heading for a concentration camp. Which may sound pretty awful, and it is, but he finds out later that the other ninety-nine people he came to the jail with were taken out and shot the next morning.

Like the Fool, Isaac blindly steps off the edges of cliffs and makes it through, yet lest you think this is a light hearted romp through one of the darkest periods of modern history, his wife and children either die in the camps or fighting the Germans. His village's Jewish population, as all the fit men had been sent to fight the Japanese, wasn't even considered worth sending to a concentration camp. They were herded out of their houses one night, lined up at the edge of a ravine, and machine gunned. The ravine was then filled in with gravel and everybody he had known, including his parents and the rest of his family, ended up in that mass grave.

There are no lurid details of conditions in the camps, Isaac says why should he talk about that as others have done so before him and he figures he can spare us and him details, yet still sorrow stalks the pages of this book like few other book. It is a such a human book, full of laughter and love, that the horrors of what's going on as backdrop to the absurdities that Isaac describes are somehow even more disquieting than the most graphic descriptions could ever be. No matter how much we are able to laugh in the face of adversity, no matter that we are able to see how absurd life can be, it doesn't prevent us from tasting the salt of our tears or feeling the bitterness of anguish.

Laughter may take the edge off, and it may indeed be the best medicine, but it can't hide reality. Isaac's Torah doesn't hide reality, if anything it brings it heartbreakingly to life. At the same time though it shows how it is possible to find hope in what many would consider the most hopeless of circumstances. After all, as Isaac says in conclusion, if life was given us to live it, we will live it, there's no other way.

Isaac's Torah can be purchased either directly from Random House Canada or from an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

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.

August 1, 2008

Book Review: Something To Tell You Hanif Kureishi

When Dick Widdington and his cat set off to London to seek their fortune it was because he had heard the streets of the city were paved with Gold. The story tells us that he was sorely disappointed to discover upon his arrival that London's streets were no more paved with gold than any town, anywhere, in the world. In fact, in many ways, it turned out that life was even harder in the big city then it had been in the small town he had left behind.

All over the world, in countries torn apart by war, famine, and other disasters, the myth of a better life awaiting in the West persists even today. Television, glossy magazines, and other media paint a picture of a fabulous lifestyle filled with luxuries just waiting to be lived by those fortunate enough to make it to the promised lands. The reality of course is the same crushing disappointment felt by Dick Widdington. For the majority their new life is in many ways worse than what they had left behind as they didn't even have the comfort of the familiar for solace.

In the the late 1940s and early 1950's following the partition of Britain's former colony into India and Pakistan the subcontinent was rocked with religious violence. Muslims and Hindi were moved from homes they had occupied for generations as all of a sudden their neighbours turned against them after years of friendship and doing business together. Muslim families in what is now India and Hindu families in what is now Pakistan gathered what they could carry and fled. The fortunate ones were herded onto trucks and trains to be shipped to their new homes in a new country while others were forced to try and make their way across the new border, avoiding rampaging mobs out for Hindu or Muslim blood.
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Many people of both faiths exercised a third option and headed to the land of their former colonial master. Quite a few of those who made this decision had been British educated and were considered well off. They expected the West to provide them with the life style that the movies and the glossy magazines claimed was everyone's right. Unfortunately the Britain they landed in was in the midst of an economic tailspin that would last until the 1980's. Not only weren't the streets paved with gold, but they also found themselves the object of racial and political attacks. They, it turned out, had stolen all the jobs and were the cause of all Britain's woes.

Hanif Kureishi has made a successful career writing about the South East Asian community's attempts to find their way in England. Movies and television shows like My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy & Rosie Get Laid, and The Buddha Of Suburbia have detailed the stories of the first generation born in England and their struggles to fit in with their contemporaries. Now in his latest novel, Something To Tell You, being released on August 19th/08 by Simon & Shuster Canada, that generation has grown up and are raising children of their own. Dr. Jamal Khan is a psychoanalyst, separated from his wife, the father of a son on the cusp of adolescence, and in firm denial of his own middle age.

Neither he or sister Miriam have ever fully recovered from their childhood. Their father was a Muslim born in colonial Bombay (Mumbai) and their mother was a suburban girl from London. When they separated it was because Jamal's father wanted to go home where he felt like he belonged and moved to Pakistan. He would visit England a couple times a year, and Jamal always felt like he had to live up to and impress his father. He was everything that Jamal thought he wanted to be; confident, intelligent, and always surrounded by beautiful and intelligent women. Both children grew up in that shadow, but Miriam as the girl was ignored and grew wild in a desperate bid for attention

In Something To Tell You Jamal tracks backwards and forwards through his life, every so often popping in for a close up of the periods he considers most important. Those include the time he spent with the woman he still considers the love of his life, Ajita, during his late teens; a trip to Pakistan to visit his father who feels as displaced there as he did in England; and the reappearance of Ajita in his life in the present. Jamal has ruined each of his adult relationships, including his marriage, by comparing them to his memories of the idyllic time spent with Ajita. Of course nothing in the world of adult responsibilities can match the time he spent wallowing in the freedom of young love where reality had no home.
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Carried away by his romantic notions of love, it's during this time that Jamal commits an act that brings about his downfall and helps force him come face to face with reality. As a result of his actions, Ajita leaves India to rejoin her mother in India, who like Jamal's father had been disappointed by the West. It's while pinning for his lost love, he and his sister are sent off to visit his father in Pakistan and discover their roots. What he finds is that his father is not the giant of his childhood imagination, and everything about Pakistan is completely alien. Combined with his lost love, and the secret of his terrible deed, he falls into a state near to catatonic upon his return to England.

Although this is what sets him on his career path, the psychiatrist he sees inspires him so much that he decides to become one himself, in some ways he never really leaves his state of catatonia behind him. As we follow him along his path we realize that everything he does, including his career, continues to shield him from reality. Listening to other people's problem allows him the luxury of ignoring his own. Worshipping a love that's twenty years old prevents him from ever committing emotionally to anyone else, and even in his relationship with his son he tries to be more like a buddy than a father.

With Something To Tell You and the character of Dr. Jamal Kahn, Hanif Kureishi continues to explore the strange half life experienced by the children of immigrants to the West from India and Pakistan. While some of Jamal's problems are of his own making, its obvious that he has been affected by his parents, and their contemporaries, sense of displacement. The dark humour that permeates the book is in its own way a means of disguising the depth of Jamal's desperation. It's those moments when Kureishis has Jamal pull back the curtain to show us what lies behind his placid exterior, that give this book its real power. Certainly there are some very funny things that happen in the Something To Tell You but it doesn't offset the knowledge that a life has been denied the opportunity to live up to it's full potential.

Prejudice, the false expectations created by Western self-aggrandizement of the superiority of its lifestyle, combined with the feelings of alienation felt by immigrants to Great Britain from India in the 1940's and 50's made for the creation of a lost generation of children. Hanif Kureishi has been telling the stories of those people for thirty years with love, compassion, and not a little bit of humour. Something To Tell You shows us that even though on the surface those people may appear settled, underneath the struggle to define themselves continues well into middle age. For those of us raised on the illusion of the happy, hard working immigrant, this book might be hard to swallow, but as Jamal Kahn can tell you, sometime the truth is a little indigestible.

Hanif Kureishi's Something To Tell You goes on sale August 19th/08 and can be purchased directly from Simon & Shuster Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

July 21, 2008

Book Review(Play): The Portrait Of Mahatma Gandhi Himendra Thakur

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 2nd in 1869 and was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic January 30th 1948. To the majority of us he is now more familiarly known by his honorific, Mahatma, meaning Great Soul, rather than the names he was born with, and for his dedication to non-violent resistance as a form of protest. Such is his international reputation that in 2007 the United Nations designated his birthday International Day Of Non Violence.

While political leaders of all stripes have cited him as an influence on their lives, paid lip service to his ideals, or praised his life, not a single political figure since the Mahatma has actually lived up to those ideals. The drive for equality between the races in the United States during the 1950's and 1960's under the guidance of Martin Luther King Jr. was the last major attempt at non-violent civil disobedience to enact social change. Aside from that though, the majority of mankind has not proven mature enough to live up to the ideals espoused by Mahatma Gandhi.

While Gandhi has aroused almost universal admiration among people internationally, the same can't be said about his home country of India. He was opposed to the partitioning of India into separate Muslim, Pakistan, and Hindu countries and advocated equality for all people. In fact his assassination was spurned by the final hunger strike he staged in order to force the new Indian government to hand over money owing to the Pakistani government. The radical Hindu who killed him saw that action as an act of betrayal. He also angered traditionalists with his demands for an end to the caste system (initially the caste system was devised as a means of defining a person's responsibilities to society based on their job without there being any distinction in social standing, but it was eventually corrupted to the point where a person's caste no longer defined what they did but their status. So a person could be a Brahmin, without being a priest, and enjoy all the advantages associated with that position without having to fulfill any of the obligations formally associated with the title.) and equality for women
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With the play The Portrait Of Mahatma Gandhi, published by Antarjyoti, Himendra Thakur has written a response to what he sees as a continuation of that opposition in today's India. In his introduction to the play he says that India has moved away from what Gandhi's vision for the country and there is a concentrated effort by some political leaders, business people and thinkers to discredit him in the eyes of the people. While they may stand up on national holidays and praise him as the father of the country, or give speeches lauding his achievements in the West, they are actually rejecting everything he stands for.

The two act play is set in the home of a wealthy Indian industrialist (Mishra) who is running for parliament. It is expected that if he wins his election that he will be given an important position in the government, but his campaign has hit a slight snag. With the redefining of electoral districts the area he is seeking to represent has recently been expanded to include a large number of rural voters whose interests don't necessarily mesh with his own. Unless he can convince them that he has their best interests at heart he could very well lose the election.

Since the majority of rural people still revere the memory of the Mahatma he orders his servant to make over his house in a style that will suitably impress two representatives from the village he has invited to meet with him. As the play opens the household servant is removing various objects d'art from the set as part of the pretence that will also include hanging a large portrait of Gandhi on the wall and covering the furniture with Khadi (a type of fabric) made from the hand weaving Charkha, (spinning wheel) used by the Mahatma.

Rakesh is Mishra's future son-in-law and a business man. He is the embodiment of everything that the playwright thinks is wrong with modern India's business community as he out and out rejects everything Gandhi stands for. How, he says, can he support non-violence when his own father is an arms manufacturer? Anyway Gandhi doesn't agree with any of things he's been taught in business school about how to maximize profits by reducing the work force. If we followed that model how could we get rich?

Initially the only voice arguing against Rakesh is his fiancee Sarojini whose grandmother taught her about Gandhi. She argues that India has become overly fixated on greed and that the people are suffering for it. Eventually her side of the argument is also taken up by the men from the village when they show up. Part of the second act of the play revolves around them debating both Rakesh and Mishra on the validity of Gandhi to today's India.

Himendra Thakur makes no secret as to what his beliefs are, and while that is noble, and I'm in complete agreement with him, that does not make The Portrait Of Mahatma Gandhi a good piece of theatre. The characters are nothing more than stereotypes, with both Rakesh and Mishra made out to be nothing but greedy cowards, and the two villagers and the humble servant are idealized as paragons of virtue.

Near the end of the play an extremist Hindu terrorist breaks into the house with the intent of killing Mishra because he said something favourable about Gandhi in a speech. While Rakesh and Mishra are begging for their lives and crying - the two villagers debate the terrorist and the servant sneaks up on him and overpowers him. Making the two anti-Gandhi characters objects of ridicule might have seemed like a good way of weakening their arguments, but it gives a false picture of reality and makes for lousy theatre.

Real businessmen and politicians aren't that ignorant and craven, any more than a school master and farmer are going to as stoic and brave as the two villagers are represented in the play. Wouldn't it have been better if the characters had been real so the audience would have a better picture of how they are being manipulated by their leaders instead of presenting something this simplistic? While the script claims to support the people who are being hurt by the behaviour of characters like Rakesh and Mishra, by the way it has been written it appears that the author does not have a very high opinion of his audience's intelligence and it comes across as very condescending.

Mahatma Gandhi espoused great ideals and saw the potential in humankind for living in harmony with itself and nature. He was truly one of the greatest visionaries that the world has known and we would all be better off if more of us could live up to the standards he set. Unfortunately The Portrait Of Mahatma Gandhi by Himendra Thankur does not succeed in bringing that vision to life, or even presenting convincing arguments on its behalf. Surely there must be a better way of defending the Mahatma's grand vision than this?

July 14, 2008

Book Review: Very Hard Choices Spider Robinson

There are some writers who are as warm and comfortable as a favourite sweater on a raw day in November. You open their books with the same sense of relief that you'd feel when enveloped in the folds of the sweater that's keeping the bite of a fall rain out of your bones. Not only do these writers know how to write well, the way they write convinces you that they believe there is nothing they'd rather be doing than telling you this particular story.

You can tell by the way they write that not only do they believe in everything they have written, every word has come directly from their heart. Yet, in spite of their passionate beliefs, you know that they have an open mind and would be willing to listen to someone with a convincing argument on the other side. They know that opinions should not be shaped by beliefs alone, but need to be substantiated by facts. Otherwise you are left with nothing but a knee jerk, emotional response that borders on the fanatical.

Of course it doesn't hurt if you agree with the opinions that they are expressing in the first place, as admittedly a great deal of the comfort you derive from their writing is seeing the things you believe in articulated rationally. It's one thing to find them on the op-editorial page of a newspaper, but another thing altogether to find them within the pages of a well written novel. They're aren't very many people out there who can write a book and make the story be about moral and political choices without it becoming polemic and tedious, but Spider Robinson is one of them.
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Spider is your atypical aging hippie in some ways; (many years ago he even wrote a story about Paul figuring out a way of bringing John back to life, because the music just hadn't been as good without him) he lives in British Columbia on Canada's west coast and his writing continues to espouse the hope that Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. instilled in some members of his generation. Whether the story is set in a bar on a distant planet peopled with beings from all over the galaxy, or in the more familiar territory of present day Earth, his books are populated by people who believe in the potential of a better world.

This continues to hold true for his most recent release, Very Hard Choices, published by Simon & Schuster Canada. Set in contemporary British Columbia the book sets us down into the life of aging hippie and newspaper columnist Russell Walker. After his wife had died from cancer, Russell just wanted to hide out from the world, but events had conspired against him.

A few years back he had discovered that his former University room mate was telepathic. Zandor Zudenigo had literally shown up at his door one day demanding help in ridding the world of a serial killer whose thoughts he had picked up via a chance encounter. With the aid of a Vancouver police officer, Nika Mandic, they managed to capture and kill the serial killer before he could execute his next killing spree, and had hoped to bury the incident as deeply as they had buried the body.

Unfortunately the CIA had invested in Zandor forty years ago, and although he had slipped through their fingers then (at great personal cost as the woman he loved died during their escape) it appears that the agent in charge of that particular program is still after him. Nika had tried to do some discrete checking up on Zandor, and although her query turned up nothing it set off an alarm that alerted the agent that someone was interested in him. He doesn't know where Zandor is, but he does know who was looking for him and who his friends were.

When Nika hurries off to warn Russell that somebody is after them, she unwittingly leads him right to his front door as the agent has placed an electronic tag on her car that allows him to follow her off the mainland onto the island where Russell lives. A bad situation is made even worse by the fact that Russell's estranged son Jesse is visiting for the first time since his mother died. How is Russell going to explain to his son about the whole situation, and how are they going to get a warning to Zandor without leading the agent right to him?

While this sounds like a fairly conventional science fiction/spy novel, Robinson has written something that has quite a bit more meat on the bone than you'd expect. First of all the agent is not a one dimensional bad guy. We spend quite a bit of time with him on his quest to track down Zandor, and the more time we spend inside his mind the less inclined we are to have a knee jerk reaction to him as one of the forces of evil. We begin to wonder why is this guy so intent on tracking Zandor down, and in the end the answer comes as something as a surprise.

The hard choice of the title can be seen superficially as the decision Russell must make about whether or not to protect someone he basically barely knows, after all he's only seen Zandor once since they both graduated from college, and is it worth putting his life and his son's at risk to do so? In another writer's hands that might have been the case, but in this instance the Very Hard Choices of the title refers to the way in which we make our decisions. We can choose to make our decisions based on our personal prejudices and the conventional wisdom of our peers, or we can make them based on what's right for the situation and what the evidence tells us is correct.

It's all very well to believe in something, but if you let that belief blind you to reality and let it dictate decisions than you have abdicated your ability to choose. The hardest choice any of us will ever have to make is the choice to choose freely without prejudice. Very Hard Choices is an intelligent and thought provoking book that will hopefully have you challenging your own assumptions. It is very rare that anybody on either side of the political spectrum has the courage to do that, and whether you agree with Mr. Robinson's politics or not, he is to be admired for having that kind of courage.

I have to admit I was disappointed that a glaring factual error was allowed into print. Near the beginning of the book Robinson mentions the imposition of the War Measures Act in Canada in 1970 by the government in response to kidnappings carried out by the Front de Liberation Quebecois (FLQ). He incorrectly identified James Cross as being the kidnapping victim killed when it was Pierre Laporte, Quebec's Minister of Labour who was murdered. While it doesn't detract from the story, it does weaken the author's credibility somewhat when information that could be verified by a simple Google search is incorrect. A lesson for us all.

Very Hard Choices can be purchased either directly from Simon & Schuster Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

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.

January 5, 2008

Book Review: How The Dead Dream Lydia Millet

Take a deep breath, now exhale. In the time it took you to do that it's more than likely that a life form became extinct somewhere on the planet. Plant, insect, or animal: life is dying around us on a breath by breath basis and we are oblivious to the fact. What does it matter if a sub-species of plant dies never to come back again? I could give you the whole "universe is like a spider web" argument about all life being interconnected and plucking one string on the spider web causes ripples to permeate across the whole, but to most people that still means nothing.

Why? Because human beings are as a rule selfish and we see everything in terms of ourselves. That's normal of course, all animals make themselves the centre of their universe, in the wild it's a matter of survival. What around me is food, shelter, water, or dangerous - how do things affect me and what do I need to do in response isn't even a thought process, it's instinctual and learned behaviour. The difference between humans and other life forms is our putting ourselves at the centre of the web has nothing to do with survival, and everything to do with personal gain of some sort.

Everything from our interpersonal relationships to the decisions we make regarding what clothes to wear are dictated by what gain we will receive from our actions. Will that person fall in love with me if I do this? By wearing these clothes will I create the impression needed in order for another person to trust me? Even the act of me writing out these words is being done for selfish reasons - I want you to react, or at least pay attention to what I've written.
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In her latest book, How The Dead Dream published by Counterpoint Press and distributed by Publishers Group Canada, Lydia Millet explores the nature of human selfishness through her central character, a man simply known as T. We follow T. from childhood on, and it becomes quickly obvious that there is something pathological about his obsession with money.

He literally "squirrels" away his money as a child, carrying coins around in his cheeks for safe keeping, while stashing bills under his mattress. When his mother dared to remove the money and leave it out on a shelf, he was offended at how unfeeling she was towards it, leaving it exposed and vulnerable to who knows what deprivations. Nothing his parents tell him offers any reassurance that his money will be safe out in the open, and only the guarantee that banks are insured against robbery, along with coerced seed money from his parents, convinces him to open a bank account.

Based on the his rather broad definition of ethics when it came to his means of raising money as a child, (soliciting sponsorships for non-existent charity events on the premise that he is providing his neighbours the opportunity to feel good about themselves) it should come as little surprise that he gets into the business of real estate sales and development upon leaving University. Utilizing the contacts he established through his former fraternity he is quickly upon a fast track towards financial success.
Initially everything T. does has the feeling of being carefully evaluated in terms of expenditure and return. From taking his mother to Mass when she comes to visit him at University to the way he conducts himself with his fraternity brothers. Everything about him, and everything he does is calculated. He is always there for his fraternity brothers, which is everything from talking them down from potential suicide to convincing girls not to press date rape charges, ensuring their gratitude; even if they have no reason to like him, they depend on him.

Everything is working to plan for him until a series of seemingly unconnected events occur that will change the course of his life and eventually how he sees himself in relationship to the rest of the world's inhabitants. I know, it seems like every other book you read has somebody's eyes being opened to their "sins" and after their "epiphany" change their lives around and become a saint.

Thankfully Lydia Millet has a firmer grip on reality than that, and T. remains basically the same person. The only difference is that he starts to see there are more pieces at play in the world than what is necessarily in front of his eyes. When a housing project he develops displaces and causes the extinction of a breed of Kangaroo Rat, he begins to obsess about endangered species. He recognizes that humans have the potential to eventually destroy all life on the planet and he is afraid.

Someone told him that beneath each ant hill resides tens, if not hundreds of thousands of ants. He imagines that under the earth's surface they have excavated huge caverns, and has nightmares of them all of a sudden vanishing and the earth crumbling and his housing developments vanishing. In a desperate search for answers, and he's not even sure of the questions, he takes it into his head that he will understand things better if he breaks into the cages of endangered animals in the zoos.

How The Dead Dream is a satirical examination of values in the modern world and the selfishness of human beings. While T. is the embodiment of those characteristics, and on occasion borders on caricature, Millet always brings him back from the edge just enough for him to be believable. She has divided his life into three very distinct worlds, personal, business, and the wild, or animal world, and he ends up not being at home in any of them.

The people he does business with are buffoons who he has nothing in common with and only uses for their money. He is at a loss as to what to do about his mother as she descends into senility. He hotly denies her accusations of him being "her son the thief", perhaps forgetting his behaviour as a child, that she could well be referring to, and leaves her in the care of a full-time nurse.

As for the natural world, he's about at home in it's reality as a tiger is in a city. He doesn't understand the animals in the zoo cages anymore than he does the people in his life. He comes face to face with how helpless he really is during a trip to a resort he's developing that happens to be in hurricane country.

How The Dead Dream is an indictment of the shallowness that dominates most people's thinking, and how narrow dreams have become. If we are dead to anything but money and what it can give us, what kind of dreams are we going to have? The answer isn't pretty, but unfortunately far too many of them are coming true. The dead don't care about the living, and evidence of that can be seen each time you breathe in and out and another species dies.

January 4, 2008

Book Review: Night Train To Lisbon Pascal Mercier

For most people a great deal of life is spent following the same routine. For some, there is a certain amount of safety and comfort that can be derived from the security of knowing exactly what you will be doing when, while others feel seriously constrained and trapped for the same reasons. While those who fall into the latter category usually feel like they are missing out on something more exciting, the feeling that life is passing them by, those in the first instance can go years in complete contentment.

However, if at any point in their lives those same people ever experience an event that jars them from that routine, or causes them to have a moment of introspection beyond what they would normally exert during their day - the results can be severe. If you have completely sublimated all of the dreams and hopes that you once may have had, suddenly waking to that fact is a lot worse than being aware of it all along. What had previously been a comfort, suddenly becomes an unbearable burden that threatens to suffocate you.

In Pascal Mercier's Night Train To Lisbon, published for the first time in English by Grove Press and distributed in Canada by Publishers Group Canada, Raimund Gregorius has been teaching classical languages (Latin, Classical Greek, and Biblical Hebrew) at the same school in Berne Switzerland for decades. Day in and day out he has followed the same routine of teaching school, watching his students through the shield of his thick lensed glasses, and wearing his crumpled corduroy suits.
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But then a chance meeting with a Portuguese woman one rainy morning on the way to work has him start to worry at the edges of the veneer of his routine like its a dead patch of skin. His love of language has been limited previously to those that are as dead as his life has been staid and ordered. There is something about this woman though, that her voice - the way she pronounces the word for her mother tongue in her native language - makes Portuguese sound like water to a man wandering in a desert.

Looking for something, and not quite sure what, perhaps the woman who had mysteriously appeared and disappeared the day before, Gregorius finds himself in a Spanish bookstore. Attracted to a particular book by the way another person treated it with some reverence, he picks it up. It's in Portuguese, and not being able to read a word of it he has the bookseller translate the title, A Goldsmith Of Words, and translate the opening lines for him.

What he hears, sentences that describe how inadequate language can sometimes be for describing experiences and emotional turmoil, sounds to him like they had been written about how he'd been feeling since his chance encounter the day before. Language, that had always stood him in such good stead for so many years, has failed to decipher the unease or describe the emotions he'd been feeling. It can't even offer an explanation as to why, yesterday, he simply walked out of his classroom in the middle of the afternoon double period, leaving his books and brief case behind, and not been back since.

Thirty years ago he had turned down an opportunity to live in Iran and tutor the child of an industrialist, irrational fears of the desert heat blinding him had kept him in Berne teaching dead languages. Now he finally leaves Berne behind, with Lisbon as his destination, and a desire to find out about the author of this book. He knows part of what fuels his desire to make this trip into the unknown was his inability to make a similar trip in the past.

In Lisbon a series of chance meetings brings him into the circle of people who surrounded Doctor Amadeu de Prado. The picture that emerges is that of a child of privilege, a brilliant student in school, and a doctor who will not refuse serve anyone, and in fact treats many poorer clients for free. Prado, like Gregorius, has something happen that forces him to re-evaluate his life and position. Up until 1974 Portugal was ruled by the dictator Salazar, and near the end of his regime rule had actually passed into the hands of his secret police as Salazar descended into senility.

One day a man collapsed just outside Prado's offices, heart failure, and his companions rushed him into the office in the hopes that the doctor could keep him alive long enough for an ambulance to come and get him to a hospital. He was the head of Lisbon's secret police, a man notoriously responsible for the death and torture of thousands of people. Prado knew all of this, and he could have easily let him die, without any stigma being attached to him, but he claims he couldn't because of his loyalty to his medical calling.

It was this experience which caused him to pen the lines that had so appealed to Gregorius about language failing to properly encompass the feelings that people can have. On a more direct note the good doctor makes it his business to join the forces of the resistance against the dictator in order to try and assuage his guilt for having saved the life of one of the oppressors.

Night Train To Lisbon is a fascinating examination of the things that make us who we are and how fragile that construction really is. Are we really, it asks, only what we make ourselves, or are there external elements that must be considered? It's also about the need for passion in your life, or at the very least some sort of emotional commitment to what it is you do. Gregorius has spent decades teaching the classic languages, and has revelled in their lack of passion that their formal construction can impose on his lessons.

But what has been the result of that life so far? True he is a well respected scholar within the Berne community, but is that compensation for a marriage that fails after five years due to his being so bloodless and cold towards his ex-wives enthusiasm for art? Insomnia plagues him, and he is constantly beset with fears that he will go blind to the extent that he lets it dictate his activities. In what must be a deliberate irony, Gregorius teaches Latin, the father of the Romance languages while suppressing the romance in his own life.

There isn't even any room in his life for introspection until the moment he has his chance encounter with the Portuguese woman that rainy morning. That it takes a trip to the sunnier climate of Portugal, a direct contrast to the grey cold winter of Berne, for his life to thaw, and for him to discover what it is to have emotion in his life only is appropriate. When you think about it, what could be more romantic, then the intellectual son of a wealthy family taking up the fight against a dictator. The fact that the country just happens to be one where the native language is one of the Romance tongues is just icing on the cake.

That Doctor Prado happens to be a figure of mystery at the start of the Night Train To Lisbon gives him the aura of romance even before we and Gregorius start to learn about his life. That he turns out to have been idolized even by his teachers when he was younger only adds to this portrait. Even though we find out from his own writing that he too sublimated his real desires to suit the needs of his family and position, there still remained a fierceness to his beliefs conspicuously absent from Gregorius' life.

One thing that Mercier is very careful about in this book is to make sure we know there is nothing romantic about being in the resistance against a dictator. One of the people who Gregorius befriends was so badly tortured that his fingers are now not much more than useless appendages dangling form his hands. At their first meeting he calmly informs Gregorius that his tea cup can only be half filled. The reason for this become obvious when he removes his hands from the pockets they have lain hidden in, and they tremble continuously.

Night Train To Lisbon is the story of a journey of self-discovery, and an analysis of the ways is which people control their experiencing of life. I discovered that it took me a while to get involved with the story, but that once I entered into the rhythm of Mercier's writing style it was easy to be drawn into the events that unfolded. He wants the reader to take the time necessary to sift through and appreciate the thoughts that are being expressed by both Gregorious and Prado and you have to be willing to accept Mercier's conditions.

For those who want a good, intelligent read that's an excellent analysis of character and poses some fascinating questions about life and love, you won't go wrong with Night Train To Lisbon by Pascal Mercier.

December 11, 2007

Book Review Life Of Pi Illustrated Edition Yann Martel

Antoine de Saint Exupery's story The Little Prince begins with the author recounting a period from his childhood when he discovered just how limited an adult's imagination can be. Perhaps he tells us this to explain why he chose to become an aircraft pilot and live among the night sky where anything and everything can be real. When he meets the Little Prince of the title his plane has broken down and he is stranded in the deserts of North Africa.

I'm sure most of us would have been slightly more nonplussed than our author to be greeted by a young boy asking us to draw him a sheep. But Exupery takes it in his stride and learns the story of his new companion. The Little Prince is a beautiful story about a voyage of self-discovery and the nature of love written as a children's tale. Each time I've re-read it I've often wondered about the fact that the hero is a child and how it is told in the language of a story for young readers, yet the content is so incredibly adult.

"What is essential is invisible to the eye" couldn't be more true when considered in the light of an adult parable hiding inside the story of a child as in the case of The Little Prince. Perhaps it is the same element in Yann Martel's Life Of Pi that was responsible for me being continually reminded of Exupery's work as I was reading it, as it too features a young man whose adventures result in some very adult philosophizing. On the surface the stories seem to have little in common, but at the heart of each is the wide eyed wonder of a child experiencing the world for the first time in all it's glory.
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We first meet Pi (his parents had named him Piscine Molitor in honour of a friends favourite swimming pool in Paris, and Pi wisely took it upon himself to change his name as soon as possible - there are far too many temptations in a name like Piscine for other children not to take advantage of it) through the eyes of the writer who is preparing to recount his tale. It is in present day Toronto Canada that the story starts, but it doesn't take us long to go back in time and across the Pacific Ocean to the Indian province of Pondincherry.

Pi is the youngest of two sons in a family that has the unique distinction of owning a zoo. While his classmates might receive a cheerful farewell from their mothers as they head off to school, Pi's morning benediction includes the growls of lions and tigers, the trumpet of an elephant, and a wide variety of grunts and squeaks from the animal kingdom. It is easy to see how his awe and delight in the wonders of the world was born growing up in this type of environment. That he also chooses to celebrate his wonder of the world by embracing each of the major religions India, is somewhat odd, but is completely in keeping with his character.

Of course all of the background information, Pi's childhood in India, and the times we meet him as an adult in Toronto, are only preparatory for the main event, his sojourn aboard the life boat with an adult Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker. His family had decided to emigrate from India to Canada, and in order to pay their way had sold the majority of the zoo's animals to the United States. Therefore, instead of flying like most immigrants, they take a tramp steamer to shepherd them to their new homes. It's during this voyage that the shipwreck happens, leaving Pi alone aboard a life boat with a zebra, an orangutang, a hyena, and the aforementioned tiger.

The natural order exerts itself upon the life boat over the first few days as the hyena dispatches the zebra and the orangutang while Pi can only hope he continues to ignore him. It's only when Richard Parker recovers from his seasickness that Pi realizes that it has been the tiger's presence that has kept him safe from attack. Of course that doesn't prevent him from being terrified of his protector, and his struggle to figure out a way in which the two of them can survive in harmony is the crux of the story for the balance of their voyage together.
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Life Of Pi was originally published in 2002 and received all sorts of critical accolades, including being awarded the Mann Booker Prize. Now in 2007 Random House Canada through its Alfred A. Knoff imprint has published a lavishly illustrated new edition with beautiful full-page colour plates by Croatian artist Tomislav Torjanic. To select an illustrator for the book, an international competition was held, and out of the thousands of artists who entered Torjanic's work was judged best suited to the needs of the book.

Not having seen any of the other entrants there's not much basis for comparison, but to be honest I can't see how anyone could have done a better job than Torjanic. His work has the lushness of Paul Gauguin's paintings of Fiji, making it ideal for capturing the richness and vibrancy of the South Pacific locations that predominate in the book, combined with an illustrator's capacity for capturing a moment in a story and reproducing it with the accuracy of capturing a frame in a film.

What I found especially rewarding about Tomislav's work was the fact that the illustrations, no matter the size, were always drawn from Pi's perspective of events (The temptation to say Pi -eyed view is too great to resist, I'm sorry) reinforcing the fact that this is his story, while making it easier for the reader to understand what he is experiencing. Of course this also serves to draw us into the story, because when we look at the pictures, we become the object of the subject matter's focus as much as they are ours. So, when the perspective of an illustration has us looking down the length of the lifeboat at the back of a 450 pound Bengal tiger, and his head is turned to look over his shoulder, his one eye stares back at us, not some unknown target.

Yann Martel's creation, much like Saint Exupery's all those years ago, is about the power of faith and having the ability to believe in the invisible bonds that connect us, one to another. None of us have ever seen the love we claim to have for another person or being, yet we are confidant it exists. Why? We have no proof, yet like Pi with Richard Parker, we are assured that the person we love isn't going to do the equivalent of eating us.
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In his poem, "i carry your heart, i carry it in my heart", American poet e. e. cummings wrote that love "is the wonder that holds the stars apart." In Life Of Pi Yann Martel brings that wonder to life in his story of the young man trapped in a lifeboat for nearly a year with an adult Bengal tiger. The illustrations by Tomislav Torjanac, in the newly published illustrated edition, not only reflect that wonder, but succeed in drawing the reader into a deeper appreciation by offering us the means to enter into the story as a participant.

For the longest time I resisted reading Life Of Pi because I was afraid of being disappointed by it failing to live up to the expectations of its publicity. The last thing I expected was to find myself reading a book to match The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery in its simple beauty and ability to express awe in the wonder of life. Yann Martel really did create a thing of beauty and a joy forever when he published this story, and I for one will always be grateful.

Canadian readers wishing to purchase a copy of the illustrated Life Of Pi can do so by either purchasing it directly fromRandom House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

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.

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?

September 9, 2007

Book Review: The Incantation Of Frida K. Kate Braverman

Imagine what it would feel like if your body became a trap. Your mind and your spirit are still strong, and you haven't changed a bit inside your head. You have the same urges, desires, ambitions, and beliefs you've always had, but now you can do nothing to follow through on or fulfill them. Because you've always been a realist, you can't deny the evidence that in spite of your mental health, you are dying and there's nothing anyone can do about it.

Making matters worse is the fact that you are an extremely creative and intelligent person with a vivid imagination. Not only has your body finally failed you; it has also become a burden inflicting continual pain. Morphine and Demerol offer the relief of escape, but who know what tricks it may be playing on your brain when you surrender to the oblivion their embrace offers. As more and more medication is required to bring peace, the further you slip away from reality and the less your thoughts become your own.

As a child the great Mexican artist Frida Kahlo was struck with Polio, leaving her one leg withered and weak. When she was a teenager the trolley car she was riding in was involved in a collision that shattered her pelvis, broke her back, and left her impaled on a metal rod. After six months in hospital, she endured another year in a body cast while her spine mended until she was finally released.
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It was during that year in bed that she first began to paint. As the only subject she had at hand was herself she began her life's work of documenting and depicting herself in relation to the rest of the world. On some level, she must have known that her time was limited and made the decision to live as full a life as was possible for her. So when she found herself at the end of her time, stuck in bed, dependant upon family and drugs for succour, none of us can have any idea as to what affect it might have had on her ability to separate reality from illusion.

It is said that the creative and imaginative mind of the artist, combined with the heightened emotional sensitivity that is the invariable companion, is already a few steps closer to the edge of sanity then others. What would have gone through the mind of Frida Kahlo during those final months of her life while she lay waiting for death to come and give her final release from the prison her body had become? While we may never know for sure Kate Braverman's novel The Incantation Of Frida K. is a fictionalized journey into those depths.

Published by Seven Stories Press and distributed in Canada by the Publishers Group Canada The Incantation Of Frida K. is a journey into the mind of a person who seems to no longer be able to distinguish reality from illusion. Why else would she describe her relationship with her husband Diego Rivera as one long foray in sexual perversion? The accident that maimed her when she was a teenager also, she is now convinced, stole her femininity and turned her into a man.

In her mind, she now sees her initial sexual experience with Diego as homosexual, with her being a boy named Pierre. Her opinion of herself has been so degraded by her current circumstances that she is unable to view her life as being anything more than a plaything or doll that Diego used for a prop to promote his own career as an artist. Through out her life Frida was known for her habit of wearing the traditional clothes of the Mayan and Inca people's who were Mexico's first inhabitants. In fact, she was so fascinated with pre-Columbian imagery her paintings drew heavily upon it in both style and content.

But in her distorted view of the world she now sees it as nothing more then another means of keeping her imprisoned and denying her an identity. While it's true that Diego Rivera was a lousy husband and had affairs continually during their marriage, Frida didn't just pine away at home. She had her share of affairs with both men and women, sometimes even with the same woman that Diego was sleeping with. Although she did divorce him at one time, they also remarried, and all biographies say that in spite of everything they loved each other deeply.
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Braverman's Frida claims that Diego continuously disparaged her paintings and diminished her accomplishments as an artist. According to the recent movie Frida which was based on the well received biography of the same name by Hayden Herrera, Diego was in actual fact an ardent supporter of Frida's work, and continually encouraged her while praising its quality as being superior to his.

Braverman does not claim to have written a biography, or anything other than a fictionalized supposition of what Frida's state of mind might have been in her last days. Taken in that context, this is an amazing piece of writing that takes us on a journey through the avenues and byways of a mind teetering on the edge of sanity. On occasion Frida K. will have moments of lucidity where she admits to creating an imaginary daughter, and in the next instance she will refer to the daughter in conversation as if she were actual.

Braverman shows an incredible understanding of the potential for disaster that is a continual threat to the creative sensitive mind. Her language while graphic and realistic manages to transcend the morbidity of the subject matter to achieve a kind of poetic beauty. Maybe not beauty in the sense of oh isn't that nice, but the kind of absolute beauty that comes with recognizing something as a work of art.

Ultimately The Incantation Of Frida K. is an artistic interpretation of a state of mind utilizing the potential within Frida Kahlo's life for her to have descended to that level. Disease and trauma exerted a huge toll upon the woman the world knew as Frida Kahlo, leaving her imprisoned by her body for a good deal of her life. The majority of her artwork reflected the pain and disappointment she experienced because of that and there is no way of knowing how it affected her mental and emotional state.

On no account do I think this book should be taken as a factual representation of Frida Kahlo's last days on earth. However, as a work of fiction that depicts how the artistic mind under certain circumstances can turn a person into their own worst enemy, this is a work of brilliance. Read it keeping that in mind and you won't be disappointed.

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 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 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 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


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

February 13, 2007

Book Review: Aleppo Tales Haim Sabato

Stories in real life don't tend to follow a straight and true path like those that are written down in a book by an author for the entertainment of his contemporaries. Sometimes they wander off on digressions which have caught the attention of those involved in the story, other times it becomes necessary to backtrack a hundred years in search for a story's beginning.

Did it begin here when this happened or perhaps here when that happened, or did it like all stories begin with the beginning of all things and is just one more branch thrown out by the universe. It can be a delicate business extracting a story from all that surrounds it, like following on thin thread of one colour through a many hued woven shawl.

Here it snakes in front of the weft, here behind; see there how it quickly snakes around those five or six almost similar strands, maybe following on with them for a while but by looking closely you can see the point of divergence. No matter how unique or individual we believe it to be our own story or that of our family isn't usually that much different from other members of our community.

Of course with every rule there has to be an exception and in Aleppo Tales Haim Sabato relates, although one family's life is forever intertwined with the rest of the community, in this book detail three incidences of a family's thread glowing far brighter than their neighbours. Perhaps if he had the energy he could have detailed ways in which more than the just the people named in these stories had distinguished themselves.
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First you need to know about the "Aleppo" of the title; this is the name given to the territory in Syria where Jews had lived for close to two thousand years, ever since the destruction of the second temple during Roman times. Among their number were also Jews who had come when the Spanish expelled them in 1492, Sephardic Jews coming to join a community who practiced in the same manner that they did.

Sometimes an action, or a word that is spoken, doesn't see its final fruition until years later, and when they do it is with results that no one could have predicted. So it was when the sage Raphael Sapporta sold an old Hanukkah lamp that he had inherited from his great-great grandfather who had come to Syria as one of those Spanish exiles in 1492.

As you know the tradition of Hanukkah, where Jewish people celebrate the miracle of the oil lamps staying light for eight days when there was only enough oil for one, that on the first night it is normal to light two candles, one of which is used to light the other, or the others for the nights of the festival. But this menorah that Raphael Sapporta sold to the trader, who had been approached by a middleman who had been approached by a dealer in antiquities in France to buy old Hanukkah lamps, was one of the ways in which some Jews of Aleppo were different from their other kin in exile.

Instead of the normal nine lights there was room for a tenth. It is said that when the boat carrying the exiles fleeing Spain was approaching Aleppo it was caught up in a terrible storm and it was only by a miracle that it made it to port with all its crew and passengers alive. The day the ship made port was in fact the first night of Hanukkah, and to commemorate this second miracle of the season, those families who had arrived on that ship had special menorah made with the means to light an extra light.

The two scrap dealers who had arranged the deal for selling the Hanukkah lamp soon found that their business dealings began to prosper and with that prosperity they decided that they in turn should do their bit and supported the sages of Aleppo by creating a perpetual fund that would permit them to study and not work more than they wanted at material matters.

Thus it was that the one lamp sold to Senor Franco and Senor Piciotto began to have an effect immediately for the family Sapporta as Raphael was one of the sages who received direct benefit from this endowment, as did his son Hacham Hiyyah a sage of renown in his own right. It was because of this endowment that Hacham's son Jacob was able to study from an early age, but education began to lead him away from the words and deeds of his fathers.

As it is for the father so it is even more so for the son, and Jacob who is the son of Hacham who first is led away from the study of the Torah had a son who they named Raphael in honour of his great-grandfather. But he took for himself the name of Max and left behind the Torah altogether. He went to Paris to continue his studies and for a time was happy. But on occasion he was reminded of the teachings of his forefathers and experienced disquiet.

As was his habit when he was in need to settle his mind he went to the Louvre Museum. It just so happened that there was a display of Jewish antiquities on exhibit and Max let himself be pulled into it. In one glass case he saw to his wonder an old, cracked Menorah with places for ten lights. Even more surprising was the fact that engraved faintly in the side of brass was the name Sapporta. The last name he no longer used.

In writing this review I have tried to emulate the style that Haim Sabato created in his telling of the stories in Aleppo Tales. Part of the joy of reading any of his books is the way in which the stories take their time in unfolding. Sabato thinks nothing of following an interesting thread off the main strand of the story to its natural conclusion, waiting for it to finish talking as it were, before he picks up the tale again.

In this manner he manages to not only tell an interesting tale about how many and varied are the distractions of the world that keep you from remembering who you are, but to also bring to life the atmosphere of an era that has long passed. The community of Aleppo Jews no longer exists except in pockets where their descendants might still practice in New York or Israel, but it is not the same as a whole district dedicated to a way of life.

What I found especially interesting was that the main language that they used for communication outside the synagogue was Arabic. In those days remember Hebrew was primarily a religious tongue. It's only been since the formation of Israel that Hebrew has been given a secular form, and that was for convenience when the country was formed because nobody could speak the same language. It makes sense for Jewish people living in Syria to speak Arabic fluently, just as those living in England would speak English. But in this day and age it seems strange to see and is also a reminder of a time when the children of Abraham weren't as divided.

It should make no difference to you whether you are a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, or a Hindu when you read these stories because while they focus on a particular religion they are universal in their celebration of faith; the power it has to bring you joy, comfort, and peace. Faith does not have to be a burden, as so many people seem to belief it to be these days, it should be a blessing and something to bring you great joy.

Surrounding yourself with the sages and wise men and women of Aleppo reminds you of that, and if for no other reason makes it worth reading Aleppo Tales. That it is also beautifully written, with love and faith adorning every word like pearls is just an added bonus.

February 6, 2007

Book Review: Thomas Pynchon Against The Day

When James Joyce published his seminal work Ulysses the reactions were varied to say the least. Aside from being banned in Boston, and other ports of entry into the United States, Joyce's fellow writers were divided in their opinions. Although Hemingway is quoted as saying "One Hell of a book" or words to that effect, it's long been doubted he ever even opened the covers let alone read the thing.

But one of the most damning phrases came from the originator of the run on sentence herself, Virginian Wolfe, when she compared it to "the idle scratching of a stable boy at his pimples". Whether the words were generated by spite, anger, jealousy, or professional opinion is anyone's guess, but if there was ever a case of the kettle calling the pot something only fit for heating water, I don't think we'd have to look much further.

Of course I'm probably prejudiced in that I've always preferred the work of Joyce over Wolfe as I've found hers a little too out of touch with reality while, at least in the case of Portrait Of An Artist As A Young Man and Ulysses Joyce was writing about life among the majority. Wolfe lived a among the rarefied air of The Bloomsbury intellectual set, and was never lacking for funds, influence or blind eyes turned to her marriage of convenience.

Joyce on the other hand grew up poor from the time his father squandered the family wealth when he was young and never lived to see any great return from his work. He died poor, blind, and exiled in Switzerland where he fled to escape the Nazi invasion of France.

I'm sure by now everybody's wondering what any of this has to do with Thomas Pynchon's latest novel Against The Day which nominally this is supposed to be reviewing. Good question and the answer lies somewhere in amongst some theory of mine that Pynchon is heir to either one of Joyce or Wolfe, or perhaps even some weird bastard son of them both.

A kind of hybrid flower you'd get from the cross pollination of Joyce's earthiness and Wolfe's university intellectualism that's been spiced up with the cynicism of the last forty years of the twentieth century. Pynchon has the same reluctance to participate fully in the world that marked Wolfe's life and permeated her work. But he has no problem with writing enthusiastically, one could almost say with idealism, about the American Working Class and their earthier pursuits.

In his forward to Richard Farnina's Been Down So Long It Look's Like Up To Me Pynchon compares himself to the his schoolmate at Cornel University and seems to lament his inability to embrace life with the exuberance exemplified by Farina. Shy and bookish he was, and seems to still remain. Reading his work you get the feeling of a man hiding behind words instead of using them to express emotions.

In as much as you can ever say what a Thomas Pynchon novel is about or where it is set in time and place, regarding characters, locations and other extraneous story line like details, Against The Day is based in the years just preceding World War One and some of the years following. As the world we live in now is dealing with the wonders of digitalization, and the realisation that we've only scratched the surface of it's potential, so were the learned folk of science grappling with electricity, combustion engines, and the power and energy of light in that time.

Theories, both physical and metaphysical abound, which might sound like flights of imagination on the part of the author, but become less outlandish when you remember how seriously people of the late nineteenth century took things like séances and fairies. That's not to say all the theories postulated in Against The Day about light and it's qualities were actually put forth, but it does lend them an air of plausibility that might otherwise be lacking if set forth boldly out of context.

The Cast Of Characters is of quite some size, but as they are all particular to their own sets of circumstances, aside from periodic interconnection like motes of dust in light beams weaving in and amongst each other, it will be easier to describe bases of operation then individual characters.

Leading off the story are the crew of a rigid airship –or zeppelin as we have come to know them generically now- who upon first glance appear to be cut from the mould of the Hardy Boys and other wholesome "Characters" that have permeated the world of "Boys Own Fiction" since the days of the British Empire. Why The Chums Of Chance even have their own series of dime novels recounting their adventures around the world!

But they are not a solo crew we soon discover. The Chums Of Chance are an international organization with crews around the world and across North America looking out for the interests of, how shall we put this, certain interested parties. You see America is only recently recovered from it's near sundering in the Civil War, and the Captains of Industry are slowly beginning to take advantage of the open expanses and cheap labour to finally exploit natural resources in safety.

But where somebody is reaping profits, some many bodies are being broken to make that money. Out in the coal, gold, and silver mines of the West men, women and children are worked six days a week and up to fourteen hours a day, and when the unions start to form, war is declared in the office towers of the east. Anarchism is afoot in the wilds and in the streets of America in the form of the "eight hour day" and the "five day week".

How can a man grow sinfully rich under those conditions? But not to worry there are plenty of men who will gladly split open the heads of their fellows like melons for a quarter and a badge giving them the legal right to do it. Hell they even get to be patriots and heroes of the nation for conducting lynch mobs and burning women and children in their miserable shacks by the mines.

But the mine bosses have made a bad mistake in teaching their minions the means to fight back. Dynamite is a great tool for democracy in the right hands. It speaks louder than any speech and causes more disruption than a strike. In the right hands, or two pair of hands, because it takes less time to lay the charges and string the wire with two people, a trestle bridge can disappear during the Sunday morning church service when the miners gather to pray for the souls of their bosses in the far off eastern towns.

Against The Day is populated by bombers and their families, detectives out hunting the bombers, hired thugs taken on to kill bombers, bombers children looking to take vengeance on the hired thugs, Capitalists and their families, and all the assorted whores, gun fighters, school teachers, bar tenders, piano players, grifters, card sharks, and other assorted flotsam and jetsam of humanity that ends up in frontier towns.

But at the other end of the stick are the dreamers, thinkers, scientists, mystics, tarot readers, mediums, frauds, explorers, whores, gun fighters, bar tenders, piano players, and what ever else ends up being attracted to the academic environment of the times. Especially when the two sides meet and begin to intertwine over the need of a mined material. Specifically the new holy grail of alchemy "the Icelandic Spar"; a mineral with properties that changes perspective and maybe even lead to gold.

Now that's quite a mouthful right there isn't it, but in reality it's only scratching the surface of the activity in Against The Day. Remember the book checks in at just over 1000 pages, 1085 to be exact, so there's lots of room for detail. Plenty of time to be spent with each character, even ones that never show up again, but who may have an important cameo, are treated to a part that would guarantee a good actor a nod for the best supporting Oscar nomination if not actually taking the little gold fellow home.

Earlier, way back at the beginning when I talked about Pynchon being the heir to Joyce and Wolfe, I left out an even earlier influence, perhaps a literary grandfather if you like: Jules Verne. Like Verne he is concerned with the mythical and mystical properties of science. Pynchon also shares the Naturalist's predisposition to long descriptive passages that detail everything down to the last hair follicle.

The characters in Against The Day live in a dense world, layers upon layers can be seen with naked eye and thought about. When a character stands still for even a moment's rumination, his or her thoughts can end up filling pages if not chapters. While there is no doubt a beauty in all of this, and Pynchon has a relationship with the English language that should be the envy of every person who has ever attempted to put pen to paper or finger to keyboard, something began to nag at me after the first couple of hundred pages.

What is the purpose of writing if not to tell a story? Does there come a time when a writer's means of expression starts to compete with that purpose, and seems to be at odds with his or her attempt to impart information that is germane to the subject at hand. This review for example could have been half the length and still imparted the information I wanted, three quarters of the length I could have done that and still incorporated many of the elements I've used to give the review colour and depth.

Now I'm a lover of words, and had no trouble extending this review to the length it is, and have enjoyed every minute because I'm having fun. But I've also been very deliberate about it too in an effort to make a point that at some time it becomes tedious and the focus is more on me and my artistry, or lack there of, instead of on the subject matter, Against The Day.

Am I committing that heresy of heresies and suggesting that Thomas Pynchon needs an editor? No, I'm just saying that this book is a hard slog to get through, and sometimes it doesn't feel worth the while. At other times his insights into human nature, his knowledge of history, science, math and his imagination leave you so breathless you want the book to last forever.

I was very excited to see a new Thomas Pynchon book available, for the reason that I always hope for something special from him. Against The Day seems to still be cursed by an inconsistency that has plagued him over the last two novels that I read Vineland and Mason & Dixon.

While Against The Day has much more the feel of his earlier work, there are still moments where its intellectualism overwhelms, and left me not really giving a damn about anything to do with the novel; style or content. Somewhere, somehow he needs to discover what he so long ago noticed he was lacking that his friend Richard Farina had in plenty, a zest for living that translates into an involvement in your work.

Thomas Pynchon is probably the most skilled writer to be published in the English language since Joyce and Wolfe. But I can only wish that he would make more of an emotional commitment to what he creates. Then I think we would be seeing as close to perfection as possible.

January 29, 2007

Book Review: The Dawning Of The Day: A Jerusalem Tale Haim Sabato

In a world where it seems most of our most extreme violence is caused by the zealous of all faiths and religions; it's hard to remember that faith is supposed to have been something glorious. It's not supposed to be a cudgel you use on an opponent in a political struggle, or a flag to wave leading troops into battle.

We read so much about Muslim suicide terrorist bombs, anti-freedom moralizing Christians, and the self righteous of all faiths that we forget that for every one of those types there are an equal, if not greater, number of people for whom faith is one of life's pleasures. It's one of the great ironies of humanity that that which is supposed to be a solace in a time of need has become something we equate so readily in our troubled world with being a root cause of hatred and disharmony.

Even putting aside the connotations mentioned above, simple belief for the sake of belief is looked on with a type of cynical patronization. In our superiority and arrogance we have trouble believing that anything as intangible as faith can really have that much of an effect on us. We look on someone who is dependant on faith as someone, somehow backward and out of touch with reality.

On the other hand I believe that beneath that veneer of urbanity and sophistication, people are in love with the idea of worship and prayer, but have no desire to do the work required to believe. Perhaps that's why so many quick fix new age religions are springing up on a daily basis offering people a sure fired path to enlightenment; it's spirituality without the commitment.

Haim Sabato has written the perfect antidote for all of us who have become sick and tired of all of the above. Without once straying into sentimentality his beautiful novel The Dawning Of The Day: A Jerusalem Tale gives us a present in the person of Ezra Siman Tov. Ezra is an orthodox Sephardic Jewish man who works in a hand laundry pressing prayer shawls, and shirts during his working hours.
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But it's the depiction of his life outside of the store that is what we really are concerned with. At first glance you may find it off putting, it's so contrary to what anybody "really" does in the world anymore. Who actually gets up before sunrise every morning to go to the synagogue to participate in prayers? Who sits of their own volition to read from the "Book of Psalms"?

Nobody really can get such pleasure from reciting a prayer that they will weep tears of joy will they? So you'd might think, and so you might feel when you start reading the story of Ezra Siman Tov, but I very much doubt that you will feel that by the time you come to the end of this little book.

I'm not a religious person in the sense of adhering to the code or ritual of a faith, and I definitely don't agree with a lot of the ideas and philosophies put forward in the Torah or other versions of the Bible. But that doesn't stop me from recognising a true depiction of faith. What Haim Sabato has done is quite simply written a beautiful testimony of what it was like for some of the older inhabitants of Jerusalem's Sephardic community.

Each chapter is a lesson that either Ezra learns or teaches to someone about how to worship or about faith. As contrasts to Ezra we are shown his brother-in-law who is a famous scholar. He is never without a dissertation or the latest interpretation of the laws so that he can be ready to correct anyone who makes a mistake. Than there is Reb Moishe Dovid the Talmudic scholar (The Talmud are commentaries on The Torah) who knows that the study of the law and its worship are serious business and should not be taken lightly.

One day he complains to Ezra that his, Ezra's, singing of the Psalms is interfering with his serious work of dissecting a commentary on a commentary. If that's all Ezra is doing enjoying himself, while he, Reb Moishe Dovid, is trying to work, perhaps Ezra could keep his voice down a little?

Ezra prays from the heart and the spirit, not the mind. He barely reads Hebrew, and has to read the Aramaic versions of the texts. When he stumbles and his brother in law corrects him with a wince and a sneer, Ezra feels shamed. But we see that the brother in law feels shame too, over his behaviour, but he will never admit it to Ezra.

It would have been easy for Ezra's character to be a figure of sentiment and a cloying sweetness to the book. But Haim Sabato manages to tread the fine line that prevents it from falling into that trap. Ezra's not a perfect saint or an angel; he's just a simple man trying to live his life according to the precepts of his God.

This is a beautiful book about faith and belief. Yes it's about being Jewish, but it can apply to any religion. If you ever want your own faith restored, in whatever it is you have faith in, looking to Ezra as an example would do you no harm.

January 21, 2007

Book Review: The Genizah At The House Of Shepher Tamar Yellin

Every family has its attic, its storehouse, or genizah as its named in Hebrew, where the past is documented through papers, artefacts, and memories. You don't even have to have physical space; a genizah can be the memories and the stories of the family that have been passed down. It's whatever form the repository of the family's history comes in.

In Tamar Yellin's first novel The Genizah At The House Of Shepher the genizah in question is both a musty, dust hole, in the rafters of the Shepher family's last home in Jerusalem. Miraculously in amongst old moulding newspapers and notebooks a treasure has been unearthed. A heretofore-unknown Codex of the Torah has come to light and with it the possibility to reverse the family's seemingly perpetual decline in fortunes.

The history of the Torah (Old Testament in the King James version of the Christian Bible) is like that of any ancient document that was copied by hand from the original over the early part of its life. Very few copies, or Codex, from those times are the same. Here a character changed for another, or a word order different there.

While in a language like English that may not seem to make much difference, with biblical Hebrew changing a few characters could change the meaning of a whole chapter. Or at the very least a verse which in itself can have serious implications to biblical scholars, especially when you consider that rabbinical scholars will spend their lives debating and dissecting the various meanings and connotations of words in a specific chapter of the text.

According to Jewish myth the Torah existed for nine hundred and forty-seven generations before the creation of the world, and when God created the world He used it as His blueprint and guide; for what better tool to use to create and imperfect and cryptic world, then an imperfect and cryptic Torah. According to Ms. Yellin's recounting, some scholars believe that at the end of time Elijah will return and sort out all the textual difficulties.

Of course until then that means there will be lots for religious scholars to debate to their hearts content. From what I understand this seems like an ideal circumstance, since it appears there is nothing more that endearing to the heart of a rabbinical scholar then arguing the minute points of textual interpretation of the Torah with their fellows.

Don't worry this is pertinent to the story, which as I mentioned earlier revolves around this previously unknown Codex. Shulamit Shepher's father had left Israel in the 1930's to live in England, where he proceeded to marry an English Jewish woman and raise two children. While her brother Reuben fled the family to escape the oppressive depression of his father and the suffocating love of his mother, Shulamit followed in the footsteps of her grandfather and great-grandfather in becoming a biblical scholar.

However unlike her fore fathers it's not her faith that motivates her study of the holy books, rather a sense of duty and the need for a vocation. Still this does nothing to lessen her love for her work, or the texts that she reads and recites to her students. For it also her means to connect to her family and its history, as the texts are filled with reminders for her of the stories about her great-grandfather, and her grandfather his only son.

But it wasn't even the Codex, which would have been a great temptation to a biblical scholar like herself, which brought her back to the house of Shepher in Jerusalem. It was a letter from her Uncle Cody telling her that the old house was to being given up now that the final resident, Aunt Batsheva, had died. So it was sentiment and nostalgia that brought her from England for one last visit to the house she had spent summers in until her father died.

It's not until she gets to the house that she even finds out about the Codex, as her Uncle Saul has taken up temporary residence and almost the first words out of his mouth are to accuse her of being one of the vultures after the Codex. When she finally convinces him she's not after the Codex, and to kindly explain what he's talking about she's thrilled. What biblical scholar wouldn't be to find out that her own family owned an unknown variation of the Torah?

But it's not that simple, or course. It seems that Uncle Cody has decided it should be given to the people, and has passed it on to an educational institute who are supposed to be checking it for authenticity. There are all the other members of the Shepher family who either claim ownership of the Codex or want it sold at current market value and the proceeds divided up amongst them all.

And who is the mysterious Gideon who also lays claim to the book, saying Shulamit's great-grandfather stole it from his people long ago and it needs to be returned. Since the provenance of the Codex claims that its origins lie with one of mythical lost tribes of Israel Shulamit has a hard time not only believing him, but can't believe her ears when he asks her to steal it for him.

Tamar Yellin's The Genizah At The House Of Shepher is a beautifully written book redolent of the spice of Hebrew legend. Interspersed with the story line of the Codex is the history of the family dating back to her great-grandfather Shalom Shepher and his strange quixotic obsession with the lost tribes of Israel. So obsessed with them in fact that he set out on a two year quest in search of them and returned claiming to have stayed with them for a good deal of the time.

It's a story about exile, from one's land and from one's dreams. Shulamit's parents are restless people whose lives are disturbed by reality not living up to their dreams. For her mother it was Israel not being the land of Milk and Honey but of intolerable heat, bad plumbing and a family who she couldn't speak to because she had no Hebrew.

Her father was discontented with life in prewar Israel and left to start a new life in England. But he became the ultimate exile there for his passport read he was the citizen of a country that no longer existed – Palestine- as of 1949. The irony is not lost on Shulamit that her father was a Jewish, stateless, Palestinian. It's not till their death that they both find peace in Israel, buried beside each other in the family plot.

Like the Codex each new generation of the family contains a variant that changes their meaning ever so slightly from the generation before them. Shulamit's brother Reuben completely rejects his past and claims to be the first generation. Reuben, now Mike, and his beautiful wife and angelic child will have nothing to do with the sadness and pain of being exiles.

But it also means they will know nothing of the wondrous myths and stories that have been the legacy of Shalom Shepher the scholar and his great quest for the lost tribes and his claims that through numerology and the proper Codex of the Torah one could figure out the exact date of the Messiah's arrival and the apocalypse. Somewhere among all his papers there might even exist the answer.

Even though Shulamit was born in and raised in England and finds the history and the weight of Jerusalem oppressive it's where her history is and it can't be forgotten. The introduction of the Codex and it's variants, a different blueprint to shape the world with no matter how slightly, has released her from the sadness and pain that dogged her parent's lives. She can travel between her two worlds easily; Jerusalem and England, and not feel like she doesn't belong.

The Genizah At The House Of Shepher is a story of wandering, exile and how difficult it is to find out where you belong. Moses never made it to the Promised Land, his God had ordained otherwise. He was allowed a glimpse into it, before being asked to give up his soul. She would not come willingly and it took all of God's love and strength to gather her to Him. Nobody likes not fulfilling their dreams.

Shulamit has seen the Promised Land and it is in herself and she can live there everyday. She only needs to have the strength to keep her promises to her self. The Genizah At The House Of Shepher is a story of choices and how, like the variations in the Codex, even the smallest can make a huge difference in the way our world turns out.

October 25, 2006

Book Review: Neil Gaiman American Gods

It used to be this world was a great place to be a God in; why only a few thousand years ago the heavens and earth were filled to bursting with all sorts of deities, spirits, demons, and things that go bump in the night. Put together any group of humans larger then a family unit and they were bound to have found someone who they counted on for guidance and arbitrary justice.

Things have changed in the past millennia; with the rise of monotheism and larger concentrations of humanity in single places individual Gods have fallen out of favour. If you're no longer in need of someone to guarantee a bountiful crop, or to provide aid to hunting parties it's pretty hard justifying the worship of the one who provided you with that assistance.

It must be bad enough as a deity having your raison d'être pulled out from under your feet, but compared to what's happened to some of your fellow travellers, you should be counting yourself lucky. Think of all those Gods who were uprooted by their adherents and taken to a new world only to be gradually forgotten about or dismissed as inadequate for the demands of their new lives.

One day it's all sacrifices and offerings, the next it’s the cold shoulder and you're left dumpster diving in order to survive. Who'd have thought the name that once caused the heavens themselves to tremble with their passage are reduced to begging for crumbs of belief and a snatch or two of prayer.

What must be even worse is seeing what has relegated them to the back of the bus. Modern man has taken to worshiping "things" or the means that enable him to accumulate things. Televisions, personal computers, cell phones, all have their own personifications making an appearance in the pantheon now.
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Such is the situation in the world you enter when you wander the pages of Neil Gaiman's American Gods published by Harper Perennial. (Just a quick note of thanks to HarperCollins Canada for supplying me with the books to review for this spotlight feature on Neil Gaiman at Blogcritics and where ever else these reviews are appearing) Immigrants and travellers to North America hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years in the past brought their deities with them. By carrying out their rituals of worship and carrying the names in their hearts they gave life to their Gods on this foreign soil.

From the blood thirsty warrior Gods of the Norseman to the spirits of the jungle of Africa they have all been left stranded without believers waiting for the inevitable ending when the last heart ceases to believe. For now they exist in various states of decrepitude, some better off than others, but mainly old people well past retirement age awaiting the end.

Like the majority of people Shadow is completely unaware of any of this (there's a paradox here waiting to be posed: if mortal man was aware of the fact that his ancient Gods were fading into oblivion, wouldn't that awareness be sufficient belief to prevent their fading) and given his circumstances he could easily be forgiven for not having any faith at all. He's just about finished a three-year stretch in prison and is eagerly awaiting his reunion with his wife. A good friend has even held his job for him so that he won't even have to worry about the black mark of "convict" on his resume.

Two days before his release he's called down to see the Warden and although prison and paranoia are close companions the news he's given is even worse than he could have imagined. His wife and best friend were killed in a car accident the previous night. In one stroke the future he had planned upon release is torn away and he is left bereft of anything resembling plans. (That they were found in a compromising position is just a bonus- the cherry on top so to speak of you worst case scenario for getting out of prison)

The first time Shadow meets the mysterious Mr. Wednesday is on his flight home from prison. Due to an overbooking he was seated in first class where the weird old man who somehow knew so much about him offered him a job. The man is so persistent that when the plane is forced to land due to inclement weather, instead of waiting for it to clear Shadow rents a vehicle to complete the trip by car.

But those whom the gods have selected, or however the saying goes, don't find it that easy to give them the slip. So it goes for Shadow, for who should be waiting for him at the diner he stops at for lunch but Mr. Wednesday (Woden's Day, Votan, Odin, all father of the Norse Gods) It's over lunch that Shadow first learns about the war that's in the offing between the Gods of the Old World and the Gods of New World. How even though the old ones are dying out the new ones are impatient and can't wait to shuffle them off this immortal coil.

As Mr. Wednesday explains it to Shadow the problem is that the New Gods feel threatened because they are afraid of being replaced and going out of fashion like the old ones are doing. They are the product of people's ever changing desires like the old Gods, but they like the things they represent come with built in obsoleteness. When anyone is scared, be they Gods or mortals, they look for a target they can lash out at, so they feel like they are accomplishing something.

In American Gods Mr. Gaiman show his deft touch of blending the fantastical and the mundane so that although a great number of the characters in the book are either Gods, spirits, or some other form of magical being the story always stays firmly rooted in the plausible. What else are the old Gods going to be like other than how they are depicted in this book?

Can you see any of them going quietly into a retirement home playing checkers and doing low impact aerobics until the end of time? No they are going to be out in the world making use of their understanding of human nature (running confidence games, doing a little fortune telling), or their natural abilities ( The Egyptian Gods of the underworld Thoth the Ibis, Anubus The Jackal, and Baast the Cat run a funeral parlour) to survive and blend into the world around them.

If you have any familiarity with ancient civilizations and their religions, it will be fun (at least it was for me) to try and figure out who everybody is. Mr. Gaiman has done his research and has included plenty of little clues as to who is who, and has developed their human selves from their Godly characteristics so as to accentuate who they are. What I found especially gratifying was the fact that he didn't attempt to make any concessions for their characters to make them more palatable for a modern audience.

It all of a sudden becomes harder to be sympathetic towards a character that demands human sacrifice as his or her due. Are you still ready to support the so called good guys in the war of the Gods, the one whose side Shadow is on, even when some of them have no problem devouring human beings and think nothing wrong with a throat being slit in their name?

But no matter what character flaws any of these deities might have, they are at least an extension of ourselves and seem far more real and earthy than the Goddess Media who talks like a Madison Avenue representative. Given the choice I know who I'd worship any day of the week.

As in most books by Neil Gaiman American Gods is wonderfully written with moments of transcendent splendour and glimpses into the darker side of human nature. But unlike so many writers today who seem to take great pleasure in only depicting the dark and slithery parts of our mind he maintains a balance that shows us although horror and violence exist so do hope and beauty.

One of things that I found interesting about this book is that he changed his style of writing with his change of locale. Other books I have read by him have all been set in England and there has been a certain tone to them, a way of putting words together on the page that was decidedly English. Here he has changed that so it feels like a book written by a North American.

This may not sound like much, but it is almost as hard for an author to write in another culture's voice as is it is for an actor to assume an accent and make it sound authentic, not an imitation. Mr. Gaiman manages the job so well that if you didn't know you'd think an American had written the book.

That may not sound like much of a big deal, but in order for this book to work it was essential for it to sound as authentic as possible because the location is such a key element in the book. God's are a reflection of the people they are worshipped by, and in the case of the aged and almost forgotten ones whose grip on survival is so tenuous, they no longer reflect the desires and manners of those who brought them here.

Gaiman's ability to accurately portray the people and expressions of America has to be spot on so that the differences are thrown into sharp relief. Anything less would have detracted from the story made it far more difficult for the reader to be drawn into the story.

Neil Gaiman is an author with a unique perception on the world that surrounds us, and even when he travels down paths that are familiar he is able to show us things in a manner we may not have thought of before. In American Gods he examines the way in which we believe and poses questions about belief that may cause some people disquiet. Belief is a very powerful weapon that can be exploited and used against those who are most devout, but it can also provide solace and comfort in times of need.

Perhaps it's not so important what you believe in, but more important that you believe at all. In American Gods we see how strong the power of belief can be. Without it Gods become just another collection of old immigrants bemoaning their lost opportunities but with it they are omnipotent. Kind of makes you wonder who needs who more doesn't it?

October 6, 2006

Book Review: Richard Wagamese Dream Wheels

Coming home has been a common theme in literature probably since before stories were written down. That doesn't just mean going to the physical place you were born or where your family lives, it also involves a psychological and spiritual journey to find that place inside that allows you to be comfortable in your skin.

In his latest book from Doubleday Books (a division of Random House Canada) Dream Wheels Canadian author Richard Wagamese tackles the concept of finding your war home from a number of character's perspectives. Although each person has their own journey to make their destination – with the slight variation signifying individuality- is the same. Home.

Home, in the physical sense, in the case of Dream Wheels comes in the form of the Wolfchild ranch, home to three generations of rodeo Indian/cowboys. Now an Indian cowboy might sound like an oxymoron to some people who get locked into stereotypes, but in the twentieth century anybody who can ride well and has a way with animals is appreciated on a ranch. It's only logical then that some of those people are going to be people of native descent, and some of them are going to get involved on the rodeo circuit.

The Wolfchild's have sent three generations of men into the rings to fight the broncos, hog tie the cows, and most dangerously ride the bulls. It's a bull that's caused the youngest of the Wolfchilds, Joe Willie, – the one who was considered the sure thing – to have to make his long trip home from inside the prison of the hurt and pain of being injured too badly to ever ride again.
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Claire Hartley and her fifteen-year-old son Aiden have never had a home. Claire was the daughter of a junkie who died when she was young, and hasn't found a place for herself in the world yet. She travels from man to man, looking for a home in the false promises of support they give her, until she feels like she is trapped with no way out.

When a friend of Aiden's botches a robbery and takes Aiden down with him, Claire knows she has to do something to save her son at least. With the aid of the lead detective on Aiden's case it is set up for them to travel to the Wolfchild ranch to see if the work and the life will help them both.

Wagamese enters the dangerous territory here of cliché. The angry urban black youth meets the angry rural Indian cowboy, after confrontation they find common ground and end up helping each other recover through their respective knowledge.

What saves this relationship, and the dynamic involved, is the authenticity Wagamese is able to bring to each of his characters and the unsentimental manner in which he treats them. They become real people in his hands, and everything they do or say is justified in terms of how he has had them thinking. It makes sense that the two, Joe Willie and Aiden are able to help each other because both of them come from the same place emotionally and whether they know it or not are looking to find the way they fit into the world.

Wagamese has written on these themes before; it's one that affects plenty of Native people, in his previous books. But this time he has shown how easy it is for anyone to become lost, even if they have the solid backing of family and tradition. You still have to choose to be a part of it, because no one can force you to.

Everything is about the choices you make is what it really comes down; even from the time you are small and choose to stand instead of to crawl. The natives in this book have a term for living by choices. They call it walking the good Red Road – not for the colour of their skin, but for the colour of the blood that flows through the deepest and darkest parts of your body. You have to choose whether or not you want to walk the road that brings you into balance with the world by having the courage to look right inside of your self with an honest assessment.

There's no way, they say, that you're going to find your way home if you can't first walk the path to self-awareness. How can you know what your home even looks like if you don't know who you are?

Now if all this sounds heavy and philosophical, and awkward to put into a book form, it might be in the hands of a lesser writer. But Wagamese manages to incorporate everything seamlessly into his story telling. The stuff I've talked about is never put so baldly that it stands out like a sore thumb or takes away from the story at hand.

One of the truly amazing aspects of this book is the way he takes us inside the head of the people who are still cowboys, who ride the backs of bulls. Somehow or other he is able to maintain the romance that most of us associate with the way of life, while at the same time making it real. We come to know and respect these people and their attitudes towards life and each other, not just because they are cowboys but because they are complete human beings.

Dream Wheels by Richard Wagamese is a great story about finding your way in an ever increasingly difficult world. While family and tradition are sure to help you, they can only offer you what you choose to accept. The toughest ride any of us can take is the ride along the path to self-awareness. Wagamese dispels the myths of there being any magic tricks or easy way of doing this, but at the same time he shows us what a liberating experience it can be.

Dream Wheels is a story of hope and courage which is never once mawkish or sentimental, making it one of the most powerful books of it's type on the market today. Canadian readers can order a copy of Dream Wheels through Random House Canada or Amazon.ca.

September 5, 2006

Book Review: King Of Ayodhya Book Six Of The Ramayana Ashok K. Banker

"Jai Sri Rama" Praised Be Rama was the exultation that roared from over half a million throats that gathered on the fields of battle in the island kingdom of Lanka.

"Jai Sri Rama" Praised Be Rama are words that have been repeated for the past 3,000 years by those who have read Valmiki's Ramayana.

"Jai Sri Rama" Praised Be Rama are the words taken up and repeated for readers all over the world in the 21st century by Ashok K. Banker and his modern retelling of The Ramayan. An ambitious project that has spanned six volumes and overcome seemingly insurmountable odds just to make it to bookstore in some countries, it has grown beyond being a simple retelling of a great epic, and come to epitomize the qualities that have led to millions of voices down through generations utter "Jai Sri Rama".

For as Rama adheres strictly to his dharma no matter how tempting it may be to choose and easier path, no matter how much everyone would understand and forgive him if he were to bend even just a millimetre, this retelling of The Ramayana has stayed the course over its six volumes. Not once, as far as my eyes, ears and heart can tell, has Mr. Banker deviated from what he began in the first line of the first book, (Prince Of Ayodhya) a contemporary version that offers no compromises to expedience or fashion.

His Rama is the devotee of dharma whose story has been told by grandparents to their grandchildren, who in turn had heard it from their grandparents. In spite of being written in the language of the twenty-first century I doubt that emotionally or spiritually there is little to separate the Rama who walks the pages of these six books as he who was first immortalized in formal words by the sage thief Valmiki three thousand years earlier.

I can offer no proof of this, not being steeped in the culture or the history of these books or the people they speak to the most directly, I am obviously no expert on these matters. All I can do is report on how they have moved me and increased my understanding of the culture I knew so little of before reading these offerings.

If you have read me often enough you may have seen me write something along the lines that if you want to learn anything about a people, read their stories. History books won't tell you anything about a people, and neither will anthropological studies on their methods of worship and their social practices. You need to read what they have read and listened to far more then you need to read about them.

I can't remember what inspired me to pick up Prince Of Ayodhya in the bookstore. I do remember wondering about it for a few weeks before deciding to try it out. Because of the way the first book was packaged in North America I had assumed it was a fantasy story based on what we in the west would refer to as Indian mythology. Even reading that it was a modern retelling of a traditional epic didn't do much to change that initial impression.

It was only when I began reading that I realized I had stumbled upon something far more special then the simple sword and sorcery tale set in classical India as I was anticipating. Instead I was transported back to a time when the three planes of existence were a lot closer to each other, and the Deva and Devi would still walk the earth alongside mortals, and the Asura demons were still an everyday threat to mortal kind.

When I began reading the series the first three books were already released, so I was able to quickly follow the first with Siege Of Mithila and Demons Of Chitrakut and watch in helpless frustration as the plans of Ravana (He Who Made The Universe Scream) the king of the Asura unfold so that even though he had succumbed to a defeat in battle so complete it looked like he could never rise again, he was successful is sowing disunity among his vanquishers and having Rama exiled from his own throne in the days after his greatest triumphs.

Books four and five, Armies Of Hanuman and Bridge Of Rama were released in approximately annual intervals – depending on which country you lived in. As Rama, his wife Sita and his brother Lakshman prepared to end their years of warfare in the wilderness and their exile, to return and assume their rightful places as King, Consort and Prince at the onset of Armies Of Hanuman Ravana re-entered the picture. Having lured both Rama and Lakshman away he kidnaped Sita and absconded with her back to his island kingdom of Lanka where he prepares to play out the final acts in this drama.

Throughout Armies Of Hanuman and Bridge of Rama while Rama is assembling his forces for and planning his assault on the island vastness of Lanka, Ravana is playing some disingenuous game. In some ways the more he reveals to us what his intentions are the less we understand what he is doing. Every trap he lays, every lure he dangles are layered with hidden meanings. Even in his treatment of Sita he is surprisingly solicitous and careful, even to the point of protecting her from the clutches of other rakshasas that would see her harmed.

By the time that King Of Ayodhya opens all that we are sure of is there will be war, and the war will be of a magnitude beyond our imaginations. Rama's forces made up of the vanar and bears who were marshalled in Bridge Of Rama number close to a half million. Ravana's forces are not as substantial, but are heavily armed and armoured while their opponents come at them with teeth, claws and fur.

While Rama's forces are augmented by Hanuman, the illegitimate son of the God of wind and his preternatural abilities to grow to an enormous size and utilize supernatural strength, the Lankans are led by one of the most accomplished sorcerers the world has ever known. Before the battle has even been joined, before they ever reach his island, Ravana is able to wreck havoc with their efforts and slaughter them by the thousands.

What terrors will he have in store for them once they actually make it onto the island? How about causing the island itself to rise up and take its toll of vanar and bear life as Ravana reshapes it into a form that will allow him advantage in the battles to come? Or creating new breeds of rakshanas that can take away the advantage the vanar's speed and agility give them. But perhaps most horrific, and the thing that comes closest to turning the tide in Ravana's favour, is the corpses of their dead comrades coming back to life to attack Rama's soldiers.

It is only with the timely utilization of a gift that Rama had received on his way into exile, a gift he promised never to use for only his own protection, that Rama was able to stop the slaughter. The Bow of Shiva can only be drawn and fired with aid of the power of Brahma to assist the archer and if the conditions of its usage are strictly adhered too. With the arrow from that bow Rama is able to negate the sorcery of Ravana that caused the dead to re animate and the first battles of the war are finally brought to a close.

Rama versus Ravana. It seems on the surface like the classic battle between good and evil. Rama the rightful king of his people, deposed through deceit, his wife kidnapped, and coerced into a war he wants nothing to do with against Ravana the scourge of all planes of existence. He even invaded the home of the Gods and gave them such a fright they sued him for peace and promised to never directly interfere in his wars against mortals in exchange for leaving them alone.

Ravana the monster with ten heads and six arms whose prodigious appetites have sired countless children throughout the realms and fierce tempers have taken countless lives versus Rama the devoted husband and loving son who is worshipped by his people and all who meet him. Rama, Ravana, Ravana, Rama: two sides of a spinning coin and which ever side lands heads up will dictate the shape of the universe.

But are they; is that truly the nature of their relationship? Yes their actions are diametrically opposed; anything that is good or decent Ravana will do his best to destroy, while Rama will do his best to protect the same. But without Ravana what is there to compare Rama against? Can there be the ultimate example of dharma if there is nothing that opposes that path?

Mr. Banker also inserts some slivers of doubt into the ending, muddying the waters even further. Why would Ravana say to Rama the following before the final battle? "Every hero must have a villain to destroy, in order to prove himself a hero. But not every villain needs a hero in order to prove himself a villain…I existed long before you, Rama Chandra, came into this world in this form and I will exist again and again and again, long after you take your samadhi and depart this mortal coil"

In the end was Ravana only fulfilling his dharma? Playing out his part in an eternal dance that is beyond the concepts of good and evil, as we know them? Is Ravana doomed to play out these steps for a different Rama each time the world needs him so that a Rama can be generated?

As has been the case in the previous five books of Ashok Banker's modern Ramayan his use of imagery and description are so powerful that it takes almost no effort to visualise the scene on the page as pictures in your head. Whether you are crouched with a vanar in the crook of a tree or soaring high above Lanka with Ravana in the Pushpak you see each individual leaf as if it were in front of you, or the vast panorama as if it were laid out at your feet.

Even more incredible are the battle scenes. Somehow he manages to covey the insanity and horror that occurs doing close creature-to-creature combat and brings you into the thick of the battle, without making it particularly gruesome. Even more amazing is that within the hubbub and chaos he creates pockets of time where we learn more about individual vanars and bears then in the previous books combined (with the obvious exception to Hanuman of course)

Almost fifteen years ago a young prince set out from his home with his brother in the footsteps of a guru who had requested their aid to help rid the woods in the outer reaches of the kingdom of a horrible giant and her mutated creatures. Now fifteen years later, after taking the long road home dictated by dharma he is ready to return to pick up the crown that he has been denied all these years.

Over the course of six books Ashok K. Banker has led us on a remarkable journey that has not only been highly enjoyable to read, but represents an extraordinary accomplishment. He has brought a character out of the mists of time, and put the name of Rama on the lips of people all over the world.

"Jai Sri Rama" Praised be Rama indeed, but also praise to Ashok Banker for embodying the spirit of Rama with his achievement.

March 7, 2006

Book Review: The Great Western Divide John Spivey


We are told that primitive man lived in perpetual fear of the dark until he discovered fire. With its discovery was created a circle within which safety was assured. Fire, technology, has pushed back the darkness, and its accompanying fear, until we have reached the stage where there is so little darkness that we no longer even recognize it.

While for early humans the fears were real and tangible; there were things that went bump in the night, and were more than happy to eat them, and the light provided by fire was a necessity for survival, that is not the case for contemporary people. The light we have now does not serve to keep our community safe from predators and physical harm; it actually encourages us to live in fear by blinding us to its existence.

Our technology, combined with a philosophy that deems time not spent in gainful pursuit sinful, ensures that there is little or no room left for introspection. Without those moments of pause, seconds in which we can catch our breath, we are denied the opportunity to examine the fears that dominate us.

Although our attitudes have changed in recent years towards the practice of psychiatry and other analytical processes, there is still a stigma attached to those who have made use of these facilities. Conversely, there has been an outbreak of "Self-help" books that offer band-aid solutions, but very little assistance of substance.

Ten Easy Steps That Will Make You A Better You could be the subtitle for all of these books. Each of them promises to put a bounce in your step, a smile on your face, and if you're really doing well, money in your pocket. Come to the light is their empty promise and false blandishment. Blind yourself even further so you can forget the misapprehensions and fears you have about your life and the world.

It is fitting, that in the opening of his book, The Great Western Divide John Spivey invites us to sit at a fire with him. It's a small fire, only bright enough to illuminate the author's and the reader's faces as they sit together with the ancient darkness pressing in around them. It's a very small circle of safety that he offers, both for himself and those who are listening.

Fires have always been places where we can gather for story telling, even today a lot of us have memories of camp cookouts where the fire became brighter as the night deepened. Then the stories would be told. Usually stories that made us scared of the dark, stories that made us recall primitive times by huddling closer to the safety of the flames.

John has some stories he wants to tell us, and some of them are stories about the dark outside of the circle of light he has created. But his stories about the dark aren't meant to scare us away from its inky blackness; they are to help us penetrate the darkness lying inside of us that dictates our behaviour.

He has histories to tell us that span over 150 years of live in the Great Western Divide where his family settled in the 1800's. Some of them are personal, some are of the land, and some are of people who lived out their lives here a century before most of us were born. Each one of the stories is designed as an example for the point he is making at the time

We listen as he tells us of the exploration, development, and rape of the land surrounding the Southern Sierra Nevada. Years of government policy that gradually leached the water out of the ground by diverting and damming rivers, and draining marshland combined with the practice of growing only oranges has turned a once lush land arid.

Loggers and settlers seeing the Giant Sequoias dreamed of money and ravaged the forests. But unlike her redwood cousin, she was so brittle that the act of felling her splintered the wood so badly she was only good for fence posts.

As the environment around them changed so did the people. Not just the native population was affected by the changes, although they were the first to vanish, so too did the white population with the replacement of personal farms with agribusiness. But before that happened the first peoples as always were the first affected. John offers Hale Tharp's first hand observation of what happened and as an example of what is must be like to be intimately connected to the land you live in.

By the spring of 1862, quite a number of whites had settled in the Three Rivers area…the Indians had contracted contagious diseases from the whites…and they died off by the hundreds. I helped to buy twenty-seven in one day…Chief Chappo …came to see me and asked me to try to stop the whites from coming…When I said it was impossible, they all sat down and cried…their people loved this country, did not want to leave it, and knew not where to go…I think that by the summer of 1863 the Indians had left the district…I don't know what has become of them now. John Spivey, The Great Western Divide, Crows Cry Press, 2006, p.120-121

John feels that one of the reasons we are so lost and scared is that we have no means of connection to the place where we were born. As a species we have drifted away from the love of place that these people had, we don't belong anywhere anymore.

Near the beginning of the book, John asks you across the fire:

What did you see when you first looked into your parent's eyes? Did you gain a small taste of infinity submerged in the depths of your parent's love? Did you gain a first glimpse of who you really are reflected and magnified in the lens of their being? Or did you fall into the emptiness of their self-absorption and pain, the emptiness of being buried beneath their beliefs about life? ibid, p.37

By telling his personal story, John shows us how a person's spirit can be destroyed, and our fears are developed. Sometimes the inheritance left us is more than just physical possessions and monetary gain. We could be carrying emotional scars that dates back generations and with each new birth the wound is opened afresh.

Fears and beliefs about ourselves born in childhood can govern our behaviour for the rest of our lives unless we have the strength and determination to look into those dark places inside that scare us. The memories of actions that shame us the most are always a good place to start, because to find out why you did that will tell you so much about who and what you are. It's not looking for excuses, according to John, but explanations. Once you understand why you act like you do it’s a lot easier to affect change.

I've sensitive radar for what I call self-aggrandisement through pain and suffering. "Look at how amazing I am for having been through so much" stories that are told just for no purpose other than the author's need to inflict themselves upon others are the worst excuse for writing around these days.

John doesn't even come close to approaching this territory. He's writing about himself because that's what he knows best, and he serves as a good example for what he is trying to talk about. His journey into his personal darkness is told for a purpose; a road map of the ongoing process of self-exploration, not an exercise in self – flagellation like is so popular today.

You can't help but be moved by his experiences, but by the manner in which he recounts his story, and tells the stories of others, you know that you would have felt the same emotions if he had been talking of someone else. It is the sign of a great storyteller that he or she can talk about personal issues and not make it a cry for attention.

The Great Western Divide is not about John Spivey. He's one example cited along the way. His is not the only story that is being told in these pages, nor is it only his family, others like Hale Tharp quoted above make their entrances to be examples, offer advice, and serve as warnings.

Earlier I said his stories aren't meant to frighten us away from the darkness, but teach us to examine it. That does not mean that this book will not scare a lot of people. It asks you to take things you hold dear, accept as normal and right, and look at them in a different light. That is a very intimidating task that not many of our prepared to take on.

As an aside, and on a personal note, what was nice for me was to see someone articulate a lot of the things that I believe personally in such a thoughtful and intelligent manner. This book is such a refreshing change from what is out there; there's no divine message from angels, or channelling spirits from ancient cultures substantiating his theories. It's one man having the courage and the integrity to speak his mind about what he believes in.

Some of the theories, like childhood conditioning affecting behaviour for the rest of your life, are accepted theories of modern psychology, and some are hypothesises that he has generated from his own experiences. He's not proselytising a religion or a lifestyle or selling classes that in just seven days will make you a man, oh sorry, enlightened.

All he's asking is you sit by the fire with him for a while and listen to the stories he has to tell. What you get out them is up to you. I personally agree with everything he says, but seeing as how I started a similar journey twelve years ago, that's not surprising.

Just remember one thing before you start reading, you don't have to be afraid of the dark, because after a while your eyes will adjust and you'll be able to see. Think of The Great Western Divide as the infrared glasses you need to get you started and you'll be fine.


April 1, 2005

Book Review: Ashok Banker The Ramayana Books 1-3

Before I get to the main course of this post a quick note on the whole Terry Schiavo thing. It was with a huge sigh of relief that I heard the poor women finally passed over. Its a huge regret that some people feel it is essential to impose their own morality on others. Thankfully the people who founded the United States set up their famous series of checks and balances: Three levels of government, President, Congress, and the Judiciary to keep each other in line. It looks like the next major political battle in the steps will be how much the Conservative Christian Right can influence the shaping of the Supreme Court. Keep eyes open for danger signs.

I can't think of a greater delight then the discovery of an author previously unknown. In the last few months I've been fortunate to discover four such wonders. Even better, as far as I was concerned, was that each of them have published either a continuing series of books or a completed series, so there is no end of fodder for my considerable appetite. I have to have something to do while waiting for the next installment of Harry Potter!!!

Ashok K. Banker's adaptation of the 3,000 year old epic Ramayana is in some ways the most exotic, and therefore to Western eyes, perhaps the least approachable. But the author has ensured that no ones enjoyment be diminished no matter what their cultural background(interestingly enough he has been forced to re-issue the book for a strictly Indian audience, the international edition containing information redundant to that public) The inclusion of an extensive glossary of Sanskrit words and concepts and the back of each volume hastens enjoyment and comprehension.

The Ramayana was written by the original good thief Valamika who far predates the one mentioned in the story of Christ. As atonement for his past sins Valamika became a sage and created this story to teach the values needed to lead the exemplary life. As in all epics there is a Hero, Crown Prince Rama of Ayodhya, a beautiful princess(his wife Sita), his loyal companions, the flawed but basically good father, and a villain, in this case the personification of Evil the head of the demon world Ravana.

Lushly written with love and devotion the books are a fine introduction for those of us who have little or no understanding of the culture and history of one of the oldest societies in the world. If you are like me your and understanding of India has been limited to seeing the occasional Bollywood movie and various western interpretations of eastern beliefs these books are a breath of fresh air. Alive and vital they manage to entertain and educate simultaneously.

At no time during the reading of the stories did I feel Mr. Banker overtly explaining concepts and ideas central to the belief system extolled to the detriment of the story. His wise use of incidents and characters (which is the manner of all good epics and parables)served to fill in the copious blanks in my knowledge with out once making me feel like the story was being interrupted. Soon after beginning I was able to just sit back and enjoy the lush panorama unfolding before me without worrying about missing out on any key points of the tale.

A word of warning. Do not do what I did. That was sit down and attempt to read through all three books in sequence one after the other. As with all piquant items one must give the palate a rest between courses or risk a dulling of the senses. These are books to be savored as a delicacy, take your time and don't rush or you run the risk of missing out on the nuances of taste at your disposal.

cheers

gypsyman


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