Showing posts with label what i'm reading. Show all posts
Showing posts with label what i'm reading. Show all posts

1.17.2019

a reading plan for 2019: the year of the biography?

A new biography of Frederick Douglass has gotten glowing reviews, and as Douglass is one of my great heroes -- one of the greatest Americans -- I definitely want to read it.

This made me realize how many biographies I've been putting on The List and not reading. The one that's been on The List, unread, longest is Arnold Rampersad's biography of Jackie Robinson. Rampersad was the first biographer to have full access to Robinson's letters and other papers, as well as Rachel Robinson's approval and cooperation. It came out in 1998, and I'm reading it now.

Others on The List:
Peter Ackroyd's Dickens (1990) -- at more than 1,000 pages, this one is intimidating
Orwell: A Life, Bernard Crick (1992)
Helen Keller: A Life, Dorothy Hermann (1998)
Galileo, Watcher of the Skies, David Wootton (2013)
Ali: A Life, Jonathan Eig (2017)
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Caroline Fraser (2017)

So I'm thinking, for my own reading, maybe this is the Year of the Biography. In between the bios, I would read other books as palate cleansers. I'm working my way through a mystery series -- very unusual for me to read an entire series, but I'm really enjoying Henning Mankell's Wallender books. Those will be great in between big fat biographies, plus there are always random titles I pick up at the library.

Will it all get boring? I'm going to try it -- with the understanding that I can drop it if I want. Also that it might take more than one year. That's all right, as I plan to be alive and reading next year, too.

I noticed we last chatted about my reading plans here. Readers had some very good advice... that I'm still working on.

1.16.2019

what i'm reading: occupy nation by todd gitlin

Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street is a history and ethnography of Occupy Wall Street, and the Occupy movement. Author, sociologist, and longtime leftist activist Todd Gitlin has written an account of how a social movement was born, grew, and died. After reading it, I felt utter despair at our ability to create a more democratic political system, and a more just economic system. I'm pretty sure that's not what Gitlin was going for!

It's easy to forget how present the Occupy movement became -- how quickly it spread, the attention it drew, how it forced a change in the terms of the debate. Hundreds of thousands of people in nearly 1,000 cities around the globe took part in Occupy demonstrations. The expression "the 99%" entered a common vocabulary. Occupy focused public and media attention on income inequality in a way I had not seen in my lifetime. Together with the Fight for 15, Occupy made labour and economic issues truly visible for the first time in many decades.

Gitlin does a good job of situating Occupy within the context of other progressive movements in the US, and to some extent, globally. I was most interested in his analysis of Occupy's inner workings. How did the movement grow? How was it governed? How were ideas put forward, how were actions chosen, who created the strategy, and how was it carried out? That's what I found so depressing. Occupy was strangled by its own ideals.

Occupy organizers wanted to create a participatory (as opposed to representative) democracy; they had a strong commitment to a leaderless structure where all voices were equal. It was meant to be a "prefigurative" movement -- a movement that reflects the world it wants to build.

Occupy's commitment to participatory democracy helped it quickly spread and grow, as people felt included and heard. But movements need goals, agendas, strategies. Movements need mechanisms to build consensus, to break bottlenecks, to ensure participation while still moving forward. And movements need leaders. Leaders arise very naturally in all situations; processes are needed to allow those leaders to lead, while still ensuring constant communication and participation at every level.

The "interminable meetings of fractious and dogmatic Occupiers" (as a Kirkus review puts it) eventually became unsustainable. There was no direction or plan for moving forward. There were too many ideas for forward movement, but no road taken.

None of this means Occupy was useless or accomplished nothing. I've written a lot about that and I don't want to repeat it all here. Occupy was an incredibly positive phenomenon. But it was unsustainable.

It's easy to create change from the top down -- to impose a strong will on others -- at least for a short period of time. But change from the ground up, a true grassroots movement, is infinitely more time-consuming and exponentially more difficult to build. It's also incredibly fragile, especially if the movement insists on being democratic and inclusive.

After reading this book, I felt, and certainly not for the first time, that building a new social system is all but impossible.

Of course, reform is possible. We can force reforms onto the present system, tiny bits of social democracy grafted onto a grossly capitalist system -- social security, public education, minimum labour standards. Everything that comprises the social safety net is such a reform. But reform is always too weak. Reforms leave too many people out, and they prop up a corrupt and unjust system. And as we know, those reforms can be withdrawn, or weakened so badly that they might as well not exist.

Moving from a nominally representative democracy to authoritarianism of any stripe is so easy. The playbook perfected in the 20th century has never gone out of fashion. Lies, propaganda, scapegoating -- create and sustain fear -- suppress the opposition -- repeat repeat repeat. The recipe is so effective, because it asks so little -- follow me blindly -- and apparently is very satisfying to large numbers of people.

Moving from that nominally representative democracy to something truly democratic and responsive to the needs of the people can never be accomplished through reforms. But is reform all we can get?

I know how almost everyone reading this answers that question. And I hate when I answer it the same way. Gitlin's book reinforced that dreaded answer for me. The answer I (try so hard to) refuse to believe.

1.01.2019

what i'm reading: hunger by roxane gay

During the Ontario provincial election, after a hack from the Toronto Sun drew attention to an unpopular view that I had expressed some years earlier, I was the object of right-wing attacks by email and on social media.

Many of these wingnuts referenced my weight in various disgusting ways. This shocked me because, although I am overweight, I'm not unusually heavy, not large enough to be remarkable. No matter. Total strangers mocked me for being overweight, using a whole slew of pejoratives and curse-words. I had never experienced that before.

I confess that even though I couldn't possibly care less what trolls think of me, each time this happened, I felt a brief pang of humiliation and embarrassment. I've always been impervious to right-wing bullying; if anything, I wear it with pride. But these taunts hurt, if only for a split-second. I wish this weren't true. I'm embarrassed to admit it.

I thought of this experience as I read Roxane Gay's powerful book, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. I imagined what it might be like to feel that humiliation and embarrassment all the time, multiplied a thousandfold, day in and day out, year after year. To experience this so often and so typically that you come to expect it and imagine it, even when it might not be happening. I tried to imagine the psychic cost.

Gay makes it easy to imagine and to empathize, as she lays bare her thoughts and emotions in a way few memoirists dare. She lays open her heart to the reader. Even more than that. She opens a vein. Few writers allow themselves to be so vulnerable, so emotionally naked. It's impressive, and sometimes painful to read. I felt that Gay is asking us to bear witness. That's not comfortable or easy to do; it's not supposed to be.

Hunger and Gay's unsettling candor is not just about her weight. It's about why she first began to overeat, to build an armor between her and the world. When she was 12 years old, Gay survived an extremely brutal rape -- a gang rape, in fact, organized by someone she loved and trusted. The circumstances surrounding the assault -- who the perpetrator was, and Gay's relationship to him both before and after the attack -- add even more layers of horror.

Overwhelmed by shame and self-blame, Gay never told her parents. For a long time, she never told anyone. Her isolation amplified her feelings of worthlessness, and set her on the path of an extreme eating disorder.

Gay is a committed and informed feminist. Yet she carries an overwhelming hatred of her body, and an almost elemental self-blame and self-hate.
It would be easy to pretend I am just fine with my body as it is. I wish I did not see my body as something for which I should apologize or provide explanation. I'm a feminist and I believe in doing away with the rigid beauty standards that force women to conform to unrealistic ideals. I believe we should have broader definitions of beauty that include diverse body types. I believe it is so important for women to feel comfortable in their bodies, without wanting to change every single thing about their bodies to find that comfort. I (want to) believe my worth as a human being does not reside in my size or appearance. I know, having grown up in a culture that is generally toxic to women and constantly trying to discipline women's bodies, that is important to resist unreasonable standards for how my body or any body should look.

What I know and what I feel are two very different things.
I think most of us can relate to a gap between what we know and what we feel. Much of Hunger resides in that gap.

Gay writes about how her size and her self-loathing impact everything in her life -- travel, dining in restaurants, shopping, public speaking, exercise. And of course, her relationships. In short, she writes about what it's like to be very fat in a fat-phobic world -- and by extension, what it's like to be a woman in a world where the female appearance is relentlessly policed and judged.

Some of the best pieces in Hunger focus on reality television, the weight-loss industry, and the culture of celebrity fat-shaming. I'm no stranger to this material, but Gay's analysis is trenchant and bracing.

Her writing is spare, and it is blunt. Where it shines the brightest -- and paradoxically, where it's most difficult to read -- is her analysis of the aftermath and enduring effects of the rape. Throughout, she connects her private struggles to the larger public sphere.

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body is an important book, both deeply personal and staunchly political.

If you're interested but don't think you'll read it, here are two very good reviews: The New Yorker and The Guardian.

7.31.2018

what i'm reading: collected (and amazing) nonfiction by saul bellow

When the author Saul Bellow died in 2005 at the age of 90, I was saddened and disappointed by the scant attention paid to his passing. Bellow was one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century. His novels are still relevant, in a way that many of past generations are not. And his writing... his writing is simply astounding.

With this in mind, and my love of nonfiction, I looked forward to reading There Is Simply Too Much To Think About, a collection of Bellow's nonfiction. I assumed that Bellow's intelligence, insight, compassion, and precise command of language would make for some fascinating reading. I was right.

The essays, speeches, and literary criticism collected in this volume display a towering intellect, but not a cold one. Bellow's view of the world is always humane and compassionate. He observes keenly, he understands deeply, but he also feels deeply. His gift is the ability to convey that feeling in a way that feels completely novel, bringing the reader new insights into the human condition.

There Is Simply Too Much To Think About recalls, for me, my favourite nonfiction collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace. Both Bellow and Wallace are willing to play out a train of thought as far as it will take them, both broadly and deeply. Both were gifted observers who possessed an astounding command of language. But beyond all that (which is a lot), both observed with compassion, and with love.

At the time Wallace was writing the essays collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing, novels, film, and visual arts were stuck in the ironic mode. Everyone was jaded; everything was viewed with rolled eyes. Wallace wrote about the overuse of irony, and in his own work, he eschewed that orientation for something more meaningful, and more compassionate. (If you're not familiar with this, this piece in Salon may be useful, and if you want more, Wallace's "คาสิโนออนไลน์ แจกเครดิตฟรี 2019E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction".)

Bellow, of course, didn't grow up in a world of ironic observation, but he similarly comments on an orientation from his own eras -- the academy, and the theoretical approach to literature. In many of the essays in There Is Simply Too Much, Bellow discourses on his own methods as being free from theory. He digresses to tell us, in essence, that he writes from his heart and his mind -- and he hopes you will read with yours. Bellow wants us to stand in front of a work of art and gasp at its beauty, and be awed by the emotions that beauty stirs in us -- not read about that art in a guidebook, or worse, be told what it symbolizes.

The writing collected in There Is Simply Too Much, selected by Benjamin Taylor, is organized chronologically, but there's no reason to read it that way. For me this is a book to dip into, to read in bits and pieces, perhaps in between novels. The writing is extremely clear and precise, lively and not dense, but it's heady stuff, requiring time and thought. Reading it from start to finish could be a test of endurance, and there's no point turning such good writing into a drudgery.

These essays contain a huge number of references to people that readers may not be familiar with, both because their fame may not have made it to our era, and because Bellow must have been the most well-read man in the world. Some of the references I knew, others I was able to understand through context, and for a few, I employed Google. In the endnotes, editor Benjamin Taylor explains:
Bellow's references are typically to well-known persons and phenomena and I have preferred not to impose on the reader with unnecessary footnotes. If certain of his allusions are less familiar, details about Viscount Bryce, Elbert Hubbard, Freud's Rat Man, Boob McNutt, Colonel Bertie McCormick, Billie Sol Estes and Oh! Calcutta! are nowadays at one's fingertips.
Given how many footnotes would have been needed -- how often the flow of Bellow's writing would have been interrupted -- I applaud Taylor's choice.

The book jacket blurb calls this book "a guided tour of the twentieth century...conducted by one of modern life's most inspiring minds". I'll go with Taylor's words, as he thanks Janis Freedman Bellow, Bellow's wife and partner: it is "a book of wonders".

7.22.2018

what i'm re-reading: the ax by donald westlake and other literary thrillers

I've just re-read* one of my all-time favourites: The Ax by Donald Westlake. I'm agog with how much I love this book. But first, the requisite blather.

* * * *

One of my favourite kind of books -- although I don't read them frequently -- is a mystery, detective story, crime thriller, or spy thriller that transcends its genre and is also a literary novel.

The definition of literary is always a bit squirrely -- and of course always somewhat subjective --  but in general, a genre novel is generally plot-driven, and follows a formula that readers of that genre recognize. The writing itself is not particularly important, and may be mediocre, passable, or worse.

The best-selling titles in the genres I've mentioned are all about plot, pacing, and recognizable character types. But I just can't get past the writing. I can't stand reading mediocre writing, no matter how good the rest of the package.

So for me, a crime, hard-boiled mystery, or spy novel, with an intricate, surprising plot, interesting, fully realized characters, and truly excellent writing -- that is a great find. From my own limited reading, the pinnacle has been Graham Greene. But whenever I read a book review that sounds like a literary thriller, I put it on my list.

In the past, I didn't read in this category very often. Years would go by when I completely forgot about it! But these days I'm looking for these books more frequently. I like to intersperse fiction and nonfiction, and while there's an overwhelming supply of great nonfiction out there, I find myself bored or unsatisfied with so much fiction. So more and more, I find myself looking for quality mysteries, detective stories, and thrillers. (I don't read a series straight through, all in a row. I read other books in between and return to the series.)

Right now I'm slowly working my way through Henning Mankell's Wallander series, Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce novels, and all the Donald Westlake -- under any name -- that I can get my hands on. (Westlake's Parker series, written under his Richard Stark pseudonym, are genre novels. But damn, they are addictive. They are potato chips!) Olen Steinhauer, Ted Mooney, and Martin Clark are others I've enjoyed. I've also loved reading classics by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler (which I wrote about here). I haven't had much luck with the noir classics by James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, and James Ellroy, but I'm still trying.

* * * *

So, The Ax. Why do I love this book?

It is built on a fascinating premise, and a plot line that is a both a shocking roller-coaster and eminently believable.

It has a very strong anti-capitalist point of view, a thread that runs through the entire book, without any soapboxing or author intrusion (something I have zero patience for).

It is a psychological study of a man losing his moral compass, and how humans rationalize and accommodate evil.

It's a philosophical study of social mores and ethics -- and how what's permissible on one scale is criminal on another.

The main character changes gradually and credibly, so that the reader is aware of the changes before the character's self-awareness -- and self-deception -- catches up.

It's a meditation on violence, not only physical violence, but the psychic violence of capitalism, and how they are linked.

And all this is wrapped up in a brilliant plot and a bone-chilling crime novel.

* * * *

From the New York Times 1997 review:
Donald E. Westlake has caught and logged our unspoken fiscal dread in a novel of excruciating brilliance. His protagonist, Burke Devore, is Homo reductus, Downsized man: out of work in the processed paper industry for month after stupefying month, about to lose the wife (Marjorie) and children (Betsy and Billy) he can no longer support, bitter, desperate, made furious by an economic system in which stock prices go up when (and even because) people get axed. . . .

With trenchant and subtle special pleading, Devore will convince himself -- and almost convince his agonized readers as well -- that it is justifiable homicide to kill.... That, in fact, such an act constitutes not murder at all, but an act of self-defense. "If the alternative is despair and defeat and grinding misery and growing horror for Marjorie and Betsy and Billy and me, why shouldn't I kill him, the son of a bitch? How could I not kill him, given what's at stake here?"

. . . .

As novels go, "The Ax" is pretty much flawless, with a surprise ending that will unplug your expectations. Burke Devore is American Man at the millennium -- as emblematic of his time as George F. Babbitt and Holden Caulfield and Capt. John Yossarian were of theirs. Westlake has written a remarkable book. If you can't relate to it, be thankful.
* I rarely re-read anything, with these notable exceptions: 1984, The Grapes of Wrath, Winter's Tale (Mark Helprin), Wuthering Heights, and selected Charles Dickens.

6.30.2018

what i'm reading: running the books: the adventures of an accidental prison librarian

I read this book many months ago. I'm still catching up from my involuntary blogging hiatus.

Last year I read and wrote about The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men's Prison. I found it extremely disappointing; if you read the review, you will catch my understatement.

Avi Steinberg's Running the Books starts out disappointing, but once it kicks in, is a wonderfully satisfying and beautifully written book. When we meet Steinberg, he is somewhat adrift, having abandoned his religious studies at Yeshiva University, escaping to Harvard, but graduating with no discernible direction or passion to find one. The writing is snarky and self-deprecating; the tone is pure staccato. I thought Running the Books might be one of those "guy reads" that I find shallow and irritating.

But when Steinberg accepts a position as a prison librarian -- with no experience in either prisons or libraries -- the writing slows down, and it blossoms. Perhaps the early tone was meant to reflect Steinberg's state of mind at the time, because one thing becomes very clear: this man can write.

Steinberg introduces the reader to the prisoners -- both men and women -- who frequent his library, with a keen eye for detail, a wry humour, and a voice suffused with compassion.

The library is a prison hang-out, a somewhat less supervised space where inmates can interact a bit more freely. In this way, Steinberg is witness to interactions an outsider normally would never see. Steinberg also runs a writing class, where inmates reveal bits of their lives and emotions.

The library also functions as an underground post office: prisoners leave each other messages -- known as "kites" -- in books. Many of these messages are romantic in nature, as the male and female inmates live in separate areas, and their paths rarely cross. Steinberg is supposed to destroy these notes, but he cannot bring himself to be so punitive about communication. He copies the messages into a notebook, and they form a sad, lonely core at the heart of this book.

I really liked Steinberg's writing, but I liked his point of view even more. He writes about the inmates with open eyes, not trying to romanticize or sugar-coat their crimes, but also with an open heart, one that recognizes the social complexities that may bring one person to prison and the other to rehab, with completely different outcomes. He is clearly changed by his experience, but he leaves it up to the reader to judge both how he changed, and how much.

Reading Steinberg's book revived my interest in volunteering at a prison library. One future day, when I am no longer a local union president, I hope to see that through.

A reader at this earlier post suggested The Prison Book Club by Canadian writer Ann Walmsley. A review of that book and the controversy that followed is here. I have it on my list.

6.24.2018

rip philip roth

I was literally reading this article in The New York Times about Philip Roth when I heard he had died. It's a wonderful story: an 85-year-old celebrated author who has come to the end of his career with no regrets, is grateful to wake up every morning, and is now bingeing on nonfiction to learn more and more about the world. I was so happy for him, experiencing an old age we all deserve, but so many never find.

I've read many of Philip Roth's novels, and have many more still to go. He can be a challenging read, sometimes deceptively simple, sometimes confounding, almost always thought-provoking and worthwhile. If you haven't read The Plot Against America, I recommend it highly.

To me Roth is best remembered as the author who taught me about the bright line between fiction and autobiography, and that readers would do well to stop conflating the two (although they never will). Critics and readers were obsessed with this question, and seemingly could not see Roth's novels through any other lens. The Guardian quotes him:
I write fiction, and I’m told it’s autobiography. I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction, so since I’m so dim and they’re so smart, let them decide.
Roth grew so tired of responding to questions and accusations about which bits of his work were autobiographical and which were fiction, that he declared a moratorium on the subject. He wrote more than one novel that purposely obfuscated the distinction in weird twists worth of M.C. Escher. The narrator of Operation Shylock, for example, is a character named Philip Roth, who is being impersonated by another character, who stole Roth’s identity.

I haven't read any of Roth's work for a long time, and his death reminds me to keep his last body of work on my list: Everyman (2006), Exit Ghost (2007), Indignation (2008), The Humbling (2009), and Nemesis (2010).

Philip Roth obituaries: The New York Times and The Guardian.

6.08.2018

on poppies, veterans, trolls, and doxing

First of all, I do not apologize.

I have nothing to apologize for. No one should apologize for having an unpopular opinion, or an opinion that the majority finds offensive.

Second, I said nothing disrespectful to veterans. My utter lack of respect -- my undying contempt -- is for rulers whose policies send humans into unnecessary armed conflict. Those rulers pay lip-service to "supporting" troops, while their policies ensure more humans will suffer from the effects of war.

If you're joining us in progress, here's what you missed. 

Before the election, I took all my personal social media offline. We knew that the opposition would dedicate vast resources to digging up or fabricating anything they could use against NDP candidates. For some reason, no one directed me to remove wmtc links from the Wayback Machine (i.e., internet archives). This proved to be a grave error.

A right-wing political hack who masquerades as a journalist received excerpts from some old wmtc posts from a troll source. I know this because Hack forwarded Troll's email to me, with the identifiers scrubbed.

Hack did what hacks do, and trolls did what trolls do. Hack kept this going for way longer than any of us expected, dedicating three columns to me, and mentioning my name in several other columns. Eventually it was reported on by more mainstream media.

The right-wing attack machine moved from candidate to candidate, digging up tiny bits of online fodder, distorting and quoting out of context, in a ludicrous attempt to portray the NDP as a hotbed of wacko radicalism.

Doug Ford and his party waged the worst kind of campaign possible: they obfuscated facts, and relied on lies, sloganeering, and mudslinging.

Andrea Horwath and our party were consistently positive, focused, truthful, and precise.

That the majority of voters in Ontario chose the former over the latter is profoundly disturbing.

Doxing

I thought I knew what it was like to be attacked by trolls, from early wmtc days. I was wrong. The trolls who attacked this blog were annoying gnats who could be easily batted away. The troll attack orchestrated by Hack & Co. was a whirling swarm of angry hornets, the size of a midwest twister.

Their weapons were the most vulgar kind of personal insults, and graphic threats of violence.

I have pretty thick skin and don't tend to take things personally. My union sisters and brothers often describe me as "fearless". But this was a form of violence, and it shook me.

I'm lucky that it didn't affect my outlook, my opinions, or my self-esteem. That's down to the amazing support I had -- from the party, from my union, from friends, and from strangers who agreed with my views and reached out to me. Because of this support, I was shielded from most of the invective. I saw only a small portion of it, yet that was enough to shake me. I felt that my personal safety was threatened. That's not easy to do to me.

It's difficult -- nay, impossible -- for me to understand this kind of behaviour. The whitehot anger, the fervor so easily ignited -- the immediate willingness to attack, the assumed entitlement to say anything to anyone, hiding behind the anonymity of the internet. The seeming inability to respectfully disagree. It is truly beyond my understanding.

What I think about poppies, militarism, and veterans


I wrote the now-infamous post about the poppy symbols at a time when Prime Minister Stephen Harper was flogging the war machine in Afghanistan. I have a deeply held opposition to war, and I wanted Canada out of Afghanistan.

I also link the symbolic poppy to the general militarism that infects our society -- where "support the troops" is code for "support the war". Militarism takes many forms, including recruiting in schools, honouring military members at sporting events, using weapons as entertainment, such as air shows, and for me, the ubiquitous poppy symbol.

Naturally I understand that the majority does not view the poppy symbol this way. Hundreds tried to enlighten me, as if somehow the view of the vast majority hadn't reached my ears. But guess what? I disagree.

I have never written or said anything that disparages veterans. On the contrary, the pages of this blog are replete with disgust for the governments that disrespect veterans by slashing funding for their health and rehabilitation. My "11.11" category is about peace. If wanting peace disrespects veterans, we are living in an Orwellian nightmare.

What supporting veterans should look like

I have no doubt that for some people the poppy is a potent symbol, and that they believe wearing this symbol shows respect and reverence for veterans. I have never suggested that other people shouldn't wear poppies. I simply choose not to wear one. (I don't refuse to wear one, as the memes said. I choose not to.)

To me, if we truly want to support veterans and military servicemembers, we must do two things.

One, create and fully fund a robust array of supports for people who have suffered from war, to support their physical and mental well-being. Our society does not do that.

And two, stop making war. Stop creating veterans. Search for ways to resolve conflicts that do not involve killing people. And never use war as a means to profit.

Until these things are done, you can cover yourself in poppies, and your "support" and "respect" will be as false as the plastic flowers you revere.

A final word about respect

I don't disrespect veterans. But I don't automatically respect someone because they are a veteran.

Many people contribute to our society through their work or their passions. Others harm our society with selfishness, greed, violence, and unkindness. When people are kind and generous, when they act with compassion and integrity, I respect them. When they do the opposite, I do not. This is as true for veterans as it is for teachers, social workers, nurses, or politicians.

People who hurl crude insults at strangers because they cannot abide a difference of opinion, but who claim to love freedom and respect veterans, are ignorant wretches. I don't respect them. I pity them.

4.08.2018

reading can make you a better person. here's evidence.

Celebrate #EmpathyDay with a good book.
Last year, a prosecutor in the US state of Virginia asked a judge to hand down an unusual sentence. Five teens had defaced a historic structure -- a Jim Crow-era schoolhouse for African-American children -- with swastikas and other racist graffiti.

The judge agreed with the prosecutor -- and she sentenced the teens to reading. The teens were to choose books from a list of books that illuminate bigotry and hatred, among them Elie Wiesel's Night, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Arthur Miller's The Crucible.

Sentenced to read

With at least one of those teens, it worked. This person (not identified), who is 16 or 17 years old, agreed to share his reading list and his thoughts with a reporter for The New York Times. The list included The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle, and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.

The books he found most affecting were 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup and Night. The Times article includes excerpts from his court-ordered essay.
He describes not fully knowing what a swastika meant, and that he thought it "didn't really mean much."

"Not anymore," he wrote. "I was wrong, it means a lot to people who were affected by them. It reminds them of the worst things, losing family members and friends. Of the pain of torture, psychological and physical. Among that it reminds them how hateful people can be and how the world can be cruel and unfair."

Now, he wrote, he sees the swastika as a symbol of "oppression" and "white power, that their race is above all else, which is not the case."

He also wrote that while he had studied this period in history class, the lesson lasted only a few days.

"I had no idea about how in depth the darkest parts of human history go," he wrote.

He wrote that he feels "especially awful" that he made anyone feel bad.

"Everybody should be treated with equality, no matter the race, religion, sex or orientation," he wrote in his essay. "I will do my best to see to it that I never am this ignorant again."
Alejandra Rueda, the creative Virginia prosecutor, has used the idea on at least one other occasion. That time, she worked with librarians to create a reading list, which included a book of poetry called "A Wreath for Emmett Till."

The sentence was certainly controversial. Marilyn Nelson, the poet, was less than pleased to see her work -- or any poetry -- used as a punishment. Many librarians and teachers expressed similar concerns about associating reading with punishment. Other people felt the sentence was too light.

I thought Rueda said it best: "Is it going to change their perspective on swastikas if you put them in the juvenile center and lock them up?"

A larger sample size

I don't know if Rueda had researched this idea or thought of it independently, but there's evidence to back her up.

A Washington Post science reporter asked, "Does reading make you a better person?". It appears the answer is yes.
In 2000, Jemeljan Hakemulder at Utrecht University in Germany published "The Moral Laboratory," a book outlining the results of almost two dozen experiments that linked reading to better social skills.

A 2013 study in the American Psychological Association's journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts found that the process of imagining scenes while reading led to an increase in empathy and prosocial behavior.

Raymond Mar, a psychologist who co-authored the 2006 study with Oatley, has found that the parts of the brain used for inferring thoughts and feelings of others — a phenomenon called "mentalizing" — light up in an MRI machine when people are processing stories.
In 2013, a study published in the journal Science suggested that what young people read is a significant factor in socialization. Literary fiction, it seems, builds empathy in a way that genre fiction does not. Scientific American magazine reported:
The results are consistent with what literary criticism has to say about the two genres — and indeed, this may be the first empirical evidence linking literary and psychological theories of fiction.

Popular fiction tends to portray situations that are otherworldly and follow a formula to take readers on a roller-coaster ride of emotions and exciting experiences. Although the settings and situations are grand, the characters are internally consistent and predictable, which tends to affirm the reader's expectations of others. It stands to reason that popular fiction does not expand the capacity to empathize.

Literary fiction, by contrast, focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships. "Often those characters' minds are depicted vaguely, without many details, and we're forced to fill in the gaps to understand their intentions and motivations," Kidd says. This genre prompts the reader to imagine the characters' introspective dialogues. This psychological awareness carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom. Although literary fiction tends to be more realistic than popular fiction, the characters disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes. They support and teach us values about social behavior, such as the importance of understanding those who are different from ourselves.
The Guardian put it this way:
Have you ever felt that reading a good book makes you better able to connect with your fellow human beings? If so, the results of a new scientific study back you up, but only if your reading material is literary fiction – pulp fiction or non-fiction will not do.

Psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, at the New School for Social Research in New York, have proved that reading literary fiction enhances the ability to detect and understand other people's emotions, a crucial skill in navigating complex social relationships.
The Guardian story also explains a bit about how the researchers distinguished genre fiction from literary fiction, and offers a dissenting opinion -- interestingly, from someone involved in prison librarianship.

You can find more studies and factoids about reading and empathy using the hashtag #ReadForEmpathy.

3.13.2018

what i'm reading: brendan's way by matthew bin

Brendan's Way by Matthew Bin is a genre-blending journey story combining adventure, mystery, and conspiracy in a futuristic setting. It's technically science fiction, as it takes place in the future and features some technology that doesn't yet exist. But if, like me, you don't usually read science fiction, don't let that stop you. It's an engrossing story and a satisfying read.

Brendan is immigrating to a new world. As generation upon generation before him have done, he is filled with hope and dreams of a better life. In this case, the travel is intergalactic, but the conditions on Brendan's home planet are familiar to us, as are the difficult conditions onboard the ship.

To win his passage, Brendan is posing as the husband of a political activist who is traveling undercover on some kind of mission. Brendan doesn't know the details, and doesn't want to know. Being granted the unexpected opportunity to begin life anew on a colonial planet is reason enough to spend three months living beside a beautiful woman.

Once onboard, Brendan begins to sense that things are not that simple. His fake wife mistreats him and refuses to give him any explanation or information. As his attempts to investigate are thwarted, he realizes that the ship's destination and its mission may not be what the hopeful immigrants have been told. But how to learn more, and who can be trusted, are not easily sorted.

Most of the action of Brendan's Way takes place on the Imran, the giant ship that is a future version of the great ocean liners of the past. Through vivid descriptions -- the tiny cubicles of the living quarters for the "colonials", a marketplace that is a vast bazaar of delights and dangers, the common area where the colonials scramble for food rations -- the Imran becomes a character in the novel. The sense of place is very strong.

With so many people living in close quarters, and a conspiracy of agents who may be getting closer to the truth, the authoritarian control of the ship becomes harsher and more desperate. The suspense grows, as does the claustrophobia. When Brendan finally discovers the truth, everything is on the line.

3.11.2018

what i'm reading: short reviews of fiction by margaret atwood, madeleine thien, frances itani, elizabeth kostova

I've gathered some thoughts about several novels I read but neglected to write about. I enjoyed them all to varying degrees; all are worth reading if you enjoy the type. This is the first of three posts.

* * * *

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood is a subgenre we don't see enough of: the dystopian comedy. We're in the future, one in which the entire economy of the United States has collapsed. Formerly middle-class families are living in their cars. Gangs of menacing scavengers roam the landscape. No one knows what happened -- some complicated financial dirty dealings went awry. It all looks very familiar.

Now some clever entrepreneur offers a solution to hunger, want, and anxiety -- a controlled community where there are jobs for all and every need is met. Well, yes, it partly a penal colony, and no one leaves -- ever. What could possibly go wrong?

As the plot thickens -- and reels, and loops, and spins -- we're treated to a wacky world involving blackmail, espionage, identity theft, human-organ trafficking, sex robots, Elvis impersonators, and some extremely strange extramarital affairs. The book is funnier than it is creepy, but it's plenty creepy, too. There's social commentary to spare woven into the humour, reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut. The Heart Goes Last is bit crazy, maybe a little out of control, but very enjoyable.

* * * *

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is a dense blend of history and myth, suspense and adventure, gothic love story and murder-mystery. It's richly descriptive, like a Victorian novel, with a complex plot that keeps you wanting more, even at 650 tightly-packed pages.

The Historian is said to be a re-telling of Bram Stoker's Dracula, but to capture the feel, you have to throw in gothic classics like Rebecca, time-traveling magic-book mysteries like Carlos Ruiz Zaf√≥n's The Shadow of the Wind, and a dash of international intrigue worthy of old-school 007. Kostova brings off an amazing literary sleight-of-hand, seamlessly blending real-world history with the Dracula myth.

There's also a meta theme, exploring how history is written. Even in this world of semi-fantasy, the intellectual detectives insist on primary sources, search for corroboration, and form no assumptions or conclusions without adequate evidence. And if this isn't enough, the immortal Vlad Drakulya has a thing for librarians.

The story is told in several concentric threads of narration. You'll need to suspend disbelief that anyone could have recorded such brilliant detail in a series of letters. But this letter-writing device alleviates the need for an entire novel that is told rather than shown -- something that has ruined more than one book for me. Don't let the vampires stop you; this is a very impressive and enjoyable novel.

* * * *

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien is another dense, multi-generational saga. The narrator, living in present-day Vancouver, relates the story of her father, a brilliant Chinese classical musician who was pushed to suicide by the cruelties of Mao's so-called Cultural Revolution. (File that sanitized expression along with ethnic cleansing, both more properly called genocide.)

The narrator's father, and others like him who have devoted their lives to music, suddenly find themselves branded as enemies of the state. They are arrested, humiliated, sometimes tortured. Thien uses their family saga to tell the stories of the Cultural Revolution and the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square. Both are seen through the lens of musicians and their love for now-forbidden beauty.

There are many plot lines, spanning two continents and several decades, and many reflections about the effect of history -- both global and family -- on our lives.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing was the winner of the 2016 Giller Prize, considered the most prestigious Canadian literary award. It's not an easy novel to read, but it is well worth the effort.

* * * *

Requiem by Frances Itani is also a historical novel. It is a fascinating, heartbreaking, and deeply satisfying read.

The narrator of Requiem, Bin Okuma, is a Japanese-Canadian visual artist recovering from the sudden loss of his beloved wife. As he drives across Canada to reunite with his aging father, he recalls childhood memories when his family was forced out of their fishing village on Vancouver Island -- given two hours to take what they could carry before they were herded into detention camps. While their white neighbours looted their homes, the men and older boys were separated from their families. No one knew where they were being taken or what would happen to them.

From filthy, reeking farm-animal pens to the brutal cold of the northern interior, with no electricity, no running water, and no outside help, tens of thousands of Canadian citizens were forced to live in brutal dislocation. The legacy of unspoken anger and shame forms the powerful emotional undercurrent of this novel. I thought I knew how bad the internment was. I didn't. Itani brings to life the full weight of the injustice, physically and psychologically.

The story cuts back and forth between Bin's present road trip, his childhood memories of the internment, and his more recent memories of his wife. It's highly readable: I found myself wanting to get back to all three timelines.

I haven't yet read the other well-known novels about the Japanese-American or Japanese-Canadian internment -- Obasan by Joy Kogawa and The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford -- so I don't know how this compares. (There is also Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson.) But Requiem is very immediate and moving, a memorable read.

Locally, Requiem was chosen as the first One Book One Mississauga. It was an enormously successful program, drawing thousands of readers in print, audio, and ebook. I found the huge interest in this novel very encouraging -- a positive force for our understanding of history, for the world we want to build, and for the stubborn persistence of reading as a shared personal and social value.

1.07.2018

rip fred bass, who gave nyc a priceless gift


Is there a New Yorker alive who hasn't spend time in The Strand? A New York City tourist who didn't thrill to their first visit to The Strand? The man who gave NYC this unique gift died recently at the age of 89. Although his father founded the store, Fred Bass made it the book-lovers' mecca that it came to be.

Here you can see the
ever-present he outdoor shelves.
I won't recount my memories of the hours I've spent in The Strand, because I'm sure they're no different than anyone else's. After we moved to Canada, a wmtc reader told me the store had been ruined. I returned to find an elevator had been installed, and the public washrooms changed from nauseatingly dirty to liveable. There was a cafe, better lighting, and new books, at a discount. Not ruined. Just a bit modernized.

The Strand was always expanding. It was like the expanding universe of books. You might think The Strand contained every homeless book the store took in -- but you'd be wrong. In this obituary, Bass is quoted from 1977:
I get an attack, something like a panic, of book-buying. I simply must keep fresh used books flowing over my shelves. And every day the clerks weed out the unsalable stuff from the shelves and bins and we throw it out. Tons of dead books go out nightly. And I bought ’em. But I just have to make room for fresh stock to keep the shelves lively.
Book lovers, do yourself a favour: go to the New York Times obituary, read it, look at the photos, and say goodbye to the man who gave us this special place.


1.05.2018

required reading for revolutionaries: jane mcalevey and micah white

I've wanted to write about these two books for a long time, but adequately summarizing them is a daunting task. I just want to say to every activist and organizer: READ THESE BOOKS. I don't want to represent the authors' ideas, I want you to read them yourself.

No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age by Jane F. McAlevey and The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution by Micah White are both aimed at activists and organizers -- people who already believe in the need for social change and are trying to influence the world in a progressive direction. Both books identify pitfalls and shortcomings in the current ways we approach our activism, and they offer concrete ideas for change, along with theory and philosophy to guide our decisions. Both are beautifully written, powerful, and essential.

No Shortcuts focuses on the labour movement, but McAlevey's analysis could apply to any movement. The labour movement is an excellent lens through which to view activism generally, since, if practiced well, it activates people across the political spectrum, and has a direct impact on the everyday reality of people's lives.

Advocacy vs. Mobilizing vs. Organizing

McAlevey, a long-time organizer and labour educator, identifies three systems of organizing, distinguished by the extent to which the workers themselves create a new reality, that is, worker agency.

The Advocacy model, where paid union staff, professional lobbyists, and lawyers work alongside the employer to dictate the terms of employment, is the least effective. Indeed, this model is not only ineffective, it is downright dangerous. It often results in concessions and wage freezes, and even more damaging long-term results. It poisons the very concept of union, teaching workers that unions are just another powerful force benefiting an elite few at the expense of the many. It's the perfect scenario for employers, and unfortunately is the norm in many unions.

Turning to the more positive approaches, McAlevey differentiates between Mobilizing and Organizing. In Mobilizing, a group of leaders make decisions and activate the workers to support them. All campaigns depend on some amount of mobilizing, but if the entire campaign is based on a mobilization model, a great potential is lost. The campaign may make some material gains, but it will fail to change the workers' relationship to their employer and their work; it will have failed to challenge the power structure. Any gains made will be superficial and short-term.

McAlevey shows that only the Organizing model builds worker agency to make significant, potentially long-term progress. McAlevey didn't invent this method, of course, but she's illuminating it and analyzing it for us -- showing us how it's done and why it works.

In Organizing, workers themselves create their own change. Workers make the decisions, learn from their own experiences, and build strength together. Organizing creates massive pressure on the employer, builds allies in the community, and -- most importantly -- creates confident leaders who can then organize others.

Given this analysis, it's no surprise that McAlevey champions the most powerful of all workers' tools: the strike. Strikes not only demonstrate and leverage workers' greatest value, by withholding their contributions, they demonstrate to the workers themselves how powerful they can be. A successful strike is a transformative event, as the confidence it builds becomes deeply embedded in the workers' consciousness. Successful strikes lead, McAlevey writes,
to the ability of the workers to win for themselves the kinds of contract standards that are life-changing, such as control of their hours and schedules, the right to a quick response to workplace health and safety issues, the right to increased staffing and decreased workload, and the right to meaningful paid sick leave and vacation time.
To wage a successful strike, workers must be both organized and active. So the very tools needed to create the strike build the potential for success, in both the short-term and the long-term.

Case studies: the book's greatest strength and contribution to our movements

McAlevey offers many practical examples of the process of Organizing, such as transparency in bargaining and identifying leaders. These examples are beyond useful -- they are essential. But where No Shortcuts shines brightest, where it is the most useful and the most inspiring, is in the case studies.

McAlevey tells five stories -- four successes and one horrible shame. As a union activist, I found the stories of the Chicago Teachers' Union and the lesser-known campaign by workers at Smithfield Foods thrilling. Reading about them, I was filled with that sense of pride and joy that only the people's power can bring.
King County, Washington, has a population of two million. Ninety-three percent of its people are city dwellers; most of them live in Seattle. At the time I am writing this, the median household income is $71,175, and the average rent for a two-bedroom house is $1,123 per month. In 2014, there was a successful campaign to increase Seattle's minimum wage to $15 an hour by the year 2022 (by which time, incidentally, that $15 will not be $15; it will be worth less, since Seattle didn't index it to inflation). The story was banner news worldwide in print and broadcast media, and a cause celebre for many liberals.

Meanwhile, without the fanfare of a single national headline, another kind of contract in a very different region also introduced a wage of $15 an hour. Bladen County, in southeastern North Carolina, has a population of 35,843. Ninety-one percent of those people live in the countryside; the rest are in the county's few small towns. Thirty-five percent are African American. At the time of writing, the median income is $30,031, and the average rent for a two-bedroom house is $637 per month.

In 2008, in the county's tiny town of Tar Heel, 5,000 workers at the Smithfield Foods pork factory voted to form a union with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). It was the single largest private-sector union victory of the new millennium, and it happened in the South, in the state with the lowest rate of union membership in the entire country: 3 percent. The new, ratified contract not only guaranteed a $15-an-hour wage but also paid sick leave, paid vacation, health care, retirement benefits, overtime pay, guaranteed minimum work hours, job security through a "just cause" provision, and tools to remedy dangerous working conditions. The wage alone far outranks Washington's: given the dollar's buying power in Bladen County, King County workers would have to earn $26.40 an hour to equal it.
The story of how these workers organized themselves and achieved these gains is one of the most exciting labour stories I've ever read. It will astonish you.

In "Make the Road New York", McAlevey tells the story of serious, strong, and sustained community organizing, not only for labour, but for an improved quality of life for the entire community.

Finally, McAlevey tells two stories about private-sector nursing homes. Incredibly, the examples stem from two locals in the same parent union -- one working within an Organizing model of true worker agency, the other run by a cadre of professionals who maintain comfortable conditions for the employer. What these so-called union leaders are is downright criminal. The expression "selling out" is too mild. They are every employer's and anti-union politician's dream. (Curious? Read the book!)

For several years now, we've been witnessing the re-emergence of organized labour as a vital force in our society. Inspired by the Fight For 15 fast-food workers, working people are fighting back, gaining public support, and activating themselves in great numbers. McAlevey's book is a road map to more of those victories -- which means it's a road map to a better world.

The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution takes a broader view through a very wide lens.

คาสิโนออนไลน์ แจกเครดิตฟรี 2019Micah White is a creative thinker, an excellent writer, a social theorist, and an activist. He is the co-creator of Occupy Wall Street (although this was not revealed at the time) and the originator of the idea that became the Rolling Jubilee debt forgiveness. He has been a human shield in the West Bank and an astute critic of clicktivism. He was named one of the most influential young thinkers alive today by Esquire magazine. He's a visionary, and you should read his book.

Is this thing on?

The premise of The End of Protest resonated deeply with me. Ever since February 15, 2003 -- the largest public demonstration in human history, which was ignored by mainstream media, and failed to prevent the US invasion of Iraq -- I have been frustrated and dissatisfied with the standard methods of public protest. The disastrous G20 demonstrations in Toronto in 2010 further confirmed my discontent.

Holding pens, free-speech zones, kettling, pre-emptive arrests, paid provocateurs, violent infiltrators, mass surveillence -- the ruling class has learned how to effectively neuter public demonstrations. The demos and the responses are predictable. They are theatre. They have symbolic value, they may build solidarity, and they may make us feel good. But they don't sustain movements and they don't create change.

There is value in being in the streets, especially when public protest occurs spontaneously. But many activists and organizations seem obsessed with how many people attend any given demonstration, as if a larger head-count somehow correlates with a greater likelihood of change. I've been involved in planning large-scale demos, so I've seen the vast amount of resources they consume. For what? Again, I'm not saying there is no value. But... can't we do better?

The End of Protest argues that our methods of protest are outdated, and that in order to be truly effective, we need to "break the script" of protest. We need to create fresh tools.

A framework for revolution

In the first part of the book -- "Today" -- White analyzes Occupy Wall Street, which he calls "a constructive failure". He beautifully articulates what was great about OWS, where it was successful, where and why it failed, and what lessons we can draw from it. He explores why dissent is necessary, and expands into a unified theory of revolution.

White creates a matrix -- or a Cartesian coordinate system (a term that was new to me) -- as a framework for analyzing different methods of protest, using four descriptors: voluntarism, structuralism, subjectivism, and theurgism. He describes each one in detail with very useful real-world examples. (A one-sentence definition cannot do justice to these ideas, hence I am refraining from doing so.)

In the book's second part -- "Yesterday" -- White analyzes protests from the recent past and the very distant past, situating each in his framework. The historic examples past are fascinating -- the massacre at Wounded Knee (1890), the Nika Revolt (532 CE), the Conversion of Constantine (312 CE), and the victory of Arminius (9 CE). In the modern examples, White trains his analysis on Palestinian solidarity, democracy movements in Greece and Spain, and the Rolling Jubilee.

In the final section -- "Tomorrow" -- White riffs on what is and may be possible. Very briefly, he offers a vision of a dystopian future, "an eco-fascist nightmare" that is all too easy to imagine. In fact, I found it much easier to visualize that potential reality than White's predictions of a unified, global, progressive revolution -- and it breaks my heart to realize that.

But White also reminds us that the future has not been written, and the path to that revolution is unknown. In fact, in White's view, it must be unknown, because we need to invent entirely new tools: "Innovation that breaks the fundamental paradigms of the protest model is the only way forward." White offers eight principles of revolution, realizing there are probably many more, but these eight were derived from his own lived experience.

What doesn't work

In case you are concerned, White eschews violence, believing that political terrorism is a dead end. He doesn't make a big deal about this, doesn't harp on and on about peaceful protest and a commitment to nonviolence -- a performance leftist activists are expected to make for the mainstream. He merely states, deep into the book, that political terrorism doesn't advance our goals, and we must look elsewhere for solutions. But although we reject militarism and terrorism, the far greater enemy is inertia.

Two bits from The End of Protest that I really appreciated are repudiations of both clicktivism and the so-called ladder of engagement. Clicktivism, White writes, encourages people to believe that "political reality can be altered by clicking, sharing, and signing petitions". It creates a false theory of social change, and deepens entrenched complacency.

About the ladder of engagement, White writes:
The dominant paradigm of activism is the voluntarist's ladder of engagement. In this model, there are a series of rungs leading from the most insignificant actions to the most revolutionary, and the goal of organizers is to lead people upward through these escalating rungs. This strategy appears to make common sense, but it has a nasty unintended consequence. When taken to its logical conclusion, the ladder of engagement encourages activists to pitch their asks to the lowest rung on the assumption that the majority will feel more comfortable starting at the bottom of the protest ladder, with clicking a link or signing a virtual petition. This is fatal. The majority can sniff out the difference between an authentic ask that is truly dangerous and might get their voices heard and an inauthentic ask that is safe and meaningless. The ladder of engagement is upside down. Activists are judged by what we ask of people. Thus, we must only ask the people to do actions that would genuinely improve the world despite the risks. Rather than pursuing the idea of the ladder of engagement, I live by the minoritarian principle that the edge leads the pack.
I've learned a lot about the edge leading the pack through my leadership role with my own local union. Many people told me our members weren't ready to strike. But how would they ever be ready if no one led them to the barricades? Would there be a magical moment when members woke up suddenly organized and ready to walk? And how would we recognize that moment when it came? Our leadership evaluated the situation, assessed the risks, and articulated both risks and potential rewards to our members. After that, democracy ensured that our members were ready, with a 98.7% vote to strike. As our parent says, "Be Bold. Be Brave." Those of us who have a fervor to be bold, brave revolutionaries have an obligation to lead from that edge.

Never be afraid of ideas

I fear that the lessons of The End of Protest may dismissed by the people who most need to contemplate them. White challenges several core beliefs of modern-day activism, and many of us cannot tolerate that kind of challenge. Organizers and activists may read this book, consider, and then reject all or some of White's ideas. But dismissing or ignoring those ideas would be a grave error. If our goal is to create revolutionary change, we owe it to ourselves and the world to read this book and engage with its ideas.

12.31.2017

what i'm reading: what i haven't read and am not reading

Many of my co-workers keep colourful lists like this,
or use Goodreads or Shelfari to track their reading.
I prefer plain old text.
Like most avid readers, my to-read list contains far more titles than I could ever read in a lifetime, even if I did nothing but read. Although I add books at a considerably faster rate than I tick them off, I do still keep The List, and I consult it when I'm looking for my next book. I do this with movies, too.

I also read books not on my list, much more so now that I work in a library, and my reading tastes have broadened. But I don't keep a list of all the books I've read.

This really bothers me. It has bothered me for a very long time. But at no time did I ever start keeping a list of All The Books I Read, because... I didn't start it a long time ago, so it will always be incomplete, so there's no point in starting it, ever. I know this is not rational, I know it's part of All Or Nothing thinking, which I work at avoiding, but... I can't shake the belief.

In library work we are urged to "track our reading," because it's supposed to help us be better readers' advisors. I question whether this is true. Most library workers don't consult their own reading lists when helping customers find reading material. But whether or not this is a useful practice, I don't do it.

I do keep track of movies and series that I watch. I've done this since the late 90s, and for some reason the incompleteness of this list doesn't bother me.

So, here are some book lists, sub-lists of The List.

Three biographies I want to read
Jackie Robinson: A Biography -- Arnold Rampersad*
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder -- Caroline Fraser
Helen Keller: A Life -- Dorothy Herrmann

Three people I want to read biographies of but don't know which one to read
Muhammad Ali
Bob Dylan
Galileo

Five books that I want to read but am daunted by because they are so long
This is a stupid category for someone who has read The Power BrokerBleak House, and City on Fire. Nevertheless.
London: The Biography -- Peter Ackcroyd
Dickens -- Peter Ackcroyd*
Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 -- Edwin G. Burrows,‎ Mike Wallace**
Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919 -- Mike Wallace
Jackie Robinson: A Biography -- Arnold Rampersad*

Three books I didn't finish but am determined to get back to one day
At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 -- Taylor Branch (This is the third book in Branch's "America in the King Years," and an almost impenetrable read. But I read the first and second books, and half the third. Must finish.)
The Sherston Trilogy -- Siegfried Sassoon
Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 -- Tony Judt (also fits under previous category)

Six writers whose books keep appearing on my list but I haven't read yet (there are many more)
Frans De Waal
Carl Safina
Robert Sapolsky
Margaret Laurence
Colm Toibin
Helen Oyeyemi

Three topics I would like to read more about
Utopian communities
Confidence games, grifters, and hoaxes
Language -- acquisition by children, origins of, ASL, Esperanto...other stuff

Orwell still to read
A Clergyman's Daughter
Coming Up for Air
Collected Letters

Dickens still to read
The Pickwick Papers
The Old Curiosity Shop
Barnaby Rudge
The Mystery of Edwin Drood

The Shakespeare Project
In 2003, I decided to read or re-read all of Shakespeare's plays. I re-read all my favourites, then got totally bogged down. Here's a real test of All or Nothing. Even though I haven't read a Shakespeare play in more than a decade, the goal still nags me. I want to drop it! Can I???
Comedy of Errors
Love's Labour's Lost
Merry Wives of Windsor
Henry VI, Part I
Henry VI, Part II
Henry VI, Part III
King John
Pericles
Antony and Cleopatra
Coriolanus
Timon of Athens
Titus Andronicus
Troilus and Cressida

----
* We own this in hardcover.
** We own this in hardcover and we acquired it by trading a box of used books for a new copy of this.

12.26.2017

what i'm reading: rolling blackouts, graphic novel that asks many big questions

I see by the wmtc tag "graphic novels" that I intended to write about graphic books I read and enjoyed...and I see by the scant number of posts with that tag that I have not been doing so! The last wmtc post tagged for graphic novels is from four years ago, almost to the day.

In any event, I want to tell you about a graphic book I just finished and really enjoyed: Sarah Glidden's Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.

In 2010, Glidden traveled with three friends who had journalism visas to the three countries in the book's title. Two of the three were part of a nonprofit, progressive media collective; the third was a former US Marine who served in the Iraq War, and was a childhood friend of one of the journalists.

Glidden doesn't merely report on what they found -- which would be interesting in itself. She stands outside the frame, as it were, and writes about their process and all its implications -- the ethics of their interviews, the industry constraints, the impossible dilemmas, the necessary compromises. The weighty responsibility of telling other people's stories, how stories are shaped into narratives, and how narratives influence our perception -- these questions are contemplated, explored, and challenged, as the inside view of how journalism happens is revealed to the reader. The question at the heart of Rolling Blackouts is "What is journalism?".

Dan, the ex-military friend on the trip, has a strange -- and often unwelcome -- perspective on the invasion of Iraq. From a privileged, middle-class background, with no family history of military service, he was an unusual enlistee. What's more, Dan insists that he was opposed to the invasion and actually protested against the war, but enlisted so he could improve the outcome. (Seriously?) He also insists that he has suffered no ill effects from his participation in the war, despite losing four friends. The journalists' attempts to mine and disrupt his odd perspective forms one of the recurring themes of the book.

But Rolling Blackouts is definitely not self-absorbed navel-gazing. We meet Kurdish Iraqis whose lives were improved by the removal of Saddam Hussein, and we meet Iraqi refugees living in Syria, whose lives, and the lives of their children, and generations to come, were destroyed by the US invasion. There is an Iraqi man who has been deported from the US, separated from his young family, because he was -- perhaps falsely -- accused of connections to terrorism. There's a young Iranian couple, both artists, on the brink of resettling in Seattle. There's a United Nations refugee administrator, an Iraqi taxi driver, a "fixer" who helps introduce the crew to potential interview subjects, and many other encounters. To each story, Glidden brings compassion and empathy, and an insistence on nuance in a world that is seldom black and white.

I really enjoyed Glidden's illustrations, soft watercolour snapshots of tiny moments in time, the kind that our memories are made of. The compassion and empathy with which Glidden approaches her subjects is evident in her lovely art. I also loved and appreciated the book's simple and extremely readable font. I wish more graphic book creators would think about the accessibility of their typeface choices. I understand that fonts are art, but when typeface impedes access, something has gone awry.

Rolling Blackouts is an ambitious book, aiming to do many things at once, and succeeding in all of them.

12.09.2017

listening to joni: footnote #2

I decided to solve the problem of over-interpretation of lyrics in Reckless Daughter (described here) by putting down the book. I'll go back to it in the future. For now the listening project is more interesting and absorbing to me than reading the biography.

This means I'll review the two books on the nonfiction book group blog without having finished the second book. Don't tell anyone. Then I'll write new reviews for wmtc.

Next up: Ladies of the Canyon.

12.03.2017

listening to joni: footnote #1

Reading the biography Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell while doing this re-listening project is proving to be an obstacle.

In general I'm enjoying the book. I love learning more about the artist who created some of the most meaningful music in my life, and about the woman I have always considered a personal role model. I love the stories of how albums were recorded, and even how they were received. What I don't like -- and don't want -- is author David Yaffe's pronouncement of what a song is "about".

Art is always open to interpretation. In fact, art is not complete without interpretation. All art -- novels, film, theatre, visual arts, music -- is incomplete until the receiver (viewer, listener, reader, etc.) experiences it. And that experience is unique to us as individuals. I don't experience art exactly the same way you do, because we each bring our own unique experiences and consciousness to that art. Our interpretation may be conscious or subconscious. It may be intellectual or emotional or, likely, a combination of those. But it is unique to us.

I always say that if I really love a book, I will not see the movie, because I'm almost guaranteed to be disappointed. I want my own interpretation to live in my mind, and if I see the movie, I'll never be able to do that again. The filmmaker's interpretation will taint -- or at least supplant -- my own.

This is what's happening with Reckless Daughter. I don't want to know who or what these songs are "about," because they're not about one thing. I have been listening to and loving this music my whole life. I loved this music without knowing who "Willy" is (Stephen Stills) or which heroin addict in Joni's life inspired her to write "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" (James Taylor). I'm currently listening to Ladies of the Canyon, so soon I'll be moving into music that means a great deal to me -- not one album, but many -- and I don't want someone else's interpretation mucking up my personal experience of this art.

I wish I could read the book with some kind of filter on.

11.03.2017

listening to joni: a new wmtc feature

Two new books about Joni Mitchell have come out, with -- strangely -- the same title.

Reckless Daughter: A Joni Mitchell Anthology, edited by Barney Hoskyns, is a collection of stories about Joni* and reviews of her work. It's part of an ongoing collection called Rock's Backpages, which looks at rock through accomplished music writers of the last 50 years. I'm reading this now.

Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, by David Yaffe, is a biography of the artist and her music. It's especially noteworthy because of the unusual access Yaffe had to his subject. I'm going to read this after I finish the anthology.

While reading reviews and impressions of Joni's earliest performances and recordings, I realized how long it's been since I've heard her early music. In some cases, at least her first two albums, I probably have never played as an adult! I decided I would listen to all her albums in chronological order, starting from the beginning. I'm going to try to write about the listening experience on wmtc.

I don't know how this will go. I don't think I have anything particularly insightful or interesting to say about these albums, and I've never been able to write very well about music.

My response to music is very emotional -- not intellectual, not analytical, and not verbal. My love for Joni Mitchell and her place in my consciousness is intense -- profound -- and thus very difficult to articulate.

But if I'm going on this musical journey, wmtc is coming with me. 

Your comments, as always, will be very welcome.





* I normally hate when female artists and athletes are referred to by their first names, often in contexts where men are referred to by their last names. But to her legion of devoted fans, Joni is Joni.

10.15.2017

what i'm reading: turtles all the way down, the new book by john green

I don't usually write about a book while I'm still under its spell, but there are always exceptions. John Green's Turtles All the Way Down is an exceptional book.

One reason Green's writing is so powerful is that he conjures both the specific and the universal at the same time.

The Fault in Our Stars, for example, is about two teens who have cancer, and how they fall in love and have a relationship, even with the awareness of their own looming mortality.

The Fault in Our Stars is also about how we all love, even with the awareness of our own mortality always looming, be it far or near. We humans must love and be loved, and we must lose our loves, and they us. That is the paradox of homo sapiens sapiens, the animal who knows it knows. TFIOS is about nothing less than the human condition.

Green masters both of these, at the same time, and wraps it in an accessible package that is easy to read, to understand, and to love. The specific lives are vibrant and authentic, and the universal truths are recognizable and powerful.

Green brings that same duality to his long-awaited new youth novel. Turtles All the Way Down is a book about a girl, Aza Holmes -- her struggles to cope with her mental illness, while trying to be a good friend, find love, and cope with life after the sudden death of her father some years back.

And it is also a book about mental illness -- how it might feel, what it might make us do, how it might be survived, how our society frames it, how it impacts everyone in its sphere.

And it is a book about all of us -- our doubts, our fears, our self-hate and, we hope, our acceptance of ourselves. Aza wants to know how anyone will ever love her, given her limitations. Don't we all.

When I count the people in my life, over the course of my lifetime, who have been affected by mental illness, it becomes a long list. I think most people could say the same. We are only just beginning to recognize the prevalence and reduce the stigma of mental illness. Turtles All the Way Down will stand as a soldier in that important and necessary battle.

You'll notice I haven't written at all about the plot of this book, only the themes. The plot is excellent -- strange enough to be unique and unpredictable, and authentic enough to be convincing. You should read it to find out.