Wednesday, January 8, 2020
Wednesday, December 11, 2019
Wednesday, December 5, 2018
A new book by a favourite author is always a treat. I had an audio credit from Kobo, so I did not even have to wait for the library or the paperback. So far so good.
I love Barbara Kingsolver, both as an author and as a human being. She is one of the few writers whose books I will reread. Her writing is beautiful and often lyrical. From the very beginning her books have been about more than just characters unfolding in private life. In the words of the author herself:
“My interest is human behaviour, and the complex ways we do or don’t come
to terms with ourselves, our societies, and our habitats.” (From an interview in Psychology Today)
I like that. These days I have little interest in fiction that ignores economic and historical reality. The intersection between the individual and the collective is what holds my attention.
First, a word about the voice performance. This is an important factor in an audio version. Barbara Kingsolver reads her own work. Her voice is pleasant, her reading OK, but she is no actor. In particular the voice she gives to the 19th century botanist Mary Treat, a real historic character, is a hesitating whine that does not jibe with the feisty non conformist that the book portrays.
Otherwise the novel is off to a promising start.
The family at the heart of the story has fallen on hard times, in spite of being well educated and spending decades doing all the right things. Mom Willa used to be a successful writer for magazines. Those things in print with the glossy ads that you bought every week, remember them? Her magazine has folded. Dad Iano is an academic who has been chasing tenure from one college to another. When he finally achieves security the college itself closes on him. Dad lands an entry level job in Philadelphia at the same time that Mom inherits a crumbling Victorian house in Vineland, New Jersey. The couple relocates to Vineland, a town with an interesting history. They are already encumbered with Iano’s ailing father, a bitter Greek immigrant. In short order they are joined by their college drop out daughter and the newborn baby of their son. Four generations, one entry level job, five dependents.
Next chapter: Moving-in day in the same location by a different family but more than a century earlier. Newly married Thatcher Greenwood has accepted a job as science teacher in the Vineland School. His family consists of his wife Rose, her widowed mother and her teenage sister. Looking across the street Thatcher observes the scandalous sight of a middle aged woman lying prone in the grass, apparently studying something.
She turns out to be Mary Treat, a real historical figure. Mary was a self taught botanist who corresponded with the great scientists of her day including Charles Darwin. From then on chapters on the lives of the two families alternate.
I found this structure irritating. Until we get to the very end, when 21 century Willa develops a fascination with Mary Treat, the only overlap between the two strands is concern for the house. One just gets into one story line and is then whisked away to the other.
Barbara Kingsolver often uses her novels as a platform from which to hold forth on topics dear to her heart. It works better some times than others. In this novel it works in the chapters set in the nineteenth century. The reader learns effortlessly about the history of Vineland, the biologist Mary Treat, the resistance to the teachings of science and the flora of the Jersey Pine barrens. Kingsolver is at her warm, lyrical best when she describes natural wonders.
I felt irritated by the same ploy in the twenty-first century. The characters feel one dimensional and mere tools for expounding on the horrors of declining capitalism. Barbara, I love you. Next time you want to write some articles, just do it, you don’t have to build a novel around them.
Thursday, November 1, 2018
Every now and then one comes across a book that one wants to put into the hands of every politician, every citizen with a hint of influence. “The line becomes a river” by Francisco Cantú is such a book.
Well written, thought provoking and heart wrenching, it is the story of the son of a Mexican American mother who becomes a border guard, then an advocate for a paperless Mexican friend.
The author’s mother grew up in the USA and needed half a lifetime to get over feeling ashamed of being Mexican. She was a park ranger near the Mexican border. The border, he writes, is in his blood.
During his years as a border guard he enjoys the camaraderie with fellow agents and the thrills of an active job in the great outdoors, but is deeply affected by the human tragedies he witnesses. The desert is hell. Migrants who cannot keep up with a group are left behind to die of thirst and exposure. Even if they manage to make it across the border migrants may be held prisoner in drop off houses for ransom by family in the USA. Every hardening of the border tightens the grip of organised crime. Francisco tries to provide small acts of kindness wherever he can. At least he speaks the language and knows the culture. Eventually the stress becomes too much and he quits.
The last part of the book concerns the tragic case of one Mexican family. Diego Martinez has lived in the USA for thirty years, since he was 11 years old. He is an exemplary citizen, member of a church, loving husband and father of three boys ranging from 8 to 15. He quit drinking when his first son was born. He has never been in trouble with the law. His employer says he is the best worker she ever had. At some point he goes to Mexico to be with his dying mother. Returning proves to be a nightmare. He makes it across the border but is caught. In spite of a good lawyer and the passionate pleas of his family, employer, church community and friends his application for leniency is denied and he is deported. At one point the wife receives phone calls asking her for ransom money. She pays up, but there is still no sign of her husband. The blackmail had been a hoax. The story ends with mr. Martinez still in limbo, still in Mexico near the border, still determined to make it home to his family no matter what the cost.
Shortly before reading this book I had listened to a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell, part of his Revisionist History series. Highly recommended by the way. Gladwell makes the point that migration patterns changed in recent history. Back when crossing the Mexican American border was easier Mexicans, especially young men, would go to El Norte for a few months to work, then go back home. Families mostly stayed in Mexico. Once crossing the border became costly both in terms of money and danger it made more sense to stay put in the USA and to eventually smuggle the family in as well. Present policies mainly benefit organised crime.
Wednesday, September 26, 2018
Friday, September 14, 2018
Thursday, March 8, 2018
Take the word socialism.
When I hear it I think "Norway", a democratic society with high taxes but a huge social safety net, overall a good quality of life, and the freedom to protest or change government if so desired.
If you think "Soviet Union", a totalitarian government with no room for dissent, we can hardly have a meaningful conversation till we clear that up.
A while ago I expressed my frustration with women who brag about how strong they are, how they do not fit into traditional roles, while insisting "I am not a feminist".
Meanwhile their life has been made possible by decades, nay centuries! of struggle by feminists.
It turns out we have different definitions of the term.
My involvement with feminism, such as it was, dates from the sixties and seventies. I had been ahead of the curve thanks to the influence of my mother and to Simone de Beauvoir, who I devoured at age 18. When the larger movement burst forth I was already married to a man who shared my egalitarian ideals, at least in theory. I never went to meetings or organised protests. I just read the books, subscribed to magazines big and small, and talked with friends. Feminism infused my thinking and I felt myself to be part of the movement. Back then I occasionally felt a twinge of unease at some of the more extreme utterances, but figured that every movement has its fringe.
When I say "feminism" I mean humanism. I think of extending basic rights to 52% of the population. I think of true partnership, of Marlo Thomas singing "Free to be You and Me." I think of the early twentieth century writer Rebecca West who said: "I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat."
I stopped reading the magazines and did not pay much attention in the eighties. I was busy raising children and chickens. I got tired of seeing the broad based movement devolve into hair splitting and squabbling over what we now call identity politics. Apparently that only got worse.
On Facebook I expressed frustration with free strong women saying "I am not a feminist". This led to this input by a friend of my daughter's generation.
"When I was in college, the feminist thought was combative. It ranged from "restrict that job or position to females only" to actual publications that direct women how to sabotage their male cohorts in order to advance yourself. All of that hit me as horrifically wrong and I would also say, "No, I'm not a feminist."
Now I see! If one's experience is with a bunch of humorless strident fanatics aiming for revenge and waiting to pounce on the slightest politically incorrect utterance, I can understand why one would wish to avoid both the association and the label. The friend again:
"Years later I can say I'm not THAT kind of feminist. It's about balance and equality, not excluding one gender to benefit the other."
Amen to that. Let's end this with a shout out to all the excellent men out there who truly support equality.
Wednesday, January 31, 2018
This is a good thing. We still have a long way to go before this planet resembles the peaceful, egalitarian paradise depicted in Star Trek, The Next Generation. We had to wait for TGN. In J.T. Kirk's days a woman could not become captain of a star ship. (An episode was devoted to portraying a woman who resented that fact as a monster who lost Jim's love by denying her own feminine nature.) I will never give up the hope we might get there one day. Right now the chance doesn't look great but let's leave that for another time.
This post is about the trouble that arises because progress for social justice is made unevenly. Let's take being gay, or generally queer, as an example. Please don't get me started on the PC list of initials, and substitute your own oppressed group of choice.
In liberal cities like Vancouver, Toronto or San Francisco it is quite In to be Out. In some circles a regular man or woman may be expected to identify as 'cis'. The photo below is Canada's Prime Minister at the Toronto Pride parade. I love that picture, but does this look like oppression?
But wait! Before we declare this particular struggle won, imagine being the gay son of a conservative family belonging to a fundamentalist church. You love your family and your community but you can no longer deny your nature. Coming out takes courage. It may mean tough choices. A while back I was reading about Hutterites. According to their website a gay Hutterite faces three options: a deep dark closet, a lonely life of celibacy, or leaving the life giving community.
Meanwhile being outed in Uganda or Saudi Arabia can get you killed. See what I mean about uneven progress?
Think of the energy of an oppressed group as a coiled spiral, like a Jack in the Box. What happens when the lid that kept Jack down is removed? SPROINK! Don't stand too close, you will be hit in the face. I coined sproinking as a verb, to describe the energy of freshly liberated groups. Think also of the over the top zeal of the freshly converted. People tend to mellow out after a while. The SPROINK! energy is exhilarating for the members of the group, but may be bewildering, threatening or just irritating for others.
Then there are the Old Warriors. The age refers more to the battle than to the soldiers. This is the folks splitting hairs and looking for microaggressions after a movement has been largely successful. They may overlap with sproinkers.
I did a blog on this topic a few years ago during one such scandal concerning a popular CBC man. Much of it is still relevant.
This vague term "sexual misconduct" can be used for a wide variety of misbehaviors. |
Should withholding job opportunities unless sexual favours are granted really be on the same page as a drunken grope at the office Christmas party?
While it is high time the former is taken seriously, I would like to think that the latter can be dealt with on the spot with a slap and a firm DON'T. I recognise I have been lucky in my personal experience and may be hopelessly naive as a result. I also recognise we are looking at the slippery slope. The drunken grope may be evidence of a toxic climate in which blackmail is possible. Many small acts can add up to a climate of intimidation. When does one make a fuss? And then there is the real danger that even the proverbial slap can have repercussions. I just stumbled upon this.
Margaret Atwood wrote a much discussed article in the Globe and Mail that I posted to Facebook with the comment: "I fear rule by mob, even if the mob consists of my kind of people. I fear orthodoxy and dogma, even if they originate in a philosophy I subscribe to."
I also worry about throwing out precious babies with the bathwater.
Yes, we need history books to include the stories that have been previously ignored. But I would hate to see the canon of Western civilisation tossed out because the texts were written by rich white men. In their time they were the only ones with the leisure to study and reflect.
More on the whole group/individual thing in the next post, but just this: When previously disadvantaged groups finally get a measure of justice, there is always a danger that relatively harmless individuals of the previously privileged group get a rough deal.
Here in Canada we just had a tragedy involving the shooting of a young First Nations man by a white farmer. The behaviour of the police who went to the young man's home to inform the bereaved family is without excuse. Racism is real.
The white farmer who shot the young man was acquitted by the all white jury. At first glance it seemed like a clear cut case of outrageous racism. My first reaction was to post an item on it with the comment that this was Canada's equivalent to the Trevor Martin case and sign "Justice for Colten" petitions. Google Colten Boushie.
But then my conservative friend Ken "buzzsaw" Cyr sent me some articles published in conservative sources that questioned the simple narrative of "drunk native kid blameless victim, white farmer guilty racist." It was not that simple. For the record, these articles were written by First Nations people. I finally told myself the world will keep turning if I do not have a firm opinion on the matter.
I am just hoping we can make social change without creating fresh victims in the process. I worry about a mentality where the end justifies the means. I hope more of us can keep a relatively cool head, keep trying to separate truth from falsehood, and continue to think independently instead of following a herd, any herd.
Monday, December 18, 2017
Now, with our modern kitchen blenders the cure for a failing mayonnaise is simple. Stop adding oil for a moment, then give the works a vigorous buzz. The oil will incorporate, everything becomes smooth and you can resume trickling more oil.
Mayonnaise seems to me the perfect metaphor for the dilemmas surrounding immigration. When too many newcomers pour into an established society at once, integration becomes more difficult. Any harmonious society has a certain degree of cohesion, a baseline of common mores and values.
I am not saying that there should not be people at the fringes, those are usually the more interesting ones. The ones on the edge, the pockets of 'others' keep a society from stagnating. But there has to be a centre to be a fringe of. Without a central mass we get mere chaos. Think of the endlessly warring city states of Renaissance Italy that inspired the peace loving Machiavelli to write his cynical instructions for a successful ruler.
Ideally the receiving society should be able to slow down the flood of incomers until the previous wave of immigrants has made itself at home. Stop adding more oil. Let Time, that great blender, do its magic. In the recent (post indigenous holocaust) history of North America this has happened many times over. Irish, Italians, Eastern Europeans have all been looked at askance until they became established. In the present day Vancouver, B.C. is adjusting to becoming an Asian city.
Unfortunately slowing down the flow is not always possible. In times of upheaval due to wars and natural disasters desperate people will continue to flood into safer places.
This phenomenon is as old as humanity. History lesson from Dutch elementary school, where we had to learn dates by heart. They stuck. The year 400 read: "The Great Migration. Our country inhabited by Frisians, Franks and Saxons." The word for the migration, "volksverhuizing", literally "people's move" w.as the same as that used for a move from one apartment to the next. My childish imagination pictured an orderly procession of horse drawn U hauls. While much attention was given to Attila the Hun, the driving force behind all those tribes moving West, not much was said about the experience of the people in place when the Frisians, Franks and Saxons who became our collective forebears showed up.
Receiving societies face horrible dilemmas no matter how they respond. Most people are decent at heart and want to rescue the fleeing stranger. But when a trickle of individual families becomes a flood that threatens to overwhelm the host society things become tricky.
I have no easy answers. Overall, I prefer being opening and welcoming to closing the gate behind me now that I am in.
However, on this topic as on so many others we need to be able to hold frank conversations without immediately ranging ourselves in ideological camps. We need to stop cherry picking stories that confirm our chosen viewpoint and ignoring the other ones. People of any group are a mixed bag.
Can we please admit that both xenophobia AND large sudden influxes of newcomers are a problem? Can we please listen when the people in the neighborhoods where many newcomers settle run into problems without dismissing them as racists? We have seen what happens when people feel dismissed. It is not a pretty picture.
Can we please admit that there is a danger that our cherished social safety nets might become overwhelmed? Of course the funding of social safety nets is a complex issue in its own right, but let's not get side tracked.
Racism is present and real. Racial profiling by police is disgusting. So is seeing a possible rental disappear the moment a person of colour (I hate that expression) appears for a look. Boo! Hiss!
But think of the social and psychological problems faced by returning veterans from the host society. Now look at an influx of large numbers of traumatised young men from a culture that gives them a sense of entitlement. Thinking of Europe here. Could that just possibly cause some problems? Can we please ask that question without being labeled anything?
Repeat. I have no easy answers. But I do know that finding the best possible answers has to start with asking questions, including tough and unpopular ones.