Wednesday, April 23, 2008


A Welsh friend points out that "yet again" the English are following the lead of the Scots, the (Northern) Irish and the Welsh (is there a word for all the non-English British? (yes, "barbarians" my grandfather might say)). This time it is the celebration of a national saint, St. George. Today, April 23, is St. George's Day. Historically not much of a day, certainly compared to St. Patrick's, or even St. David's or St. Andrew's. But with a resurgence of nationalism amongst the constituent nations of Britain of late, the English have apparently been feeling a little left out. Sure, they've got the Morris dancing. And there was the World Cup win in 1966. But pushed on by pubs (I suspect), some English are working to make St. George's Day into a day of national celebration.

The old English flag, the red cross of St. George on a white background, appears more frequently, usually at soccer, rugby or cricket matches. Unfortunately there's still a whiff of the unsavory around the flag, for ultra right groups co-opted the flag years go. That obnoxious association still lingers for some Brits, especially visible minorities. Musician Morrissey sang about this issue of the flag and Englishness on his song, "Irish Blood, English Heart" from his 2004 album, You Are the Quarry:
I've been dreaming of a time when
To be English is not to be baneful,
To be standing by the flag, not feeling shameful
Racist or partial
But UK media have associated Morrissey with anti-immigrant sentiment, which lead to him successfully suing one magazine for slander and winning an apology. A lawsuit against music magazine NME continues.
There are a number of recent reads about the English and the English character:
  • The Angry Island: Hunting the English by A.A. Gill (2007) Publisher's Weekly noted: "Rapier-wit social critic Gill wants readers of this provocatively perceptive dissection of English cultural mores to know he was born a Scotsman, thank you very much, and is most definitely not an "enigmatically indecipherable" Englishman. In 16 defiantly abrasive essays, Gill bristles with outrageous originality about cliched topics like England's class system; gardening; British accents; and kindness to animals. Gill's caustic ruminations often veer into over-the-top hyperbole, but these essays, brimming with incendiary certitude, also offer nuggets of truth."
  • The Evil Empire: 101 Ways That England Ruined the World by Steven A. Grasse (2007). A rather odd polemic by an American, pointing his finger at the English. From the publisher's blurb: "They invented slums. They invented child labor. They put Saddam Hussein in power. They burned Joan of Arc at the stake, and they enslaved the globe to get their tea fix. We're talking about England, of course, and the terrible evils they've set loose on the world." Meant as humour (I think) but the reception in the British media has been rather tepid.
  • Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by Kate Fox (2004). Kate Fox explained the origin of her popular book of social anthropology: "Really, I don't see why anthropologists feel they have to travel to remote corners of the world and get dysentery and malaria in order to study strange tribal cultures with bizarre beliefs and mysterious customs, when the weirdest, most puzzling tribe of all is right here on our doorstep." - Kate Fox. A delightful exploration of Englishness, including why all the talk about the weather and proper pub etiquette.
  • The English: A Portrait of a People by Jeremy Paxman (2000). From Kirkus: "A deeply serious yet wonderfully lively, witty, and heartfelt study of the Mother Country.Who, really, are the English? At a time when Great Britain seems to be devolving into its constituent parts, it's not an idle question.... Journalist and broadcaster Paxman believes that it is the English--not the Scots, the Welsh, or the Irish--who have lost their own sense of who they are and how they fit into the United Kingdom. ... Paxman searches for the essence of Englishness in history, religion, geography, behavior, speech, and--well, just about anything that throws light on his subject."
  • Anglomania: A European Love Affair by Ian Buruma (1998). From Kirkus: "A breezy history of the political science of England-loving. ... Anglophilia's double appeal to both snobs and liberals propels his diverting tour of England-lovers (Voltaire, Goethe, Herzen, Mazzini, Baron de Coubertin), as well as some unreconciled haters, including Karl Marx and Kaiser Wilhelm. Anglomania's subtext ... is how England's national identity is changing at the century's close. Its approach to serious subject matter under cover of self-deprecating wit and mild eccentricity is ... typically English. As Buruma's colorfully drawn discursion illustrates, there'll always be an England, as long as there are Anglophiles."
Cheers! (more about the English travel subgenre (eg. Mustn't Grumble, pictured above) in a post to come)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Dangerous World

A very odd Earth Day locally this year, with the blizzard on the weekend, snow still falling and a wind chill temperature this morning of -20! It certainly makes the many, many books warning of environmental catastrophe seem entirely plausible. Scaring people to death probably isn't the best way to get people to change their light bulbs and stop idling outside the 7-11. But like a good horror movie sometimes a fright is a good thing. I chose a couple of doomsday-style books for my Earth Day Gazette Great Reading picks (published tomorrow, April 23):

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. In this intriguing “what-if” book, science journalist Weisman thinks about what would happen to Earth if the human species suddenly disappeared. An oddly hopeful book about our enduring planet.

World Made By Hand by James H. Kunstler Kunstler’s non-fiction look at peak oil, The Long Emergency, was a dire, almost hysterical prediction of a bleak future when demand for oil exceeds supply. This novel is a fictional vision of that post-apocalyptic future, focusing on a town in upstate New York struggling to survive.

Nova Scotia-based writer Marq de Villiers has sounded the alarm about environmental catastrophe in works like his award-winning book, Water: the Fate of Our Most Precious Resource. He was on CBC Radio's The Current this morning talking about his new book, Dangerous World: Understanding Natural Calamities and Protecting Human Survival (listen to the interview [here]). The book takes a reasoned look at current and future dangers to humanity, countering the alarmist approach of some books.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Open Road

My, weren't my Gazette Great Reading picks apropos this week? The Dalai Lama and Tibet.

The Open Road: the Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (2008) by Pico Iyer.
This new look at the Dalai Lama shows why attempts by the Chinese government to besmirch his reputation over the latest Tibetan situation will fail. Veteran writer Iyer, a 30-year friend of the Dalai Lama, shows the fundamental goodness and genius of this complex man.

**Update April 14: Pico Iyer was the guest on CBC Radio 1's spirituality show, Tapestry, Sunday. Host Mary Hynes talked to him about the book, about the Dalai Lama and Iyer read from the book. Tapestry is available as a free podcast [here].

Prayer of the Dragon (2007) by Eliot Pattison
A serial killer hides in the Tibetan mountains in this fifth mystery in the acclaimed series starring exile Beijing investigator Shan Tao Yun. Freed from the Chinese gulag, living with Tibetan lamas, Shan is asked to find the real killer after an innocent man is falsely accused. Here are the previous Tibetan Inspector Shan titles:

  1. The Skull Mantra (2001)
  2. Water Touching Stone (2002)
  3. Bone Mountain (2004)
  4. Beautiful Ghosts (2005)
Eliot Pattison suggests John Avedon's In Exile from the Land of Snows: The Dalai Lama and Tibet since the Chinese Conquest (1997) as an "invaluable overview" of Tibet.

Monday, April 07, 2008

What's the Matter with Kansas?

At the moment there's nothing the matter with Kansas, as the University of Kansas Jayhawks won the 2008 NCAA Final Four basketball tournament, as, ahem, gloat, gloat, a certain librarian blogger predicted a few weeks ago.
I've been a U of Kansas fan since I visited Lawrence, Kansas (home of the U of K) in the early 1990s. I was visiting a friend doing his PhD at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and we drove south to Kansas City and then west to Lawrence. Lincoln and Lawrence were my first US "college towns" and I thought the concept was delightful.

Lawrence is a classic college town. Or "latte town" as David Brooks mockingly called them in Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (2000). Boulder, CO. Madison, WI. Missoula, MO. Burlington, VT. Berkeley, CA. University-associated, liberal (or "progressive" as they say in the US) wealthy communities, often surrounded by much more conservative areas. Brooks' book critiqued the aging boomers, bohemians protesting The Man in their youth, but joining the bourgeoisie as they aged, hence "bourgeois bohemians" (bobos). I thought the book was hilarious, but Brooks took a lot of hits for shallowness, glibness etc. And his follow-up book, On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now ..., a love-letter to American suburbia, seemed to place him in the neo-con camp. For a current look at bobo life, check out the wildly popular blog, Stuff White People Like (#95 - Rugby, #81 - Graduate School, #44 - Public Radio).

Author Thomas Frank knows Lawrence. And he remembers it fondly in his book, What's the Matter with Kansas? (2004):
"Today, as the state's politics shift farther and farther to the right, [Lawrence] remains one of the only truly liberal places in Kansas. For my generation, growing up in the churchified suburbs of Kansas City, Lawrence meant bohemian paradise: cheap rent in ramshackle Victorian houses, cheap beer in rickety jerrybuilt bars, secondhand record stores, a place where everyone was in a band."
Frank's book is about his puzzlement at contemporary US politics. How did his home state, known for its radical politics, founded by anti-slavery activists, populated by blue-collar midwesterners, become solidly conservative? Using Kansas as a microcosm of America in general, Frank asks why so many Americans vote against their economic and social interests?

William Least Heat-Moon, in his epic Kansas book, PrairyErth, notes that Americans "know three things about Kansas: it is flat, it has something to do with The Wizard of Oz, and the events of In Cold Blood took place there." PrairyErth shows there is more to Kansas than meets the eye, looking closely at a single, sparsely-populated rural county, Chase County. It sounds dull, but Heat-Moon is a master writer, and the people and history of this obscure piece of land come alive.

When I was in Lawrence I learned about the mythic past of Kansas, having a beer at the Free State Brewery ("Why is Kansas called a "free state" I asked!) Thomas Frank notes that Kansas was founded, at least in part, "to prevent slavery from moving west. Free-soilers ... fought a running guerrilla war with slave owners from Missouri for five years before the start of the Civil War." The University of Kansas team name, the Jayhawks, goes back to this period, called "Bleeding Kansas". "Jayhawkers" were violent abolitionists, armed militias raiding slaveholders along the Missouri border. Violent anti-slavery activist John Brown was a proto-Jayhawker. Opposing them were proslavery guerillas, including the notorious William Quantrill, who led a band of Confederate irregulars into Lawrence in 1863, massacring around 200 men and boys and destroying much of Lawrence.

Frank notes that it is today's Christian fundamentalist conservatives that have co-opted the abolitionist history of Kansas, with anti-abortionists claiming John Brown as one of their own: "If John Brown lived today, he'd be considered a right wing religious maniac." This despite the fact that the abolitionist of 1860 was likely a liberal, college-educated, tea-sipping Yankee!

For an excellent fictional take on John Brown, pick up Russell Bank's epic 1998 novel, Cloudsplitter. John Brown's son, Owen, narrates the novel, recounting his father's life and beliefs from many years after the war.

Thriller writer Sara Paretsky's new book, Bleeding Kansas, is a stand-alone novel, not one of her V.I. Warshawski detective series. Paretsky grew up in rural Kansas, near Lawrence, and her father was the first Jewish professor hired by the University of Kansas. She attended the U of K for her undergrad degree before moving on to the University of Chicago for an MBA and a PhD in American history. For this new novel she draws on both her Kansas childhood and her knowledge of 1850s America. Here's her description of the novel:
The political and social history of the state provides the backdrop for a story set in the Kaw River Valley where I grew up. Three families who have been farming in the Valley since their ancestors came as anti-slavery pioneers in the 1850’s have a long history of feuds and friendship. Two of the families, the Schapens and the Grelliers, are divided on almost every important issue, from the brand of Christianity they practice to the war in Iraq.

When Gina Haring, a young woman who is a lesbian and a Wiccan, rents an abandoned farmhouse close by, she serves as the catalyst for upheaval in all their lives. The Grelliers’ son Chip enlists in the army and goes to Iraq. His death there devastates the Grellier family.

The fundamentalist Schapens find themselves with what looks like a perfect red heifer in their dairy herd. Their belief that the heifer will speed Jesus’ return in glory adds to the turmoil in the valley. Gina’s bonfires, Chip Grellier’s death, the Schapens’ heifer and an exorcism at the Schapens church, combine in an explosive climax on Halloween.

Kirkus called it "Big, ambitious and heartfelt." Certainly worth a look for Kansas fans.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The Uncommon Reader

April Fool's Day seems a particularly English sort of thing. Despite attempts to point fingers across the Channel, mocking the humourless Germans or the pretentious French, the English reputation for stiff upper lip pomposity and class rigidity remains, and provides a rich source for English humour. And Monty Python's "upper class twit" sketch remains the gold standard for classic English humour: absurdity and silliness used to great effect, puncturing the pomposity of one's betters.
For the April Fool's Day Gazette picks I chose two recent Brit books, both of which poke a little fun at the muckety mucks: the Queen in The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett and the Greek gods in Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips.

The Uncommon Reader is a delightful novella about the transformative power of reading. When the Queen's corgis stray into a library bookmobile at Buckingham Palace’s back door, she feels obliged to borrow a book. Unexpectedly, a passion for reading blossoms, with amusing consequences for the realm. Bennett's humour credentials are impeccable, for he appeared in the groundbreaking satirical review, Beyond the Fringe, with Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Peter Cook way back in 1960.

Reading The Uncommon Reader reminded a colleague of Sue Townsend's 1992 novel
, The Queen and I. Townsend took a break from her popular Adrian Mole books to tell the amusing story of what might happen to the Royal Family if a radical republican party were to take power in Britain, tossing the Queen out of work! The entire Royal Family is sent to live on a hideous housing estate in a grim provincial city. The Queen copes well, buckling down to do her duty, but Philip loses it and takes to his bed. Charles gets in a brawl and is jailed, while his organic garden goes to pieces. And the Queen's corgi runs amuck with a pack of wild dogs. Quite amusing but sweet and not mean-hearted. The events since '92 (Diana and Charles notably) have dated the book, but it is still a funny book.

Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips is a bit of a buzz book, especially here in Canada (her website proudly notes that the book hit #1 on the Maclean's bestseller list at the end of March). In GBB, the ancient Greek gods are in a bad way. Their powers waning, their immortality in doubt, they’ve been living in a rundown London house for 300 years, squabbling and working tedious jobs. An entertaining farce, with the fate of the world at stake.

Have a foolish day!