Saturday, November 29, 2008

Not Buying It

I thought I'd stumbled upon a satirical piece from The Onion when I saw the headline, "Wal-Mart Employee Trampled to Death". Sadly, it isn't a joke. A 34-year old man died when 2,000 "Black Friday" shoppers/idiots surged into a Long Island, NY Wal-Mart. Later the Black Friday toll moved to three dead as two men had gunned each other down in a California Toys-R-Us store. An added bit of madness in the LA Times report about the aftermath at the Toys-R-Us: "Many shoppers Saturday were slightly skittish." Is there nothing that will keep the North American shopper from their appointed rounds?

Judith Levine took herself out of the shopping madness when she tried to not shop for a year, as reported in her book, Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping (2006). Given that one needs to shop to eat in North America, Levine and her husband had to define what was a need and what was a want. The year begins with enthusiasm but by fall she's weary. She makes use of the local public library (of course!, joins a local Simplicity group and participates in Buy Nothing Day (shouldn't be too difficult if you are already not buying anything!). An interesting look at consumerism and how what we buy can define who we are if we aren't careful.

Friday, November 28, 2008


Has the cure for affluenza been found? No, not influenza - affluenza, a "painful, contagious condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more." John De Graaf produced a documentary on this alarming affliction for PBS in 1996. He published a book, Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic on it in 2001.
The cure has always been available: stop buying stuff! Stop renting storage places to store the stuff! But perhaps the current economic slowdown is a stern reminder to really think about what consumerism, the endless pursuit of stuff, new stuff, better, bigger stuff, is doing to our lives, our families and our societies.

Today is the biggest shopping day in the U.S. (called Black Friday as it is the day retailers hope to move from the red into the black". But anti-consumerism activists in Vancouver, lead by Kalle Lasn and the Adbusters Magazine folks, established today as "Buy Nothing Day" back in 1992. The day has spread across the globe as it has merged with the zeitgeist of the simplicity movement, the slow movement, the anti-globalization movements ... Lasn talked about his ideas in his book Culture Jam: How to Reverse America's Suicidal Consumer Binge (2000) and recently in Design Anarchy (2006).

An excerpt from Culture Jam is published in a handy collection, The Consumer Society Reader (2000), along with other classic and new pieces: John Kenneth Galbraith from The Affluent Society, Thorstein Veblen on "Conspicuous Consumption", Malcolm Gladwell on
"The Coolhunt" and Thomas Frank on advertising as cultural criticism.

An interesting look at how the expansion of consumer choice (300 types of toothpaste!) hasn't made us happier, indeed, it appears to make us LESS happy is explored in The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More (2004) by Barry Schwartz.

What to fill the void that not shopping leaves? Why visit your local public library of course! The Library is first on this list of "Ten Things to Do Instead of Shopping."

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Song of Kahunsha

Happy Thanksgiving to the folks down below the 49th! With no snow on the ground hereabouts it almost feels like Thanksgiving today. With the economic troubles seeming to worsen daily, one could forget that we have much to be thankful for in North America, notably the freedom - knock on wood - from fundamentalist religious violence as erupted in Bombay (Mumbai), India yesterday.
It was just last week that I blogged about Bombay, talking about Salman Rushdie's comments in Edmonton about feeling at home in Bombay. He mentioned as well his feeling that the threat of communal religious violence seemed to be rising of late. Since last week I've stumbled upon some novels set in or about Bombay that seem apropos today.
The Song of Kahunsha is a 2006 novel by Vancouver writer Anosh Irani. He was born and grew up in Bombay before moving to Canada in 1998. He told the Calgary Herald:
Growing up in Bombay was the best thing that happened to me. Living in a place like that teaches you to handle pain. Because you see it everywhere. There is no way to escape the pain. And it gives you a sense of humour. Bombay has a great energy. But it is very dark now. Maybe it was always dark. Maybe the injustice and the corruption were always there. It just doesn't change. Even with the city doing so well with technology and economy. The real change will come only when we can change in other ways, poverty, injustice, corruption.
The Song of Kahunsha was one of the CBC Canada Reads picks for the 2007 session (promoted by writer Donna Morrissey). The novel is about an orphan boy named Chamdi who leaves his orphanage in search of his father as the 1993 Bombay religious riots are breaking out. Chamdi is befriended by Guddi, a young girl who is supporting her mother by begging on the streets. Chamdi joins her and is soon caught up in the violence, around him. Reviews mention 'heartbreaking but hopeful' a lot. It reminds me of one of the most depressing films I've ever seen, also about an orphaned boy on the streets of Bombay, Salaam Bombay!
Other Bombay novels:
and of course, Toronto master Rohinton Mistry's fabulous books, all set in Bombay:
and on a lighter note, the mystery novel series starring Bombay police detective, Inspector Ghote, written by Englishman H.R.F. Keating:

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Mercy Among the Children

CBC has launched the 2009 Canada Reads, which airs on CBC Radio March 2-6, 2009. Here's the lineup (annotations from CBC):
The Book of Negroes (2007) by Lawrence Hill
In Lawrence Hill’s gripping historical novel, an unforgettable heroine recounts a life story that spans more than 50 years and three continents. As Aminata Diallo moves from slavery to freedom, she fights to keep her dignity and find a place she can call home. Defended by: Avi Lewis

The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant (1981) by Michel Tremblay. Translation of La grosse gemme d'à côté est enceinte (1978) by Sheila Fischman.
In his lively and lovely first novel, Michel Tremblay pays tribute to the working-class Montreal of his childhood. Over 24 hours, the daily activities and social dramas of several pregnant women and their eccentric neighbours add up to a whole world.
Defended by: Anne-Marie Withenshaw

Fruit (2004) by Brian Francis
Brian Francis’ debut novel captures the many agonies – and a few ecstasies – of puberty in vivid and sometimes surreal detail. Peter Paddington is 13 years old and overweight when he sprouts a pair of talking nipples. When they threaten to out his secret desires, Peter has to come up with a real-life plan to get along with himself and others. Defended by: Jen Sookfong Lee

Mercy Among the Children (2000) by David Adams Richards
The events of David Adams Richards’ wrenching, compassionate novel stem from one pivotal moment. When 12-year-old Sydney pushes a schoolmate off a roof, he promises God he’ll never harm anyone else if the boy lives. His vow sets him on a path to heartbreak. Defended by: Sarah Slean

The Outlander (2007) by Gil Adamson
The Outlander is a classic western narrative with one twist: its outlaw anti-hero is a woman on the run after murdering her husband. In her flight, “the widow” encounters a gallery of strange characters in the rugged landscape of pioneer Alberta. Defended by: Nicholas Campbell

My prediction for the winner is Mercy Among the Children, based entirely on the track record of books defended by pop musicians winning this contest (2008, 2007, 2006, 2004). But The Book of Negroes and The Outlander are also good solid reads, defended by persuasive people. Avi Lewis grew up discussing big ideas around the dinner table with his dad, Stephen Lewis. Now married to Naomi Klein I imagine he continues to have to be persuasive around the table! But Nicholas Campbell played beligerent, bellicose and persuasive coroner Dominic Da Vinci on TV 's Da Vinci's Inquest (now available on DVD!) for years - would you argue with Da Vinci?

Monday, November 24, 2008

When Did You Last See Your Father?

An old line goes, "There are no new stories, just new ways of telling them." We're living one of the classic stories in Alberta at the moment: boom and bust. Tonight's "Reel Monday" film, When Did You Last See Your Father? at Grandin Theatre (7:00 pm) explores one of the oldest stories, father and son and the quest for understanding. The film is based on the 1993 memoir by poet Blake Morrison, which was an unflinching look at Morrison's conflicted relationship with his physician father. The book, and the film, intercut between Morrison at his dying father's bedside and Blake's funny, embarrassing and upsetting memories of his childhood and youth.
The book (whose title begins with "And" in the UK edition) was critically acclaimed on its publication, with Nick Hornby, no slouch at understanding men's inner lives, blurbing: "A painful, funny, frightening, moving, marvelous book … everybody should read it." Jay Parini, in the New York Times, noted that is was a "small classic", one of few "books that say anything fresh about the death of a parent." Morrison's website puts the book in a class with classic father-son memoirs by Philip Roth (Patrimony), Edmund Gosse (Father and Son) and J.R. Ackerley (My Father and Myself). [AWDYLSYF won the J.R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography in 1993].

Richler wrote about Toronto journalist Joe Fiorito's father-son 1999 memoir, The Closer We Are to Dying: "His splendid memoir about his relationship with his dying father belongs on that small shelf with Philip Roth's Patrimony and Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes." Just recently the Library received Peter Godwin's father-son memoir, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa, an "exquisitely written, deeply moving account of the death of a father played out against the backdrop of the collapse of the southern African nation of Zimbabwe" (Publishers Weekly).

The film of AWDYLSYF has received good reviews, with a Metacritic rating of 66 ("Generally Favorable") and 70% "Fresh" at Rotten Tomatoes. One of the best reviews was from the very stingy Rick Groen of the Globe & Mail, giving it 3 1/2 stars and noting:
"A middle-aged son waits at the deathbed of his ailing father, sifting through his many and mixed feelings for the old man - reverence, hatred, envy, embarrassment, respect, frustration, love. Of course, none of these conflicting emotions is unique to him. They're felt, to varying degrees at different times, by most flawed sons toward most flawed fathers, all those patriarchs who are neither ogres nor saints. That's why this honest, unsentimental and, in the end, deeply moving film packs such a resonant charge: The relationship it explores may be specific and particular, but the wellspring it taps into runs wide and deep."
But enough about the thoughtful thought about mortality and the father-son chasm, this film stars the thinking woman's crumpet, Colin Firth (aka Mr. Darcy)! There, I've guaranteed a sell-out for the Friends of the Library showing tonight! Jim Broadbent stars as the father, and it is interesting how Firth and Broadbent actually look like father and son.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Uncrowned King

Across the river from the M.G. Vassanji reading is another high-profile author event, this one hosted by the other Greenwood sister at Greenwood's Bookshoppe (7925 - 104 St @ 7:30 pm). Maclean's editor Kenneth Whyte will do an on-stage interview with the delightful Todd Babiak, focusing on Whyte's just-released book about American media mogul William Randolph Hearst.
Yes, the Citizen Kane "rosebud" guy. Born rich, Hearst (1862-1951) started by running his father's San Francisco newspaper and built a powerful national chain of papers and magazines. Some consider him the father of tabloid journalism for some of his papers' focus on lurid sensationalism, but his aggressive reporters were the ones getting the stories. For a look at a true tabloid journalism king, check out The Godfather of Tabloid: Generoso Pope Jr. and the National Enquirer by Jack Vitek.
Hearst was early on a progressive, a supporter of FDR and the New Deal, but his politics shifted rightwards later in life, at odds with public opinion. His
overextended media empire came crashing down in the 1930s, with a court seizing control in 1937. Remind you of anyone? Yes, Conrad Black, who, before beginning his media empire, "as a teenager, devoured W.A. Swanberg's biography of William Randolph Hearst, Citizen Hearst". And who did Conrad Black hire to run his new national newspaper, the National Post, in 1998? Kenneth Whyte. An interesting triangle. That's Whyte at the bottom of this post, as pictured in the New York Times, after testifying in defense of Black at his criminal trial in Chicago in 2007.

With the 1961 Swanberg bio and a weighty 2001 bio, The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst from David Nasaw, I don't think the world was desperately in need of another book about Hearst, but Whyte notes that his book focuses on Hearst's early career. He explains in an interview with Maclean's:
Q: I know your intent for the book wasn’t to create a full-fledged bio of Hearst, but to focus on the early portion of his career and his rise to prominence in newspaper publishing. Why that specific focus?
A: Well, a couple of reasons. One, that’s what I’m interested in. I’m a journalist so I was interested in Hearst as a journalist and a publisher and a newspaperman. The biographies of Hearst generally consider him to be a failure in his chosen profession. And his reputation in the industry is about as low as you can get. It all goes back to the period of so-called yellow journalism in the 1890s when Hearst went to New York and engaged Joseph Pulitzer in a newspaper war. I was going to do [the book] just on the newspaper war originally, but the more I read about it the more I began to realize that Hearst had been seriously misrepresented in these accounts. And that he’d done some astonishing work–even heroic work–and hadn’t gotten credit for it.
Whyte is an interesting guy himself. He grew up in Edmonton, starting his career in sports writing at the Sherwood Park News, moving on to the once-mighty right-wing mouthpiece, Alberta Report as reporter and then editor, before starting up The National Post for Black. I'm a Globe & Mail loyalist, but the years 1998-2000, into 2001, were magic for Canadian newspaper readers with two excellent papers every morning! Whyte assembled a great team of writers and designers at the Post and set a impertinent iconoclastic editorial tone. The Globe was forced to up its game and became a better paper thanks to the competition. But good things can't last - the Post lost buckets of money. The Asper family bought it and cut costs by cutting the pricey stuff - writers. Just recently the Post stopped publishing a weekday print edition in Manitoba and Saskatchewan and I don't think anyone will be surprised if it folds during the current economic downturn. Whyte was ditched by the Aspers in 2003. He moved on to Saturday Night magazine and then Maclean's. Forget about Hearst - I look forward to Whyte's memoir of his times in the media circus and the great Canadian newspaper war!

A Place Within

"Home is where your books are" is how Salman Rushdie answered Eleanor Wachtel's question the other night about where Rushdie's home is. He first noted that he is a person of the age, at home wherever he happens to be - New York City, or London or his childhood city of Bombay, India (I applaud his insistence that the place is Bombay, not Mumbai). He said that after moving hundreds of books from London to New York he knows he never wants to move again! But he noted that there's a certain feeling of "home" when he's in India. For an outstanding reflection on this return to childhood India theme, read Suketu Mehta's book, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. Like Rushdie, Mehta is a New Yorker, having moved from Bombay at 14. In this book he returns to Bombay, "the biggest, fastest, richest city in India" after a 21 year absence. It is a fascinating look at contemporary India.

M.G. Vassanji, the Toronto writer, resembles Rushdie in his peripatetic ways, but notes on his website that, "If pressed, I describe myself as an IndoAfrican Canadian writer. Attempts to box me in I find abhorrent." His new book is a memoir in which he travels in India, a place his ancesters left in the 19th century, for Africa. He's looking for that feeling of "home" too (from Philip Marchand's National Post review): "Why this obsession with the past?" he asks himself. "I can only conclude that it reflects the deep dissatisfaction of unfinished, incomplete migrations, a perpetual homelessness in my life."
M.G. Vassanji is in Edmonton tonight promoting the new book, A Place Within: Rediscovering India at a reading put on by Laurie Greenwood. The event goes at 7:30 pm at The ARTery, that wee venue on the sketchy side of town (sorry - it's true! Lots of free parking is the bonus.) - 9535 Jasper Ave.

Marchand makes note of Paul Theroux's new travel book, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar, in his Vassanji review. As with Vassanji, he travels through India by train, 33 years after traveling around Asia for his classic book, The Great Railway Bazaar.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Seductive Poison

30 years ago today that over 900 people died in the People's Temple mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana. Wouldn't it be nice to think that the world learned a lesson from that awful event and vowed the next century would be different? Alas, there seems a straight line from Jonestown to this century's blight of suicide bombings by fundamentalist religious zealots.
Deborah Layton is a Jonestown survivor. She was a high-level member of the People's Temple cult that moved from California to Guyana to build a socialist utopia. She realized the utopia had become a nightmarish dystopia, was able to escape to the US and warn authorities there. Ironically, it was the resulting investigation by U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan that sparked the mass suicide, with Ryan and four others assasinated after they arrived by plane in Guyana. Layton's memoir,Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the People's Temple, is a gripping story, even if we know how it all ends.

Journalist Tim Reiterman was with Ryan, and was shot and injured. He reflects on the anniversary in Time Magazine. Reiterman continued to work on the story for years, and in 1982 published the 600+ page, definitive book on Jonestown: Raven: the Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People.

An odd little thing here: CBC journalist Terence McKenna talking about Jonestown on December 1, 1978 on CBC's venerable TV show, Front Page Challenge, as he was one of the first reporters into Jonestown after the massacre. McKenna appears to be about 12 years old, with a big head of 1970s' hair. Panelist Gordon Sinclair asks some tactless questions, as he was wont to do. Need more about FPC? Read Front Page Challenge: History of a Television Legend by Alex Barris.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Massive Change

U of A's very successful inaugural Festival of Ideas wrapped up on Sunday with a matinee performance of the opera, Orfeo. I took in the Saturday evening performance and thought it was outstanding: lovely singing by some great singers, with accompaniment from a small orchestra playing a wild assortment of period instruments (three "chitarrones" - a long-necked bass lute).
The Festival is over but there's a bit of a hangover today. Two speakers from Festival events are speaking today at other events:
  • Edward O. Wilson presents the 2008 Henry Marshall Tory lecture at 10 am at Myer Horowitz Theatre on the U of A campus: "How the hand of evolution shapes every aspect of life." Wilson is a world-famous writer, intellectual and "father of the modern environmental movement".
  • Jaime Lerner speaks twice today at a one-day colloquium, "Edmonton on the Edge: Innovative Urban Planning and Design". Lerner is the former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, where he put in place many forward-thinking green innovations that have become the model for other cities around the world. This event is presented by the City-Region Studies Centre, which is affiliated with the U of A. The event takes place at the Delta Edmonton Centre Suite Hotel (10222-102 Street) and there is no charge for the afternoon and evening sessions. At 2:30 Lerner is part of a panel talking about "Making a great city" and at 7 pm Lerner makes a presentation entitled "Learning from the Curitiba experience: achieving urban change”.
I first heard about Jaime Lerner via Canadian designer Bruce Mau's book, Massive Change. Mau is famous for his iconic design work, but this book is "not about the world of design; it's about the design of the world." Basically it is a compendium of optimisitic approaches, solutions, ideas about the world and its problems, with a focus on climate change. Mau has a section devoted to Lerner and the ideas from the city of Curitiba.
Lerner and his ideas are also profiled in another cheerfully optimistic book, chock-full of writings about making positive change in the world: The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, edited by Paul Rogat Loeb. Environmental activist Bill McKibben has a piece talking about meeting Lerner in Curitiba. McKibben wrote about Lerner in his book Toward the Liveable City, which is included in a recent 'greatest hits' collection, The Bill McKibben Reader.