Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Last Resort: A Memoir of Mischief and Mayhem on a Family Farm in Africa

The Last Resort: A Memoir of Mischief and Mayhem on a Family Farm in Africa by Douglas Rogers was recommended to me. I have not read a book that was personally recommended to me in years. I usually have so many of my own books to read, or get them from the library, that I have ignored any titles that others may have recommended. The Last Resort tells the story of the author's parents and their resort in Zimbabwe at the time when the Mugabe government was expropriating farms owned and operated by white farmers. Rogers, born in Zimbabwe yet living in London, wrote a personal and detailed account of the government's encroachment upon his parents' property. Rosalind and Lyn Rogers, both born and raised in Zimbabwe, operated Drifters, the name for their home and backpacker lodge located in Mutare in eastern Zimbabwe near the Mozambique border. Douglas made frequent trips to Drifters and saw the ominous signs of governmental interference with each visit. Little by little the lodge was taken away from them, from the type of tenants who occupied the cabins to the sort of "business" operated within. Irony of ironies is that Drifters was not even classified by government inspectors as a farm, as it had no arable land. It was a money-making resort which was exempt from expropriation. Drifters was famous enough to have been written up in the Lonely Planet travel guides. 

In spite of government assurance that their property would not be expropriated because of its designation as non-farmland, Ros and Lyn were always prepared for a visit from the authorities and kept a rifle by their bedside. They did not live in fear, however. They went about their day-to-day business even while neighbouring farms were taken over or their farmers were attacked. They allowed the greenery around their resort to grow wild and untrimmed in order to hide it. The Rogerses never accepted whatever whimsical policies or characters the Mugabe regime sent their way. All too often they were met with a cloud of personless bureaucracy whenever they needed to talk to someone. Typical of Zimbabwean bureaucracy in the age of Mugabe was the endless runaround or goose-chase the farm owners had to contend with. The plight Ros had to endure to renew her passport will leave you with multiple eyerolls paired with bursts of exasperated laughter. Throughout this entire ordeal Douglas kept the laughs coming. You'd never think that a son, whose parents could face immediate eviction from a nighttime raid, would find anything funny in the matter. 

Douglas outlined the reasons behind Zimbabwe's hyperinflation when the government simply printed more money in its attempt to deal with the economic crisis. He made the story of the country's economic meltdown seem suspenseful and appealing. The national treasury printed banknotes in higher upon higher denominations, and the economy fell further into chaos. Ros Rogers wrote to her son:

"'I thought we had reached the bottom, but the elevator keeps going down,' Mom wrote to me. 'We are passing the basement now. Nevertheless, it is quite exciting to watch. You never know what a new day will bring.'"

Ros and Lyn had an incredible sense of resilience to feel this way. They never felt defeated as Drifters drifted into the hands of prostitutes, pimps, diamond miners and drug dealers. 

After I read this book I contacted the author via his website. The site featured dozens of colour photos of all the people in the book, including many of Ros and Lyn Rogers, as well as Drifters and the surrounding property. In my E-mail to Douglas I asked about his family and the state of Drifters. I am sad to say that in the preceding week, while I was still reading The Last Resort, Ros Rogers had died. Douglas had just visited his mother and father in Mutare. He told me that since the publication of The Last Resort, his parents had become quite famous and received many visitors, however Drifters has since closed. I love to reach out to authors when their books move me and the Rogerses' struggle against adversity will leave you feeling empowered among gales of laughter. I am truly saddened to hear of the death of Rosalind Rogers.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

God's Wolf

According to the judgment of history, Reynald De Chatillon was a “Bad Guy” of the highest caliber. All opinions in, allies and foes; they all agree. Stories abound of his cruelties. He’s so bad, he could have been buddies with Prince Vlad the Impaler, if only he’d lived three hundred years later.

God’s Wolf, a biography of the Crusader Reynald de Chatillon, is out to prove this abiding opinion wrong.

Author Jeffrey Lee, a journalist with a background in Arabic and Islamic history, takes the 843-year bad reputation of Reynald de Chatillon, knight of the Second Crusade, and turns it on its head.

Granted, Reynald was an upstart. The younger son of a lesser lord in France, he came on crusade to make his career, like many others of his class. And that he did. He married well, and very likely for love. He became the highly effective Prince of the great city of Antioch and the stepfather of the Empress of Byzantium--a marriage alliance that he orchestrated.  Then mid-career, mid-aggression, he was captured and incarcerated as a POW in Aleppo. Nur al-Din held him for fifteen years; one of the longest POW imprisonments of the era.

Upon being released, Reynald learned he had lost everything. His family, possessions, and princely holdings were all gone.  Reynald had to rebuild his reputation as a loyal king’s man, unbowed by years of torture and confinement, and to convince the influential men in Jerusalem that he was still a chivalrous preudhomme.  That he did, for the second time in his life.  

Reynald did gain something in the fifteen years he spent jailed in his enemy’s dungeon. He developed a deep knowledge of Muslim habits and horrors. He also gained a capacity for revenge.

Other influential men who had been jailed with him (but not for nearly so long), specifically Raymond, Count of Tripoli, became sympathetic to the Muslim leaders.  Raymond of Tripoli became a traitor to the Crusader cause, sowing doubt and dissension as well as deceptively leading hundreds of men in war, only to turn tail and leave them to their deaths. Raymond was one of the men who was left to tell the enduring stories that colour Reynald in evil shades.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The Crusades were a very dark time in world history, an example of the ills of colonialism at its very worst. And yes, Reynald was cold-blooded and cruel, and his audacious gouges at the heart of Islam still show the scars to this day.  However, the Western view of Reynald’s contributions in this seminal time in world history is strangely negative. This is despite the fact he was not alone in perpetrating these kinds of offenses, and that he was always a king’s man, and that he was true to all the attributes of chivalry, as identified at the time.     

Lee writes so engagingly that this book almost reads like a novel. It’s a fascinating polemic that re-examines the primary sources and the biases they reveal. Lee looks at all the facts; from Frankish, Byzantine and Arabic sources; to forge a new opinion on this much-maligned figure from history. And he does it in highly-readable style, incorporating fun references to the films The Manchurian Candidate and Ridley Scott’s historically inaccurate Kingdom Of Heaven. This is a fast-paced read that will provoke and challenge--a great book club choice! 

Monday, January 29, 2018

Browse: The World in Bookshops

Browse: The World in Bookshops, edited by Henry Hitchings, is a collection of fifteen short reminiscences about the personal significance bookshops had on a diverse assortment of international authors. Half of the stories Hitchings included were not originally written in English, so he employed the work of at least seven translators. My favourite retail space is a bookstore, and specifically a second-hand bookstore. In the introduction Hitchings revealed the hidden secret of second-hand books and the function of their new resting place:

"Discarded books are 'repositories of the lives they've been so close to', and a second-hand bookshop is a museum of special moments in those lives."

I have read many books about Finland and languages which I no longer intend to keep. If I slipped them into my library's ongoing book sale I wonder what the browsing public might think. There's a nerdy Fennophile linguist in our midst!

Juan Gabriel Vásquez wrote about the charm of bookstores: 

"A good bookshop is a place we go into looking for a book and come out of with one we didn't know existed. That's how the literary conversation gets widened and that's how we push the frontiers of our experience, rebelling against its limits. This is something else online commerce deprives us of: on a website we cannot discover anything, we can't bump into the unexpected book, because an algorithm predicts what we're looking for and leads us--yes, mathematically--only to places we already know."


"The best bookshops are places where the principle of serendipity, which in broad strokes consists of finding the book you need when you don't yet know you need it, presents itself in all its splendour. A reader's life is, among other things, this tissue of opportune coincidences."

I would go one degree further and state, to me personally at least, that Vásquez's remarks are more poignant when referring specifically to second-hand bookstores. Retail establishments that sell new imprints are to some extent predictable. If you want a new book, you will find it there. A second-hand store offers no guarantees what you'll find. The sense of discovery is all the more exciting when you find titles you never thought existed. Such were my experiences shopping at Schoenhof's, a foreign languages bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts. While the majority of the stock was in fact new, some of the language-learning materials specifically were old enough to be out of print. When their bricks-and-mortar store was still in existence I would spend hours there literally browsing the languages from A to Z. My blog posts are full of discoveries of spontaneous joys. The store operates only on-line now. My favourite retail establishment remains Helsinki's Akateeminen Kirjakauppa, the largest bookstore in Nordic Europe. 

Michael Dirda wrote:

"As a boy, I could lose myself utterly in a book; now I seem to lose myself only in used bookstores. Alas, neither sweet surrender nor wide-eyed wonder, except fleetingly, is advisable for a professional reviewer. Moreover, I'm one who, even on holiday, can't start an Agatha Christie paperback without a pencil in his hand. My mind tends to interrogate any text, on the alert for clues, telling details, key passages, the secret engines of the story. As a result, while reading remains a pleasure, it's become a guarded pleasure, tinged with suspicion. Quite reliably, however, my heart still leaps with childlike joy at the sight of row after row of old books on shelves."

Dirda gets two of my passions down in one paragraph: browsing in used bookstores and always reading in a reviewer's mindset. I will post a review of every book I read, even for books long out of print. 

Browse was a fast weekend read which will take you back to your fondest bookstore memories.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Reckless Daughter: A Joni Mitchell Anthology / Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell

Last year, fans of Joni Mitchell were rejoicing, if a bit confused. Rejoicing, because two books were published about Mitchell's life and work -- and confused, because the books have the same name. Reckless Daughter: A Joni Mitchell Anthology, edited by Barney Hoskyns, pulls together a chronological retrospective on Mitchell's work, told through previously published reviews and feature stories. Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell is a personal and musical biography written by David Yaffe. I love and am fascinated by all things Joni, so I tore through both books right away.

The Reckless Daughter anthology is a breezy, fast read. The chronological format lets the reader see Mitchell's career unfold and progress. If you've followed her music throughout her long career, it's an interesting perspective and reminder of the different paths her music as forged. If you're a newer fan or, more likely, jumped in somewhere along the way, it's bound to be enlightening.

As always with anthologies, some of the choices in this collection are surprising. The treatment of Mitchell's music in the music press was sometimes savage and unfair. Critics often wrote about Mitchell's personal life -- or what they imagined they knew of her personal life, based on her lyrics -- and could be blatantly sexist. Little of that is included in Reckless Daughter. So while the book offers an interesting overview, it's also not representative of how Mitchell's music was perceived and written about. Readers may enjoy that, or may find it lacking. I also wondered why Hoskyns didn't include reviews of Mitchell's most acclaimed albums, Blue and Court and Spark. Despite any of this, it's an enjoyable and interesting read.

* * * *

Several biographies of Joni Mitchell exist, but the latest -- Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell -- represents the first time a biographer has had extended access to the artist herself. David Yaffe spent a lot of time with Joni Mitchell over many years. For fans, the opportunity to hear Mitchell's own views on her life and her work are thrilling.

Reckless Daughter is both a personal and a musical biography. Along with the story of Mitchell's life, Yaffe delves deeply into Mitchell's creative process, mining where the songs came from and how they were recorded. The book is packed with fascinating musical details. A famed Steinway piano -- the "Studio C piano" at A&M records -- was the only one Mitchell would play for her masterpiece Blue. Carole King, in the midst of recording her own masterpiece, Tapestry, had to rush in to use the Studio C Steinway before Mitchell's crew arrived. The clock was ticking on one three-hour session, and King recorded "I Feel the Earth Move" in three takes.

Some years earlier, Mitchell and Jimi Hendrix were both performing in Ottawa. In his diary, Hendrix refers to Joni, fantastic girl with heaven words." Hendrix and drummer Mitch Mitchell went see Joni in a small club. They both loved the show, and Hendrix taped it. (The tapes no longer exist.) As it turned out, they were all staying in the same hotel, on the same floor. They spent an evening of deep musical friendship together -- while being hassled by hotel security.

There are also a lot of gossipy bits about Mitchell's relationships, and much analysis and speculation as to back story of various lyrics. In fact, there's a lot of everything. Yaffe has unearthed a huge amount of Joni Mitchell lore, and it's a gold mine for fans.

Yaffe clearly loves and admires Mitchell in every respect. I've read reviews that accuse Yaffe of an uncritical, adoring attitude. For fans like me, who for years have seen Mitchell savaged, misunderstood, and dismissed in an uncomprehending media, the adulation is overdue and very welcome.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

God: A Human History

Reza Aslan was already a recognized author of books featuring the history of religion when he published Zealot, a work examining the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. It was the thought provoking nature of that book that made him a star in his field of research. Now Aslan sets his sites even higher (literally and figuratively) with his latest tome, God: A Human History.

God: A Human History takes the reader on a journey from humanity’s first religious awakenings in the stone ages up to the monotheisms that dominate the globe today. It is, perhaps, no longer a controversial to claim that humans the world over have always had a deep need to connect with the Divine (however one wants to define that term). Aslan in going right back to the first human communities underscores this point. He draws some conclusions about the antiquity of belief in a god from an analysis of the incredibly ancient cave art of Europe. The conclusions are, I believe, highly speculative since we have little (actually, truth be told, we have nothing at all) to guide the would-be art critic in analysing why these images were produced. That being said, Aslan’s overall thesis that humans have always yearned for God, or a god or gods, is correct. It is the extension to this argument that really makes the book shine. Aslan argues, further, that humans have vacillated between a humanized God (one that is relatable to common folk) and a God that is ineffable; in other words we either anthropomorphise God and use concepts that everyone can understand or we gaze in awe at the remoteness, the sheer unknowability, of a thoroughly unhuman-like Divine. It has always been thus: a God close-to-us or a God far-from-us. I think he’s on to something.

The majority of the book is taken up with this dialectical theme of the humanized God versus the distant, unknowable God. Added to this picture by way of explaining how a belief in the Divine is universal across all times and cultures (with a nod of recognition to our atheist friends) is the equally ancient belief in the human soul. This is a little more controversial and harder to prove than the thesis that accounts for the ubiquity of belief in a Divine Something, but I think it is interesting and, possibly, valid.

I like books in this vein. Take an old idea and say something fresh and new about it. God: A Human History is that kind of book.

If I had to make one criticism of the work, and it is a major one, it would be that Aslan’s concluding claim that pantheism is to be preferred as our best understanding of the Divine is simply unwarranted; unwarranted because the historical analysis does not support such a claim. Pantheism is notoriously difficult to define it raises more questions than it answers. Even if pantheism were true (and I don’t think it is) the history of how humans have related to God is just that: a history of our attempts to deal with the basic human desire for the transcendent. You can’t pull pantheism as “the truth of divinity” out of the historical record. You would be asking human social history to provide more than it can justify.

Despite Aslan’s head-scratching final remark, God: A Human History is a fun read. I recommend it to those who enjoy the history of religions and to those who are entertained by new ideas. 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

A Mile of Make-Believe: A History of the Eaton's Santa Claus Parade

I was hoping that A Mile of Make-Believe: A History of the Eaton's Santa Claus Parade by Steve Penfold would interest me more than it did. Its premise--a book about Christmas with local content--could hardly fail. When I got back from Tristan da Cunha and looked through my library to decide what to read next, I couldn't resist this book, since the Toronto Santa Claus Parade was coming up in three weeks. I'd read it in time for the parade. Yet this history either sped along (I surprised myself how many pages I could get through in such a brief time) or it was a dull plod. The text was swamped with endless endnotes that I soon learned to read at the end of each chapter instead of flipping to the back after encountering each superscript. Rarely did any endnote provide me with further insight or detail. In spite of the speedy page-turning interludes I was never inspired to read this book other than during meal breaks at work or while riding public transit. 

That said, I will rave about what I did like about this book. Black-and-white photos chronicling Eaton's parade history filled its pages, and I when I saw the black square of a photo bleeding through the page I was currently reading, I couldn't wait to finish the page to turn it over and see the snapshot from parade history. And the history was what drove the book. Even a prelude analyzing parade culture in general kept my attention. I could not, however, grasp the cutesy terminology of "the corporate fantastic" and "the civic fantastic" which overexplained each dynamic which kept the various Eaton's Santa Claus Parades alive. The business side to the parades frequently went off-topic and I found the overuse of the terms' "fantastic" in the text to be annoying. Perhaps Penfold was trying to conjure up a sense of whimsy and fun by transferring "the fantastic" to the corporate and civic sides of the parade, but it seemed affected.

I did enjoy Penfold's vast research which involved combing through Toronto archives, Eaton's archives and years and years of newspapers. Every year Eaton's fielded complaints from parade viewers disappointed by the lack of religious imagery. Shouldn't a Christmas parade have at least one religious float? What people didn't realize is that Eaton's didn't start off with a religious parade and gradually drop religious imagery over the years; the parade never had it in the first place. The function of the parade since its beginning in 1905 was to draw public attention to Santa and his trip from the North Pole to Eaton's toy department. It was a commercial endeavour since day one. Nevertheless, Eaton's was prepared for those seeking a more spiritual function: 

"Eaton's planners appear to have dealt with these tensions by avoiding them. In every city and across the decades, the parades were consistently non-religious, apparently by design. In Toronto, [parade producer] Jack Brockie remained steadfastly opposed to addressing the religious basis of the holiday in the parade, despite intermittent public pressure and the company's well-known reverence for its founder's Victorian Methodism. In a typical letter, Mrs William Kingley wrote that the spectacle was wonderful but might recognize 'the true meaning of Christmas' by featuring a float of 'the babe in the manger, the shepherds, and the star.' Eaton's officials always answered such letters politely, but normally pointed correspondents to the company's Nativity Window on Yonge Street. On rare occasions, biblical symbols appeared in the parades, but they were normally recast to highlight colour, character, and even comedy. In 1920, a monkey sat on Noah's Ark 'contentedly smoking a pipe,' while four decades later a float of the same biblical story presented 'a fully stocked menagerie' with Noah in a blue sailor suit being towed by 'two frisky blue whales.' Neither was likely to please a devout Christian."

Decades of the parade changed the way the public reacted to the onset of Christmas. For some, it gave them permission to start planning and decorating. No one could accuse them of starting too early if the parade had already come and gone:

"Finally, Santa in public requires an understanding of the contested and complicated definitions of the Christmas season itself. Almost everyone agreed that 25 December was Christmas Day, but no one seemed sure when the more nebulous Christmas season should begin. The absence of any clear calendrical or official definition, in the end, allowed the Santa Claus parade to define the beginning of the season. By appearing in public space, then, the Eaton's Santa helped to shape public time."

Eaton's took its parade on the road and for decades Winnipeg, Montreal, Calgary and Edmonton hosted their own version of the Eaton's parade. Some, like Montreal, even used the Toronto floats. With the advent of television broadcasting in 1952, the parade took on a new focus of corporate branding. With cameras beaming the parade from coast to coast, it was a chance for Eaton's to run an hour-long commercial at the same time. The television era brought the company name to the fore, with floats branded by the Eaton's logo and parade theme names changed:

"Overall themes eventually included the company's name, so that typical 1950s 'Parade of Merry Times' (1957) or 'Santa's Carousel of Color' (1960) gave way to 'At Eaton's Christmas Comes to Life' and 'Let Eaton's Share a Special Moment with You' (1973 and 1974)."

Although professional hosts and news anchors hosted the parade for television, nonetheless, scripts were prepared in advance. It would have been unappealing to the audience--mainly children--for the hosts to reel off a series of statistics about the length of each float or the number of sequins used in princesses' gowns. Thus the writers created the parade scripts with a sense of wide-eyed whimsy so that they could be read straight off the page for their intended childhood audience. The hosts therefore did not have to reinterpret boring statistics into a wondrous story on live television. In addition to these descriptions the writers sprinkled the scripts liberally with Eaton's references. I am glad that Penfold had access to parade producer Jack Brockie's post-mortem parade reviews of the broadcast wherein he "...often complained that commentators didn't follow the script, and (perhaps most disturbingly) forgot to mention Eaton's." 

I attended the final Eaton's Santa Claus Parade, the 77th, on November 1, 1981. I recall that no one I spoke to liked the early parade date, the earliest in the parade's history. I even remember seeing children whose faces still had traces of make-up whiskers and dark noses from their previous night's Halloween costumes. The following year was the first Metro Santa Claus Parade, after Eaton's shocked the nation that August by announcing it was cancelling the 1982 parade as a cost-saving measure. Penfold shared the reasons for the Eaton's parade pullout and the efforts by corporate and civic officials to keep the parade alive. He also had the perspective of economic history to analyze the decline of department store culture in general and how the mismanagement of Eaton's led to its bankruptcy in 1999. I attended this first ever Metro Santa Claus Parade on November 14 at its start on Christie Street. Thankfully the parade has continued every year since Eaton's pulled out, and the successive numbering has reverted to its start in 1905. Thus the parade this year on Sunday, November 19 will be the official 113th annual. 

For a superior visual history of the parade, I recommend the Global Television Production from 2004 "100 Years of the Santa Claus Parade". I watch it every year. Penfold provided a valuable history of the parade if you can withstand the lengthy sociological and economic tangents which detract from the story. The author proved his point about Eaton's in that:

"Eaton's did not invent the Santa Claus parade--there were a few scattered versions in other North American cities before 1905--but it was an important player in their redefinition into a sophisticated form of commercial art and popular culture."

Find this book in the Mississauga Library System's on-line catalogue

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women

Readers of a certain age might remember clocks and watches with glowing green dials. The dials were painted with radium, the radioactive element discovered by Marie Curie. We had clocks like this when I was growing up. I have a distinct memory of my mother saying, "The women who worked in the factories where these were made got very sick. They had to put the paintbrushes in their mouths, in order to paint the tiny numbers and dots, and they all got sick, and some died."

I never forgot that -- yet I never heard it mentioned anywhere else. Who were those women? Why were they putting a radioactive substance in their mouths? When I saw a review of The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women, I knew that someone finally had answered those questions. The story of those women was finally told.

And what a story it is.

The young, working-class women in Orange, New Jersey, and Ottawa, Illinois, who painted radium dials thought they had it made. Not only was the pay better than most of work available to women, but they got to work with radium, the exciting glow-in-the-dark substance that everyone was talking about. When one "girl" got sick and died, a doctor ruled the cause of death was syphilis (despite zero evidence and the impossibility of that claim). Another death was ruled pneumonia (also wrong). But as more and more of the workers became sick -- with horrific and inexplicable symptoms -- the pattern became obvious.

When the watch-painting first began, in the late 1920s, the danger of radioactive substances was still largely unknown. Faced with suspicions as multiple workers became sick, the company commissioned a study... then suppressed the findings.

As the women lost their teeth, suffered broken bones, lost their hair, lost pregnancies, became weak, and died, their employers worked overtime at suppressing the truth, denying responsibility, refusing to pay for medical care, and blaming the workers themselves.

If this story was fiction, the companies' actions would be barely credible; readers would say the author laid it on too thick, making the company out to be monsters. Some of the dirty dealings left me gasping. At one point, the women were all seeing the same doctor. They didn't know that the doctor worked for the company. Then it turned out he wasn't even a doctor! Officially, the women died of radium poisoning. But this book leaves no doubt: these workers were murdered.

Labour laws at the time were in their infancy: if a disease wasn't on a short list of specific conditions, workers had no legal recourse. What's more, even those few conditions were subject to a strict statute of limitations -- for which radium poisoning, by definition, would never qualify.

The media and publicity were much different, too. The two factories in two different states, with workers suffering through the same ordeals, were unknown to each other. When the New Jersey cases finally garnered national and international attention, the workers in the Illinois factory realized they were in the same situation. And when the Illinois women took the company to court, the town turned against them. With the country in the grip of the Great Depression, anyone who could supply jobs was welcome. (This itself is a sad and telling commentary about working class life.)

Sick, disabled, and dying, the women were truly on their own. But they fought back, and they didn't give up. Their fight changed the world. Labour laws changed, scientific and medical knowledge were advanced, and precedence was set for greater corporate accountability.

Fans of Hidden Figures and the less famous but equally amazing Glass Universe will want to read this book. If you enjoy hidden histories, stories of struggle and perseverance, and real-life heroes a la Erin Brockovich and Karen Silkwood, this book is for you.

My only criticism of The Radium Girls is the writing itself. It could have used another round of editing to tighten up excessive detail and delete some unprofessional colloquialisms. Whether anyone who is not a writer or editor will notice, I don't know. Any qualms I have about the language are far outweighed by the riveting story. [This review originally appeared on wmtc.]