Thursday, February 9, 2017

Isabella: The Warrior Queen

When authors choose their subjects for the biographies they plan to write, I wonder how many of them ask themselves the simple question: How much did this individual accomplish in his/her lifetime? Few individuals, I would suggest, can compare with the array of items on the “To Do List” of Queen Isabella of Castile (1451—1504). In this sense, author Kirstin Downey chose her subject wisely.
Isabella had little down-time in her eventful life yet things started off rather quietly for her. Isabella, a girl (obviously), 2nd child of King John II of Castile and Isabella of Portugal was not expected to rule and her birth was not celebrated or even widely known in her homeland of Castile y Leon. Yet by the whims and quirks of historical circumstances, and with no small measure of guile, planning, courage and luck, Isabella ascended to the throne. Actually, amidst the succession mayhem that ensued upon the death of King Enrique, she essentially crowned herself. You would have to dust off some very old history books in search of a precedent for a female as sole ruler of a kingdom in Iberia, or any place in all of Europe for that matter. Names such as Urraca and Queen Berenguela are Iberian figures from the deep middle ages, figures obscured by time. Isabella was acutely aware of the rarity of what she was trying to accomplish; she wanted to be THE queen with ultimate say regarding the affairs of Castile (her husband Ferdinand had ultimate say in Aragon, it was how they worked out their particular marital arrangement). Queens did rule in Europe but only at the pleasure of their husbands, the Kings, who ensured the populace bent their collective knees when the female royal so ordered.
Life as queen of a troubled kingdom was not easy. A war with Portugal, not to mention appeasing many disgruntled Spanish Grandees, was her introduction to high-stakes politics in the Renaissance age. But she handled matters effectively. Isabella had grit and determination in abundance. Besides overseeing a war abroad against the king of Portugal over her succession and dealing with the bitter rivalries of nobles and courtiers at home, what else occupied the time of the Queen of Castile? To begin, she initiated and completed the conquering of Granada (the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian peninsula), she sponsored the voyages of a wannabe explorer named Christopher Columbus with his tantalizing plan to sail to India by crossing the Atlantic Ocean, she brought considerable pressure to bear on Papal elections (the notorious Pope Alexander VI, patriarch of the influential Spanish Borgia family, was a sometimes friend-sometimes enemy of Isabella), she helped keep the powerful French armies out of Aragon, she was instrumental in organizing a pan-Christian-European response to the very aggressive Ottoman Empire. If this seems like a lot for a person to handle in one lifetime, you would be absolutely correct. Yet Isabella had more on her plate. Columbus, as we know, didn’t land in India he landed on the as-yet unknown (to Europeans) continents of the Americans. Isabella alone among European monarchs was first to realize the magnitude of the discovery and its future possibilities. Now she added to her already busy schedule the colonization of the “new world.” Isabella was also principally responsible for bringing the cultural spirit of the Renaissance to the Iberian Peninsula. She had a deep appreciation for the value of art and education and felt keenly her own lack of education; her parents didn’t think educating her beyond the intricacies of needlepoint was worthwhile. Isabella insisted that all of her children (girls included) receive the best education Spanish gold could buy. She accomplished more, too much for me to list for you here. You’ll have to read the book if your curious.
Downey’s book does a very good job bringing Isabella to life. The author pays particular attention to the challenges Isabella faced as a woman in a man’s world. This aspect of Isabella’s life story does not define her, but it was a major theme throughout her life. Isabella: The Warrior Queen is a rags to riches tale featuring a very gutsy, likable heroine and is recommended for fans of royal biographies and Spanish history buffs.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Who Needs Books?

This little booklet is the transcript of a lecture given for the Canadian Literature Centre as part of the Kreisel Lecture Series. At 49 pages, it is more than ideal for a coffee-talk or brief book club meeting. It is written (and was delivered) by Lynn Coady, author of Hellgoing and The Antagonist.
The premise is that books are at their marketable end and “who needs ‘em?” The fact that this essay was published as a book after being a lecture might head-off the reader where the author is going to go. The medium is indeed the message in this case.
Coady begins with relating her first introduction to an interactive metafiction.   The book in question was narrated by Grover, as in Sesame Street’s blue furry monster, who doesn’t want the young reader to make it to the end of the book, where there is a terrible monster.
The fact that this book celebrated the physical experience of moving through a book, engaging each page as the weight of the pages shift from the one side of the cover to the other, is just as important as the fact that this brilliant little book was based on a TV show. Wasn’t television seen as “the idiot box”, or the “natural enemy of books in the wilds of modern life”, as described (tongue-in-cheek) by Coady?  Does that one villainous fact outweigh the other virtues inherent in this book that so inspired young Coady?
It is important to point out that books did not disappear in the ensuing years after television.   Readers did not give up reading in order to only watch TV. Yet here we are, bemoaning again the loss of the book under the shadow of another medium. This time it is the Internet. Despite all the worry inspired by other well-established authors who are quoted in this treatise (Jonathan Franzen, Will Self), this anxiety has proven to have little foundation.
Coady offers perspective by quoting from an 1859 Scientific American article that finds the pervasiveness of a new hobby “an amusement of a very inferior character, which robs the mind of valuable time that might be devoted to nobler acquirements.” The writer is lamenting about a preoccupation with the game of chess.
Chess did not supplant books. Nor did the printing press cause cathedrals to fall (another terrific citation found by Coady), but it did make people aware that spellings and grammar vary constantly, that language is always changing--or deteriorating, if you are a negative thinker. But the presses are still churning out physical books 577 years later. And stories are not born until they are received; read, heard, seen, felt in whatever form.
 Don't you need books?

Friday, January 13, 2017

Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450 --1650

The title is what first caught my eye when I browsed the new books shelf at my library. Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450 – 1650 by Carlos M. N. Eire. It is arresting because of the pluralized form of the word: reformation. Normally we think of the great disruptions that rocked the religious world of early modern Europe as all falling under the rubric of “The Reformation” a label that encompasses the great discontent of a nascent Protestant movement against the perceived corruption and moral laxity of the Catholic Church. This book by Carlos M. N. Eire seeks to complicate the picture and does an excellent job at that.

The years covered span 1450 to 1650, a sizable chunk of time with a lot going on. For the most part the setting is Europe though the new world (North America) and the Middle East are discussed tangentially. There are four main sections to the book each a logical step in the historical development of the era. We begin with a section on the pre-reformation time of the late middle ages, a time of growing unhappiness and overall disgruntlement with the status quo. The next section is simply titled Protestants and covers the religious revolution brought on by Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and others. The proceeding section is titled Catholics and covers the reaction of that camp to the movements of the Protestants (a period often referred to as the counter-reformation). Lastly a section called Consequences fills out the picture of these tumultuous two hundred years.  As I said the outline is logical and it makes the rather lengthy treatise (the book runs to about 760 pages) flow a little quicker.

The simplicity of the outline is, however, misleading---in a good way. What Eire does is demonstrate the dynamics of influence ebbing and flowing between all of the participants in this historical drama. For example, at one point Eire talks about the Deists and their rational-religious movement and how the Protestants and Catholics both reacted to them in similar ways with similar critiques. The inclusion of such disparate players on the political stage with the usual participants (Protestants and Catholics) makes for a fuller account of the era. Another example of the dynamics of influence is the inclusion by the author of critiques of geographic place. The reformation was viewed differently and reaction to the events of this time played out differently depending on where one was on the continent, that is to say, the energy of the epoch diffused differently depending on where one lived. The Scots were restless in one way the Spaniards in another. I appreciate how the author shows the different actions and reactions to all that was happening at the time. I like that the picture of the time is muddied.

This is essentially the great merit of this work, it demonstrates how complicated the era was. Most accounts of the Reformation simplify the narrative to Protestants vs Catholics. But Eire shows how there were smaller reformations occurring even within these two larger camps. There were reactions to various renditions of the Protestant theological outlook happening within the Protestant communities that did as much to divide them as to unite them. Similarly, the Catholic Church was having to deal with many different and often competing catholicisms (if I can use that word). For example, heresy flirting mystics did battle with theologians who insisted on their form of orthodoxy. Add to this interesting Catholic-political-theological cocktail the explosion of new religious orders, with the Jesuit order being one conspicuous example, and you have a recipe for fascinating political history; fascinating because it’s messy.

All of it, the nuances in theological debates, the new religious orders, the rational and atheistic reactions to the ongoing religious strife, the shifting alliances, makes for enjoyable and informative reading. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in religious ideas, high stakes political debate and conflict and, generally, a love of European history.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Muslimah Who Fell to Earth: Personal Stories by Canadian Muslim Women

Twenty-one women contributed to The Muslimah Who Fell to Earth: Personal Stories by Canadian Muslim Women, edited by Saima S. Hussain. Hussain selected a diverse assortment of stories to reflect the myriad lives of Canadian Muslim women, thus no two stories were the same. Some women were born in Canada, while some were from immigrant families. Some women wore hijab or niqab, while others didn't. Some were not heterosexual while others cussed like sailors. Most women were able-bodied but one was blind and used a wheelchair. The point in selecting these contributions was to show the reader that there was more than one kind of Muslim woman out there, and she could be as diverse within her faith as in any other religious group. I was touched by the stories by women who were struggling in their marriages or going through divorces. 

Many of the immigrant women wrote to praise Canada for its openness to diversity and acceptance of Islam and the choice of some Muslim women to wear hijab. These testimonials touched me most of all. Azmina Kassam wrote:

"I was learning more about being Canadian, which has meant for me openness, tolerance, curiosity, and respect. It has been about engaging the other in meaningful dialogue so as to learn and expand one's understanding."

Mona Hashim, who wears hijab, wrote: "I have to admit that throughout my ten years in Toronto, I always felt welcome wherever I went. People helped me to get my shopping cart to the bus, guided me through the downtown streets. Once, on a dark and cold Christmas eve, a nice bus driver pointed out to us the mosque in Scarborough. Of course there were a few incidents where I was called names and had the middle finger raised at me. But generally speaking, I didn't feel like a stranger."

The hijab is a major theme in some of the stories, as the writers shared their reasons for abandoning it when they came to Canada, or for deciding to wear it later. Each woman had her own reasons for wearing hijab or niqab, and all of them do so freely as their own personal choice. Mariam Hamaoui sums up the whole "issue" of wearing hijab in a paragraph that the French government should read and apply:

"I support those who wear the hijab and I support those who don't wear the hijab. Hijab is a choice. Often difficult, but the choice has to be made by the woman. If a woman chooses to wear it, it is not for the sake of anyone else but for herself and God. Neither her mother nor her father can order her to wear it. Neither her brother nor her husband can order her to wear it. It is a choice and as such should be respected. By the same token, women who decide that the hijab is not for them should be respected equally and should not be ridiculed or disrespected."

Yet Tammara Soma summed it up the most succinctly:

"It takes a strong heart and a thick skin to wear a hijab."

If I ever hear Islamophobic prejudice against the hijab or niqab, I draw attention to women of another religious group, a group protected in our own constitution: Catholic nuns. Nuns are covered in a garb very close in resemblance to that worn by some Muslim women. Why does a nun's head and body covering threaten no one, yet a Muslimah's gives rise to such prejudice? 

The women write about their struggles with mental illness, integrating and finding work, yet the comic relief is provided by the stories about overbearing relatives who try to fix them up with potential husbands. I especially liked the poems and vignettes by Meharoona Ghani in "Letters to Rumi". In it, she feels conflicted while ogling a muscular construction worker:

"We passed a construction worker whose tight white t-shirt outlined his muscular upper arms and chest, revealing a hint of a tattoo below his collarbone. 'I've always wanted a tattoo...wait...I don't think I should be staring at him while I'm wearing a hijab and observing Ramadan!'"

Almost all of the stories followed a similar style of narrative, as a first-person chronological account of each writer's history as a Muslim woman in Canada. Two of the stories were endnoted and one in particular was like a formal dissertation: Maryam Khan's "Queering Islam Through Ijtihad", who tripped over herself from the very first paragraph in trying not to offend. Two stories integrated the authors' own poetry, which was a welcome treat within the reading experience.  

Hussain left the writers' stories in their original states, without any kind of editorial explanations or parenthetical insertions to elaborate on some Muslim (or specifically Arabic) terminology. For the most part, meanings could be derived from context, yet there were some instances where an explanation would have been helpful. Perhaps Hussain left the texts in their original states to show the authenticity of the writers, however I feel that the following grammatical gaffes should have been corrected. In all of the quotations below, the I in italics should be me:

"As we settled into our new life in Cairo, my parents had to make some difficult choices regarding schooling for my siblings and I." (pp. 34-35)

"...and as our family grew bigger, the distance between my biological father and I grew wider." (p. 73)

"It eventually become [sic] a home to my brother and I when many years later my mom remarried..." (p. 99)

"Yup, those white kids surrounded my sister and I, made fun of our names and yelled 'Paki' and 'Hindu.'" (p. 153)

The Muslimah Who Fell to Earth took its name from one of the stories within, and its author, Munirah MacLean, explained the origin of the title. It certainly is a brilliant title for this collection. As a non-Muslim man, the twenty-one stories left me feeling proud of Canada and of being Canadian, yet most of all proud of living in a country that welcomes diversity and thrives on it, while our neighbour to the south recoils in horror at the thought of a threat to its national security from Syrian refugees. The US should hang its head in shame. Please take the opportunity to see Hussain and some of the contributing authors as they promote this book in public readings throughout the Greater Toronto Area. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think

By Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods

Authors Hare and Woods, experts in evolutionary development, share many fascinating insights into canine – as well as human – evolution in their book, The Genius of Dogs

While an undergraduate, Hare realized that he was much more interested in studying evolution than in pursuing a career in baseball. He would go on to become a famous anthropologist and author – and also married the research scientist, Vanessa Woods, author of Bonobo Handshake, and co-author of this book.

Brian Hare starts with the story of their family dog, Tassie, who learned quickly how to distinguish between its own dog toys and those of the new baby – through inference. He then goes on to tell the story of how, as a seven year-old, he would play ball games with his dog, Oreo, who developed skill in reading the boy’s pointing signals. Ten years later while helping his university professor with a signalling game with chimpanzees, Hare commented, “I think my dog can do it.” They gave Oreo the test, and sure enough, the dog passed it with ease. Through further experiments, Hare and his professor proved that dogs are capable of inference. For example, a dog can understand that a human is referring to a new, unnamed object if s/he uses a new word to refer to it. 

Hare uses a table to show dogs' cognition relative to other mammals, such as apes and dolphins. He states:

The genius of dogs is their ability to understand human communication and their motivation to cooperate with us. Their genius is why they are so easy to train. But dogs also have biases and limitations to their understanding of how the world works.

A university professor comments on a study of domesticated foxes in Siberia. Hare sees the congruence in the evolution of these foxes, dogs, and prehistoric humans. No animal was harmed in the experiments. 

This book will appeal to dog lovers, especially those who seek to understand better how dogs think and why they behave as they do. The Genius of Dogs may also prove a great read for those interested in evolutionary development.

Find this title in the Library catalogue.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North

Canadians might be disappointed to learn that Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North is not about Canada.

We sometimes refer to Canada as the Great White North, but the Canada that most Canadians inhabit has little in common with the stark landscapes that author Blair Braverman called home. In the northernmost reaches of Norway or on an Alaskan glacier,these are lands of stark conditions -- brutal cold, perpetual darkness, and little in the way of creature comforts. They are also places of great natural beauty. Often, too, a rough world with very few women, where sexual violence always hovers as a possibility.

Braverman grew up romanticizing The North and craved it as her proving ground. She seized some opportunities and created others, to test herself in the The North that she dreamt of.

In Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube, we travel with Braverman to a tiny village in the north of Norway, where she works to fit in with an insular and unwelcoming local culture, to a Norwegian folk school where she learns to dogsled and survive under extreme conditions, and to a glacier in Alaska (the "ice cube" of the title), where she works as a tour guide and dogsledder.

These adventures alone would make an interesting and entertaining book. Braverman's clear, sparkling prose makes a fast and easy read. But Braverman brings another layer to her adventure story: the treatment she encounters as a young woman in a hyper-masculine world.

As an exchange student, Braverman is bullied, demeaned, sexually menaced, and finally assaulted by the father of her Norwegian host family. Frightened and without support, Braverman takes the all too common route: she blames herself. Then she takes that blame and self-doubt, and an ever-present (and not unfounded) fear of sexual violence, with her on her northern journeys.

Braverman blends these threads into a coming-of-age memoir, a travelogue, and an adventure tale.

I love dogsledding and the North from afar, so I was in awe -- and more than a little envy -- of Braverman's adventures. Her descriptions of driving a dogsled through a blizzard whiteout, or taking care of tourists stranded on the glacier, are true page-turners. At the same time, her descriptions of her dogs, and her love for them, bubble with honesty and enthusiasm. Her reflections on her relationships -- with a boyfriend who bullies her, with an elderly shopkeeper who becomes her chosen family, and finally, with a true partner -- are insightful and articulate. Braverman has a great ability to bring out one or two sparkling details that paint a vivid picture, without slowing the pace or getting bogged down in dense descriptions.

I had only one criticism of this book. The narrative jumps between different times and places. In general this would be fine, but with flashbacks and flash-forwards within flashbacks, I was often unable to follow the sequence of events. Was this before or after Alaska? Is this a subsequent trip to Norway or the same one? I couldn't piece together the timeline.

That's a flaw, but not a deal-breaker by any means. I just stayed in the present and didn't worry what happened when. By the time Braverman is ready to mentally and emotionally graduate from the tests she has chosen for herself, I was cheering for her all the way. And I hope it's not a spoiler to say the book has a poignant and very happy ending. [This review was originally published on wmtc.]

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Basque Country: A Cultural History

As a lover of world languages I embrace all things Basque, and would love to immerse myself in a Basque language course as I did with Finnish, Romansch and Breton. I studied each of those three languages in locations where they are still spoken as everyday languages (although I admit finding Finnish courses in Finland was rather easy to arrange). If I ever study Basque it would have to be in Basque Country, or Euskal Herria. I would be in language heaven, yet after reading The Basque Country: A Cultural History by Paddy Woodworth, I would have a tough time deciding where to study: in the Basque Country of Spain or France? Woodworth makes attractive cases for both regions. 

Basque is a language isolate, and is the oldest language of Europe. How did the Basques settle and where did their language originate? I had to chuckle at the opening lines of chapter two:

"The origins of the Basques, and of their language, Euskera, are at once enticingly mysterious and politically contested. This has been a complex combination, and at times a lethal one. A vacuum of hard evidence has sucked in a deal of lunacy."  

Woodworth didn't deal with any of the lunacy, but debunked claims of the language to Neolithic or Stone Age origins. Book chapters dealt with the frontón and pelota, gastronomy, music, fiestas, Basque politics and the ETA, and "The Basques on the Other Side of the Mountains" = the French Basques. Basque literature was one of my favourites among the fifteen chapters. Bernardo Atxaga, undoubtedly the most famous Basque author of international renown was cited throughout the book and more so of course in this chapter. I read Atxaga's Obabakoak before I started to write book reviews and I recall seeing a beat-up Basque edition at Schoenhof's during my last visit. Woodworth wrote about many more Basque authors whose names I have recorded for future interloan requests or Abebooks purchases. 

While a joy to read for those who love Basque culture, I found that my notes were dominated by references to check on-line for photos. Woodworth unfortunately only included a few black and white photos with the text, and dark ones at that. I don't have a cell phone to Google for photos as I read, so I had to wait till I got on-line to find out what some buildings and places looked like, such as the parish church of San Salvador in Geraria, which is described as:

" much in the building, from the floor to the obscure complex of arches that makes up the roof, is tilted, uneven, askew. But the curious architectonics of the church are due to something much more deliberate, and much more radical, than awkward location and idiosyncratic workmanship. Move right around the building and you will often find elegant curves, but rarely be offered a straight line."

The Basque Country wasn't the first book I had read about the Basques but it was, thankfully, the least sensational. The most striking observation I found wasn't about the Basque past, but rather the present. Woodworth, in exploring the shops that dot the French Biscay coast, lamented the kitschy nature of merchandise. Both the Spanish and French sides realize that Basqueness is marketable and a selling point for tourists who like a "Basque experience" in B&B's and at restaurants, yet in France the stores go overboard with tacky souvenirs. Granted, the French side of Basque Country encompasses the Biarritz beach resorts, yet the shopping experience must nonetheless be a disappointment. I wonder if Woodworth had the same impression that I had when I first visited Amsterdam: every fridge magnet in every souvenir store depicted either a marijuana spliff or a lady of the evening. It was an effort to find a magnet not associated with sex or drugs. When compared to the kitschy French side, Woodworth noted in Spain:

" can scour the streets of the old part of Bilbao and only find a single shop selling Basque souvenirs. Even in that one shop, they take third place, after suitcases and belts in the window display."

There were a couple grammatical errors in the text, most of them caused by missing words. However I did encounter the nonword empherality on p. 133, when Woodworth likely meant ephemerality. Woodworth included three pages of further reading resources, and I have already copied the titles by Basque authors.