I was told that if I went to the Roselawn (Port Colborne) reading series last night, I would see Noah Richler. This wasn’t the case, but it turned out to be a great experience, anyway.

Terry Fallis was the speaker. His “real” career is in political communications (and, as he said, will have to stay that way until the home renovations are paid off). So, when he decided to write a novel, it was about Canadian politics. Oh, and he’s also an engineer. So there’s some stuff about a hovercraft. And some S&M, but he says that’s the element of the story he didn’t already know about.

It was nice to finally have Canadian politics be the focus of something in my cultural sphere. Plus, I’m such a lover of satire. I’ll have to actually read the book (it’s just being widely published now, I’ll explain in a second) to know what sort of satire it is, but I think it’s so healthy for a political system, if done in a way that can actually have some impact.

The book is called The Best Laid Plans, and when Fallis couldn’t find an interested agent or publisher, he released it as a podcast (it’s still available on iTunes or on terryfallis.com). When it got up to the top 25 literary podcasts, and good feedback was coming in, Fallis decided to self-publish. Eventually, he sent in 10 copies of the self-published book, and his $150, to the committee for the Stephen Leacock Award. It was short-listed, and then won. And now it’s published by McClelland and Stewart. Oh, and there’s a Facebook group started by someone in Australia.

I just loved it as a story about what’s been made possible by the internet. Enough that I wanted to talk about it before I read it, which should happen soon.


September 20, 2008

I’ve decided. Endings are so hard.

In the past few years I have encountered many disappointing endings (The Color Purple, The Lovely Bones), many perfect ones (The Grapes of Wrath, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), and some that I just don’t know what to do with (Salinger’s short fiction).

Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes is one of the best contemporary novels that I have read in a very long time (likely since I finished my BA).  It speaks deeply and truthfully to the core of the hurt and the spirit of humankind.

The book uses historical fact (Loyalist African-Americans were transplanted at the close of the Revolutionary war to Nova Scotia and other locations throughout the Commonwealth, and their names were recorded in ledgers – these documents can be seen in public archives in Britain, the United States, Nova Scotia, and online through Library and Archives Canada) to shape the story of Aminata Diallo, torn from her home in Africa by the slave trade and taken to the eastern United States, shipped to Nova Scotia, returned to Africa, and finally to Britain to join the abolitionist movement.

The story is told in the first person, and Aminata is one of the strongest, most engaging female narrators in my literary experience, without seeming superhuman or unreal. It truly is an exceptional human story, and so enthralled me that I finished it this morning, having started it in earnest yesterday afternoon.

But as always, I’m tripped up by the ending.  I really dislike it when a fictional narrative tries to be “neat”…that’s what made me shrug at The Kite Runner, which I had loved throughout.  The tidiness in Hill’s book is bothersome, but more believable and better suited to the rest of the narrative.

I wonder why so many authors feel this pull.

I can, perhaps, understand it as representative of the need of all of us for reconciliation and hope.  But I think literature offers better, more nuanced ways to leave readers that way than through the resolution of some messy, but truthful, plot point.


September 17, 2008

PS: I promise, for those who don’t share my interest in American history and politics, I’m moving on. I still have to look at Shakespeare’s Roman plays, and Lawrence Hill’s “Book of Negroes” is still waiting on my shelf.

Subtlety and Equivocation

September 17, 2008

I think the issue most raised by reading John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage” in the current political climate is the complication of subtlety and equivocation. Let me explain.

Folks who know me know that this past summer I read Barack Obama’s books, “Dreams from my Father”, written when he was leaving Harvard and before he was running for public office, and “The Audacity of Hope”, decidedly written in public office and, some argue, with a run for the presidency in mind. In these books, especially the first one, Obama offers a much more nuanced discussion of personal and social and even political issues than I think most of us are used to hearing, at least most of us who have come of age in the last one or two decades.

“Profiles in Courage” is even more nuanced and subtle.  I found myself taken aback by some of the things Kennedy was saying:

“I am convinced that the decline – if there has been a decline – has been less in the Senate than in the public’s appreciation of the art of politics, of the nature and necessity for compromise and balance, and of the nature of the Senate as a legislative chamber” (3).

At first, I noted this passage because I was offended. Of course a politician would say that it was our fault rather than that of the politicians. But then I realized how much my ear for political argument has been attuned by current political practice. This is a time when Mitt Romney won a Michigan primary by telling voters he would get their manufacturing jobs back, and John McCain lost it by saying, “Some jobs won’t come back”.  Which makes it clear that this is not only what politicians tell us, but also what we want to hear. Because it’s easier.

My initial reaction to Kennedy’s argument was based on my desire to have democracy be someone else’s responsibility, and that’s exactly where we’ve come and exactly what he’s arguing against.  Politicians won’t begin to treat us with any more intelligence until we require it from them. Unfortunately, recent events don’t indicate any change on the horizon.

But, we can always try to help ourselves. Reading “Profiles in Courage” has helped me with my ear for political discourse, so I’ll leave you with another passage:

“But this is no real problem, some will say. Always do what is right, regardless of whether it is popular. Ignore the pressures, the temptations, the false compromises.

“That is an easy answer – but it is easy only for those who do not bear the responsibilities of elected office.  For more is involved than pressure, politics and personal ambitions. Are we rightfully entitled to ignore the demands of our constituents even if we are able and willing to do so? We have noted the pressures that make political courage a difficult course –  let us turn now to those Constitutional and more theoretical obligations which cast doubt upon the propriety of such a course – obligations to our state and section, to our party and, above all, to our constituents” (10).

You mean, courage can actually mean different things at different times? It isn’t just being a maverick? Morality can be complex?

Whew. I don’t know if I can deal with that.

Kennedy, John F.  Profiles in Courage.  New York: Harper and Row. 1964.


September 13, 2008

Lots of people have done one of these; mine is from a fellow student / librarian (http://thebookpile.livejournal.com/).

Original rules: bold what you’ve read, underline what you’ve really loved. Italicize the ones you’ve started but never finished, for whatever reason(s).

(I will also add a “*” next to books which I haven’t yet read, but are on the to-read list).

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien

3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling

5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

6 The Bible

7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell*

9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman

10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott

12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

14 Complete Works of Shakespeare

15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier

16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien

17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks

18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger*

19 The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

20 Middlemarch – George Eliot

21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell

22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald

23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens (and yes, I did finally actually read it, and yes, it’s one of my Dickens favourites!)

24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame

31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis

34 Emma – Jane Austen

35 Persuasion – Jane Austen

36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis (bit of redundancy with #33, no?)

37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres

39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden

40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne

41 Animal Farm – George Orwell

42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown

43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving

45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins

46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery

47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy

48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding

50 Atonement – Ian McEwan

51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel

52 Dune – Frank Herbert

53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth

56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley*

59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon

60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt

64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold

65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas

66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac

67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy

68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding

69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie

70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville

71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens

72 Dracula – Bram Stoker*

73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson

75 Ulysses – James Joyce

76 The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome

78 Germinal – Emile Zola

79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray*

80 Possession – AS Byatt

81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker

84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry

87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White

88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom

89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton

91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery

93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

94 Watership Down – Richard Adams

95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole

96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute

97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas*

98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare

99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl

100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo*

mea culpa…or not.

September 10, 2008

Like I said, Scott McClellan’s “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception” is everything you might expect. And even worse.

His appearances on some of the news (fake or otherwise) shows that I watch made it sound like he does finally take some responsibility for his role in deceptions (willful or otherwise) carried out by the current US administration. But this is not the case.

Anytime he comes anywhere close to admitting personal responsibility, he: blames others; says he was “inside the White House bubble” (which I thought he would only use once, but it’s a running theme); tries to hedge what he did or said; or pleads ignorance, which I can’t buy because he also explains his long history in politics, and Texas politics, from a very young age.

The book is full of passages that contradict each other and his arguments, and the personal and systemic justifications he attempts to offer for his actions and those of the people around him are utterly unconvincing and also contradictory.  He might say Bush engages in self-deceit, but McClellan is king if he actually believes what he wrote.

Here are a series of highlights (or not):

“…But more than 8 in 10 Americans believed the regime of Saddam Hussein supported terrorist organizations intent on attacking America, and more than 9 in 10 believed it possessed or was developing WMD.  A majority also believed – erroneously – that Saddam Hussein had been involved in the 9/11 attacks.” (121).  My comment here? I like how he slips in “erroneously”, as though he had no part whatsoever in anyone thinking that…

“By overemphasizing conflict and controversy and by reducing complex and important issues to convenient, black and white storylines and seven-second sound bites, the media exacerbate the problem, thereby making it incredibly hard even for well-intentioned leaders to clarify and correct the misunderstandings and oversimplifications that dominate the political conversation.” (125).  The media are one of his favourite targets, and at the same time he suggests it’s their fault we missed important information in the lead-up to the Iraq war, he also criticizes some newspeople (Peter Jennings gets especial mention) for writing stories that indicated the conflict happening inside the White House over the war’s justification. Not their place, I guess.

He coins the term “coercive democracy” (129) to describe Bush’s vision for the middle east, and doesn’t seem to have any qualms about it.

On 144 he suggests that if Bush “could have foreseen the costs of war…he never would have made the decision to invade, despite what he might say or feel he has to say publicly today”, which is a nice story, and could be true, although someone who felt that deeply just might come up with something to say when asked whether he had made any mistakes. On the same page, McClellan describes how it was actually the responsibility of Bush’s advisors to keep him from making those mistakes, “seemingly more interested in accomodating the president’s instincts and ideas than in questioning them or educating him” (144). McClellan then writes:

“It goes to an important question that critics have raised about the president.  Is Bush intellectually incurious or, as some assert, actually stupid? …Bush is plenty smart to be president. But as I’ve noted, his leadership style is based more on instinct than on deep intellectual debate.  His intellectual curiosity tends to be centered on knowing what he needs in order to effectively articulate, advocate, and defend his policies.” (145).  I don’t know, but that sure sounds like someone who’s intellectually incurious to me. (And, as a secondary consideration, if effectively articulating his policies is what he concentrates on, why can’t he do it any better?)

“The biggest mistake I made as press secretary was in failing to challenge this kind of ingrained thinking within the Bush White House.  But in retrospect, it would have been exceedingly difficult for me to do so.  The cards I had to play were dealt even before I accepted the job, meaning that the unsatisfying outcome of my years as press secretary may have been preordained the moment I stepped to the podium for the first time that morning in July.” (163).  I love this, and it happens all the time throughout the book: “Here’s something that might have been my fault. Oh wait, no it wasn’t!”

“We at the White House referred to it simply as the ‘leak investigation’, while our critics called it ‘Plamegate’ in an effort to make it sound as sinister as the best-known political scandal of all.” (179). Since no Republican critics of Democratic presidents have ever used that tactic, before…

Here, I think, is a comment that sums it all up: “Caveats are deemphasized.  Contradictory information is downplayed, dismissed, or simply disregarded. Complex issues are too often oversimplified in the context of winners and losers, and portrayed in stark black and white terms.  The side that most effectively manipulates the narrative often prevails and is lifted up as being on the offensive – at times regardless of any nuances and the larger underlying truth.  Deception nudges truth to the side.” (70).  Exactly what I was thinking, Scott.

The fact that McClellan fails to recognize any responsibility on his part for anything that happened made me utterly uninterested in hearing his suggestions for “more principled leadership”, and I stopped reading at about page 200. I think that’s more than anyone should have to read, and I wanted to save you all the trouble of having to read it for yourselves. I apologize for what you were subjected to, here.

And, on to something much better. Real suggestions for “more principled leadership”.  I’m going back to JFK’s “Profiles in Courage”, something I’ve been meaning to read for a long time.


September 6, 2008

First post.  So I guess an introduction is in order.

I’m an English and now Library Science major. Just finished, so while I wait for a job, I’m reading an even greater number of books than usual.

Since the company of clever, well-informed people, having a great deal of conversation, is also my idea of a good time, I was finally convinced to start this and offer my opinion on…things. Mostly literature, culture, politics.

My first “real” post will include very little of the first two and a lot of the third: on Scott McClellan’s “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception”.

I’m not finished yet, but I can already tell-it lives up to all of our expectations.