Sunday, November 30, 2014
Sufferin’ Suffragists, Superwoman! It’s Wonder Woman! And she doesn’t need a fey cape like all the super hero guys. Because their stories pale next to hers. She appeared in the dark days of World War II, in 1941. When what the world needed was another heroine!
Her creator was an odd duck of a man. William Moulton Marston was born and raised in a sprawling medieval turreted manor north of Boston. You can’t make this stuff up—there’s a photo of the manor early in Jill Lepore’s book. It looks like the home of a Batman villain we could imagine as, say, Turretman, who masquerades as an evil slum building architect by day.
It’s hard to believe that Wonder Woman sprang from the head of someone raised in this neo-Romanesque heap. But she did. Marston was an unusual man. He invented the first lie detector device, and failed to patent it, while someone else improved on it, and patented it. He was often unemployed, and although he attended Harvard, he was very rarely employed to lecture at a university. Throughout his life he founded one business after another, only to see them fail. At one point he even claimed in magazine ads, that his lie detector could prove that Gillette razor blades were the best shaving blades on the market.
While Marston was trying to find a career, the period before and after the First World War, saw a growth in demands by women for equality. The United States government deigned to give them the vote in 1919. Women also demanded access to birth control, and the right to decide whether they would have children or not. At that time, these demands were met with contemptuous male resistance, that often included jail sentences for suffragists. Many men responded similarly, decades later in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Once again men rejected or resisted the news from women like Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, Susan Brownmiller, Carol Gilligan, Kate Millett and Shulamith Firestone.
There are more unusual echoes between these two periods. The early period, covered in detail by Lepore, at one point launches its concerns 50 years into the future. The suffragist Ethel Byrne is imprisoned in 1917 for showing women how to use birth control devices. Her health begins to fail during her hunger strike, and the New York Tribune newspaper prints an editorial aimed at the governor of New York, asking him to pardon Byrne. Its appeal is both timely and peculiarly prescient: “It will be hard to make the youth of 1967 believe that in 1917 a woman was imprisoned for doing what Mrs. Byrne did.” The youth of 1967 found themselves on the cusp of another great feminist wave.
As for that perennial also-ran-out-of-work, William Moulton Marston, he continued to move from one failure to another. Although he did manage to find small sources of income, much of his income came from the women who lived with him, and who worked out in the world, and bore his children, in a ménage à trois that would have appeared peculiar later, even by the standards of those distant ménages à trois outposts in the 1960s. As for his creation, Wonder Woman, after numerous references to her, she finally appears with illustrations almost 200 pages into the book. And becomes the most popular superhero in a time of many superheroes. Lepore’s presentation of the little known history of a now distant time, is deeply informed by her research, and by her thoughtful understanding of the wonder women who fought for change so long ago.
Ian Leslie’s book Curious and Walter Mischel’s The Marshmallow Test happened to arrive on my reviewing pile at the same time. As the daughter of an educational psychologist I have an intense curiosity of how people’s minds work. Having been the guinea-pig for many a school-aged child screening test, I resist classification and abhor labels. The revolution in discovering the plasticity of the human brain points to more fascinating lessons from psychology and neuroscience in the future - so I’m hooked.
Mischel is a granddaddy in the modern psychological field; his famous test devised at Stanford in the early 60’s (asking young kids to delay eating a marshmallow or playing with a toy in order to get two, sometime later) demonstrates the importance of delayed gratification and self control in achieving our heart desires and society’s best rewards in the future. His body of work, as well as all the related research his groundbreaking work inspired, has reinforced our perception that the “hot” immediate response to stimuli system needs to be countered by “cool” skills of self control to achieve better social and cognitive functioning, healthier lifestyles and a greater sense of self-worth. Mischel is candid about how his research began: “As both my students and my children can testify, self-control does not come naturally to me.” Clearly he has a strong degree of investment of moving beyond the fact that self control is a natural trait. His research was essential in demonstrating self control can be honed. Techniques to reinforce the belief that tough mental exertion is stimulating not depleting are helpful. Mischel warns about not falling into the trap of never enjoying the fruits of our labour, continuously delaying is to be avoided making us miserable and unfulfilled.
Mischel describes eloquently the research that gave rise to the “If-Then” strategies common in cognitive behaviour strategies that enhance our executive function and that are so useful at re-programming negative thinking and repetitive self-destructive behaviours. Recognizing one’s own stressors and teaching kids to self-distract, to create self-distance instead of self immersion and the reinforcement of choices that have consequences are great ways of creating optimal conditions for healthy self control. By understanding abilities and intelligence as skills and competencies that can grow if effort is made to improve performance our children are preparing for a life-time of balancing the hot and cool systems of our minds. Mischel also reminds us that the goals we set ourselves are as important as our innate abilities or even those we have refined: “No matter how they are formed, the goals that drive our life stories are as important as the [executive function] we need to try and reach them.”
Now, as a parent myself, my research population of two has led me to some scepticism as to how much influence any adult can have on a teen, let alone their own child. I am however like most of us, eager for any help to encourage my kids to flower as happy, productive contributors to society. Mischel astutely remarks that your reactions to his research depend on your own beliefs about how much people can really control and change what they become. His maxim is a nice twist on Descartes’ famous dictum: “I think, therefore I can change what I am” but he further reminds us that we have to want to change to achieve it. I’ll take that as inspiration!
Which brings me neatly to Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, a fascinating book uncovering the absorbing human trait of curiosity. What Ian Leslie observes in many different ways is that the curious mind is “unruly” and prone to being stigmatized, yet it is the spark that has fueled many great advances in human development. Leslie recognizes that employers are seeking the hungry minded, the creative problem solvers, the out-of-the-box leaps that lead to disruptive change.
Leslie describes simple curiosity, or “the itch to explore” as diversive curiosity. Left untrammelled, diversive curiosity can become futile, sending us haring after useless facts or disappearing down rabbit-holes. When curiosity is transformed into a quest for knowledge and understanding then it is epistemic curiosity, a driving force for innovation. Leslie argues that this “font of satisfaction and… sustenance for the soul” flourished on a widespread scale as a result of sharing ideas in print and having time to think and explore ideas created by post-industrial revolution societies.
Leslie surprisingly tolls a warning bell that the internet instead of being a beacon of opportunity for epistemic curiosity has instead become a harbour of diversive curiosity as we effortlessly find out facts and distract ourselves with cute kittens or celebrity lifestyles. Here then is a building from Mischel’s understanding of delayed gratification that using one’s executive function to control and further explore at a deeper level is what is beneficial at a societal as well as at a personal level.
Leslie’s secondary theme in the book is the importance of empathetic curiosity to bringing us out of ourselves: he gives several examples of people who have managed to navigate themselves out of a deep depression through engaging in ideas as simple as wanting to know how a storyline ends or as complex as a thirst for learning. Curiosity is contagious but so is incuriosity: Leslie’s book is a call to arms to invest in one’s own deep curiosity, he urges us to value learning for itself and not merely for goals to be achieved.
Reading these two books back to back reminded me of how much potential we have in our world today and how much we have a duty to our complex world, with all its joys and challenges, to invest in our innately human capacities. We really are an extra-ordinary species and we have the capacity to create extraordinary things and undertake amazing feats: we just have to put our minds to it and work hard to try, while enjoying the process itself.
- Rosslyn Bentley
Sunday, November 23, 2014
Sarah Waters has crafted a wonderful read in The Paying Guests. Generally, I am favourably disposed to reading stories set in or around the world wars and this one does not disappoint. The novel is billed as a murder story, but that's not the heading I would use, even if the murder clearly is a dramatic focal point that inevitably draws the characters to crisis points.
Frances is a mid-twenties young woman, called a spinster in this era, who lives with her widowed mother in a too-large London house left vacant by the loss of her two brothers in the war. It is 1922 and they are forced to take in lodgers – the Barbers – to support upkeep of the house. Frances bears the burden of taking care of her mother and the house and bears the brunt of the strain of living in diminished means. The novel opens with the young couple moving in to the upstairs and instantly setting in motion enormous changes in how Frances and her mother live. The gradually unfolding saga of the Barbers’ relationship and the eventual entwinement with Frances is a pathway that can only end in grief.
Waters is tremendously talented at describing the inner thoughts and feelings of her characters. The increasing inner conflict and tension that Frances experiences in relationship with her mother, close friends and quickly with Lillian and Leonard Barber dramatically hooked me in to their story.
As a minimalist detail gatherer, I could have enjoyed the novel with 100 pages less of Frances’ highly angst-ridden inner dialogue as she grappled with her emotions and ethics. I felt like I needed a break from this intensity as the events unfolded. And yet, I can appreciate that this backdrop is how Waters brings her audience to walk in the shoes of her various characters. One is left breathless until the end, waiting to discover the fates of Frances and Lillian.
The Paying Guests is tremendously entertaining and I look forward to Waters' next offering.
Jennifer Mackie has lived in Guelph for over 40 years, is a business consultant with never enough hobby time for reading, sports, online puzzles and quilting. She reads for entertainment and to discover the world of ‘curious’. Along with finding value in the story, she enjoys experiencing different writer’s styles and methods for how they entice one into their made up worlds.
How long would you wait to speak up about abuse? How long would you wait to reach out for treatment if you were ill? How long would you wait if the treatments available were very scarce and possibly inappropriate? Kellie JOYce’s book The Wait conveys the inexorable frustration of waiting for opportunities to speak out about abuse, to reach out for mental health care and to be treated effectively for mental illness.
There are many books about brave people who rise above the circumstances of their birth -- poverty, addictions, abuse – but few convey the intense sense that JOYce describes of the innate stubborn refusal to give up hope. Science teaches us our genes and circumstances shape us, so how is it that in the face of overwhelming odds someone emerges with the strength to go beyond circumstances and flourish? JOYce’s impish refusal to submerge is celebratory and we cannot help but smile at her tales of survival despite the horror that underpins them. Reminded of Miriam Toews' All My Puny Sorrows, The Wait reads like dirty water circling a drain, inevitably sucking downwards. Like Elf, who despite her concert pianist brilliance is depressed beyond recognition, JOYce’s husband, Les, struggles to cope with his wife’s PTSD and his own deep depression. While JOYce is speaking from a place of her own sorrow and torture, the book remains defiant and hopeful.
It would be so easy to close the book, refuse to read the doleful facts and ignore the need. JOYce writes an estimated 75% of those suffering from a mental illness will never receive treatment, but she must not be a Cassandra; her own bravery shows us the way. True victory lies in action. I hope the book will spur you to pressure for better and more mental health care resources and help you to look in your own life at how you could reach out a hand of friendship or support to those who are forced to live apart through stigma and shame. We should laud the JOYce’s of the world who name the family violence that gives rise to such circumstances and turn the prurient poking of government agencies into creative and inspiring programming for recovery and health. As the administrative sponsor of the Bereaved By Suicide program at Hospice that helped JOYce, I know prevention is our strongest weapon. Ensuring the wounded are not left to wither away unheard and uncared for is also a challenge we can all rise to.
- Rosslyn Bentley
Thursday, November 20, 2014
Our booth will feature our favourite cookbooks, the latest non-fiction, and the hottest biographies. Of course you will also find 2014 award-winners, including Thomas King, Sean Michaels, and Malala Yousafzai, to name a few.
For the younger set, there will be an excellent selection of picture books, junior fiction, and young adult novels. We also have great books for Minecrafters and LEGO Master Builders!!
20% of The Bookshelf's sales will be donated to the Rickson Ridge Parent Council. Come out and support some excellent local businesses while checking off some names on your Christmas list. We hope to see you there!
Saturday, November 15, 2014
The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe strives, as the title suggests, to be moderately epic in scope. In the space of 300 tightly written pages, it does just that. The book takes us on a romp that begins in a village in India, passes through an Ikea store on the outskirts of Paris, and then launches us on a journey that is alternatingly spectacular, improbable, delightful, edifying and more than a little bit slapstick.
The protagonist of the story is Aatashatru Ogash Ragod, an Indian fakir on a pilgrimage to buy a new bed of nails at Ikea, armed with a borrowed suit, a fake 100-euro note (printed on one side only) and a round-trip plane ticket financed by the village that has adopted him as their resident faker. Relying on his mastery of the arts of deception and diversion, his intent is simply to complete his purchase and return home. He gets more than a little waylaid along the way.
The story begins with Ajatashatru finding love in the most unlikely of places (the line for Swedish meatballs in the Ikea store). Committed to his mission, he lets love leave through the front door, before unexpectedly finding himself leaving through the loading dock, trapped in the eponymous wardrobe.
In writing The Extraordinary Journey…, Romain Puertolas has combined a penchant for vaudevillian slapstick worthy of a Pink Panther movie with a biting sense of social injustice. Softened by humour, Puertolas nonetheless offers an insightful commentary on the injustices and ineptitude exercised by countries fending their borders from unwanted immigration, and the corruption and callousness of many of those stationed at sentry boxes to guard against such incursions. The book highlights the dangers faced by those seeking a better life in the 'good countries'; often at the mercy of indifferent traffickers, subjected to inhumane conditions and travelling in perilous transports. While Puertolas acknowledges the cruelty that can exist in the world, he also reminds us of the good in humankind: of the importance and value to be found in the kindness of strangers, the rewards of helping others and the redemptive power of love.
I enjoyed The Extraordinary Journey… a great deal. While it is an easy read, it is also a delightful one. Puertolas' writing style is highly visual, and I am sure that even now the book is being optioned into a movie. Suspend your disbelief and embrace the improbability that life so often offers, and this is a book that you will find rewardingly worth the time. The Extraordinary Journey… is a delightful reminder of the importance of finding love, meaning, friendship and fulfillment.
Mark Mullaly is an avid reader, sometimes writer, enthusiastic motorcyclist and lover of wine (and endeavours to engage in only one of these pursuits at any given time).
Prim and proper. Those were the first words that came to mind when Queenie Hennessy appeared in Rachel’s Joyce’s bestselling novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Dressed in a loosely-fitting brown wool suit and smiling demurely, the brewery’s first female accountant behaved impeccably in the workplace and whenever Harold drove her to business appointments.
But there was more to the “colleague” relationship between Queenie and Harold. Why else would a dying Queenie send a scrawled note to a man she had not seen in over two decades? And why would Harold walk 627 miles to help keep Queenie alive?
In The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, Ms. Joyce provides the answers.
For starters, Queenie was not an accountant. She was a Cambridge classics scholar who persuaded the belligerent owner to hire her by promising to save the brewery five hundred pounds. Afterward, she began a program of self-education, spending days at the library reading about bookkeeping and finances.
Queenie also had a checkered past.
In addition to holding positions more suited to her education—tutor, researcher, tour guide—Queenie spent several years living with a troupe of female artists, and she had an affair with a retired high court judge. Alone and pregnant, she arrived in Kingsbridge hoping for a fresh start. She hadn’t planned on becoming embroiled personally and professionally with another married man.
Encouraged by one of the hospice volunteers, Queenie decides to write an extended deathbed letter to Harold, revealing the details of her past and her encounters with his hostile wife and wayward son. While reading, I could easily envision her trembling hands as she penned her story, all the while, determined to release decades of painful secrets. But Queenie’s inner voice is calm and sure: “My life has been small, it has been nothing to speak of. But the past is still inside me, Harold. I have never let it go.”
The novel alternates between these touching vignettes and humor-infused descriptions of hospice life. The patients are well-drawn, with their own quirks and set opinions on almost every topic. Surrounded by death’s ever-present shadow, they still manage to find renewed hope in everyday events.
When one of the more outspoken patients asks if anyone else is waiting for Harold Fry, the response is overwhelming: “One by one, and in silence, the patients raised their hands. Sunken faces. Skeletal wrists. Bandages and tubes. Sunlight poured through the windows, and the air shone with dust motes, billowing like silvered snow. The friends and families of the patients began to raise their hands too, and so did the volunteers and the nuns. At last every one in the dayroom had a hand in the air. Tall, small, young, old, fat ones, thin ones, healthy, dying. They looked from one person to the next with a dawning sense of wonder. Something new was happening. It was palpable.”
I recommend reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry before picking up this book. While the events do occur concurrently, it is much easier to fill in the gaps of Harold’s story rather than starting with the intimate details of Queenie’s inner life.
After retiring from a 31-year teaching career, Joanne Guidoccio launched a second act as a writer. Her articles, book reviews and short stories have appeared in newspapers, magazines and online. In September 2013, Soul Mate Publishing released her debut novel, Between Land and Sea. You can visit her website at www.joanneguidoccio.com
Sunday, November 9, 2014
The difficult relationship between Tibet and China extends across thousands of years. The countries were often at war, and in the 8th century Tibetan forces attacked and captured the fabled city of Changan in China. Generally, this historical fact does not appear in Chinese histories of the Tang dynasty, (618-908), one of China’s greatest cultural periods.
Much of China’s cruelty toward the people of Tibet since China invaded is a matter of public record. However, the environmental devastation carried out by China in Tibet is not as well known. Canadian journalist Michael Buckley presents China’s environmental devastation of Tibet in his clear and sometimes heart felt writing. He has visited Tibet many times over the years, and wrote the first Lonely Planet guidebook to Tibet. His deep concern for the fate of Tibet and its people fills every page of Meltdown in Tibet.
China and India together are building four coal-fired power plants a week. At that rate, all of the global warming mitigation in the world will not matter. The rest of the world can’t mitigate the effects of burning that much coal. The effect of coal burning is worst for Tibet. The dark particulates in the air from coal burning settle on the snow and ice. Sunshine falling on the coal dust heats it and is causing one of the world’s three great cooling systems to melt rapidly. This accelerating melt is worsened by other Chinese environmental devastation in Tibet—the building of massive dams.
You may recall that when the Chinese government built the Three Gorges Dam, they forcibly removed Chinese families from homes that would be flooded by the new dam. The displaced people tried to return to their homes. The government destroyed the homes—devastation captured by Edward Burtynsky’s photographs of the communities just before they disappeared under water. When this largest dam in the world was filled with water, the weight of the water altered the rotation of the earth.
Now the Chinese government is building a much larger dam in Tibet. Along with other new dams in Tibet, all to provide hydroelectric power to China. Ordinarily, before a dam is built, such as the dam at Guelph Lake, extensive studies are carried out, and permission to build must be received from a number of government agencies, to ensure that building such a dam will not cause environmental damage. However, the dams being built by China in Tibet are being built with no permissions, and will change river flows in large rivers that flow from Tibet through numerous countries in southeast Asia. No one knows how extensive the damage will be in these countries
Is there hope for Tibet? The Simla Accord of 1914 recognized the autonomy of Tibet. That recognition disappeared in 2008, in the interests of placating China, and providing financial gains for a number of greasy palms. Britain’s role, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s role in this shameful betrayal of Tibet was covered by The New York Times. See: “Did Britain Just Sell Tibet?" HERE.
This past week the Canadian press - and Canadian communities - have been asking a lot of questions about crime and punishment. With the very public revelation of Jian Ghomeshi's criminal behaviour, the public conversation includes calls for criminal prosecution all the while enacting a sort of collective trial, sentencing, and punishment in the press and social media. While listening and reading stories of his violent and repugnant behaviour, I was reading Linden MacIntyre's new book, Punishment.
Punishment is not about sexual and physical violence. Nor is it about the CBC or the media (though MacIntyre long worked for the CBC). Instead it's a book about a former prison officer, Tony Breau, who gets involved - is made to be involved - in a small town murder investigation. It's also about the consequences of telling the truth: the violence, threats, and shame that attach to those who speak out (you can see, then, why it might be a book that resonated with what I was reading and hearing in the cultural conversation around violence against women). So it's a novel that takes on the 'big' crime of murder, but it's also a novel that explores the slippery boundary between what is considered criminal, and the 'crimes' outside the criminal code: betrayal in friendship, adultery, and the willful withholding of truth from others.
Punishment offers readers a nuanced and complicated exploration of guilt, punishment, retribution and reconciliation. Early on in the novel it explodes the idea that all those in prison are criminals and that all those on the 'outside' are innocent; the novel does not belabour this point, but simply makes the observation that many crimes go unrecognized and unpunished and that many criminals are in prison for complicated reasons. Much of the novel is concerned with how and if Tony can reconcile his past with his present, his moral position with an unjust society, his care for others with the certainty that the truth can be painful. In a quintessentially Canadian literature way this struggle is worked out in the small and isolated community, where the big bad criminals come from the United States and the city, where outsiders are suspect and when guilt is both the prelude an apology and an unavoidable state of being.
What the novel does incredibly well (and with a sort of bravery, I think) is to ask readers to consider - just consider - separating the crime from the criminal; the behaviour from the person. It can be hard to empathize. It can be hard to consider empathy. When we are betrayed by lovers or friends, when a singular crime is perpetrated against us or when we are wronged by systemic and entrenched systems, the impulse is not to empathy. The push is to retribution, to punishment. As if in the punishment itself we might understand the crime or feel differently about the criminal. I am not making a novel argument in suggesting that there might be a difference between retributive and restorative justice. Rather, I'm making an argument that this novel shows - with great care and nuance - how these forms of justice differ and what is at stake for us as individuals and as communities in taking one approach or the other.
When's she not reading, Erin Aspenlieder is teaching, running or eating cookies (sometimes all at once). She prefers fiction and books made of paper. She blogs at literaryvice.ca