Sunday, March 30, 2014


I remember hearing about the miraculous survival of a stowaway in an aircraft’s landing gear. This was a few years ago, but the episode stuck with me and I’ve wondered from time to time at the level of desperation someone must feel to take such a risk. Author Kate Pullinger was similarly affected by the story—or one like it. As it turns out, an internet search for the event turns up a number of such episodes, some ending tragically, others not.

Landing Gear is a tale of risks taken and lives changed. For Yacub, Pullinger’s stowaway, the risks and changes are existential; for the other characters they are more quotidian, even if not exactly calculated or harmless.

Harriet and Michael and their teen-aged son Jack live in London in a respectable, quiet neighbourhood. When the Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, erupts in 2010, shutting down airspace over a large part of Europe, their lives change. Or, to put it more accurately, they change their lives. Michael can’t get home from a business trip to New York; Harriet sees this as a chance to advance her career on radio and parlay that into television broadcasting; Jack, left to his own devices, starts to hang out with friends and their older siblings. Each of these main characters make decisions in a heady atmosphere inspired by a suddenly silent, blue sky. 

Landing Gear is also about secrets, more specifically, secrets in a time of burgeoning public information. Harriett alludes to some “event” that happened in her past, one that her quiet, rather uncommunicative husband has not pushed her to reveal. Neither does she express her insecurity about her work, which she views as unequal to her abilities, although it’s the most she seems able to muster since Jack was born and she “missed her chance” for advancement. Michael is solid, becoming more so all the time it seems, since the collection of jeans that he buys in New York and stores on a closet shelf in London, are piled in order from oldest to newest and correspondingly from smallest to largest. He decides to wait out the airspace shut down in Toronto, where he can visit Maria, a romantic interest from half a lifetime ago. Though they rarely communicate he views her as an old friend. Since he grew up in Canada, Michael is drawn there as a comfortable place in a strange time. When, after a week of living together, he has sex with Maria again he has to decide what he will do next. Jack, meanwhile, at home with much more time to himself, begins to experiment with drugs and ends up at a party where one of his school mates dies.

There is a lot about Landing Gear that seems improbable, but then who would believe someone could survive a flight from Karachi to London tucked away under the wheels of the landing gear of a jet? And who would believe most of European air space would be shut down because of an Icelandic volcano? That’s part of what is so compelling about Pullinger’s writing: there is enough that we’ve lived through to make her other episodes believable against significant odds.

As we can come to expect in literature as in life, social media plays a significant role in this story of a family going about their daily activities and then trying to make new arrangements when something out of the ordinary happens to them. In fact, Facebook is almost a character in itself. Harriet calls herself “Crazeeharee” attempting to fit in so she can watch what Jack is doing—and so she can learn about Emily, another young person connected to her mysterious past. She also uses Facebook to find and meet with someone she would have been better off to have let disappear from her life. She not only watches; she is watched. Emily stalks Harriet for two years, furtively taking photos and video of her, and manages to capture and post—with its own consequences—an image of Yacub falling from the sky. Facebook also reveals other aspects of the characters’ lives and often helps keep the action going. And there is lots of action. For example, Harriet’s risky meeting has results so explosive as to be humorous – for the reader; and Yacub’s life in Dubai is fraught with action of its own kind.

But for all its social media content and consequences, Landing Gear is no distopia along the lines of The Circle by Dave Eggers. It’s a thoroughly pleasant read about an interesting and, for the most part, pleasant world, one that wouldn’t spoil a summer laze on the dock or seaside. Neither is it a trifle. The main characters are richly drawn and while they are pleasant and even admirable on occasion, neither are they stereotypical. They grapple with finding meaning in their lives and articulate complex issues for themselves. In other words, they lead examined lives.

The motif of falling gives Pullinger an opportunity to explore various kinds of landing gear. Michael, the steady provider, feels he is falling out of his marriage and out of his life, and is anxious to get back to work where at least, he thinks, “risk is theoretically quantifiable.” Yacub falls out of the sky and into a fairy tale situation, hidden away in Harriet’s back room until he is discovered by the rest of the family who then swing into action, providing him with everything he needs. The mystery of the story also ends up involving a great fall. And Harriet’s daily trips to the supermarket are a response to what she sees as her fall from grace after the explosive event she precipitated with a risky Facebook connection.

Pullinger’s The Mistress of Nothing received the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and Landing Gear will be her tenth novel. Her prose moves along at a lively pace and her non-linear structure hints at various mysteries that by the end are satisfying solved. Interestingly, Pullinger’s website indicates that she is going to launch an “API version” of the book — API standing for application programming interface, a digital experiment that allows readers to write back into the story, co-creating a new text. As Pullinger said not long before the book went to press, “So while the book itself - the typeset version - is nearly finished, our digital experiment with Landing Gear is only just beginning.”

It seems we can add Pullinger to the list of risk-takers in Landing Gear.

Reginald Sauvages, PhD, is the nom de plume of a local bibliophile (read: bookworm) who goes on building bookshelves and buying paperbacks for the beach so sand doesn’t ruin favourite clothbound books, even while owning an e-reader.


Comedy is one of the few subjects (along with sleep) that seemingly eludes the grasp of science. Despite years of research and dozens of theories, we seem to be no closer to a definitive answer for the question "What makes things funny?" Journalist Joel Warner and humour researcher Pete McGraw hope to change that, embarking on a world-spanning journey to uncover the principles underlying humour, laughter, and all things related to the great goal of the guffaw.

Though the mission statement of The Humor Code is relatively simple, what results is anything but. For a book that weighs in at around 250 pages, Warner & McGraw's book covers a dizzying array of topics, showing just how complex the topic of humour really is. The study of "how to be funny" actually only turns out to be about a sixth of its length. The remainder is an examination of humour in a bevy of international contexts: how the appropriateness of comedy in Japan is much more dependent on the location than the subject matter, a study of the biological underpinnings of laughter in Tanzania, and the social drive and purpose behind joke-making in some of the most war-torn and serious portions of the world. If anything, The Humor Code unexpectedly (in all the best ways) turns into a historical account of laughter, tracing the patterns of jokes (and who/what they poke fun at) to social movements, revolutions, and general trends of change from some of the most tumultuous times in human civilization. Much like a good punchline, it defies expectations in the best of ways.

As well, much like The Why Axis, The Humor Code is just flat-out fun to read. Joel Warner is the central scribe here, and so tells the tale of him and McGraw's adventure from a sort of dual first-person perspective. It reads much like a buddy-road comedy in the style of Planes, Trains, & Automobiles, with one ambitious academic and one fiercely curious journalist bumbling their way through repeated disaster and unexpected obstacles. Often, it seems, those whom they would seek to study fail to find the subject matter as humorous as the authors, or their intended audience. Warner's chosen style of narrative is especially fitting given the subject matter, but regardless, it helps to balance out the occasionally very dark subject matter (the aforementioned political revolutions and poverty) so as to not bog down the book's momentum from chapter to chapter.

As Warner himself puts it, him and McGraw have set out to "kill some frogs", dissecting comedy with the expectation that like someone explaining a joke, they snuff the life (and laughter) from it. What happens, however, is the opposite: The Humor Code is a gateway book, provoking a number of poignant questions about how humour can both bring people together and divide them. As a result, it almost stumbles backward into being one of the most intriguing social deconstructions I've read in quite a while. If this looks like something that would even remotely intrigue you, you'll most likely love it as much as I did.

Vincent Smith is a taoist, aspiring writer, and dyed-in-the-wool psychology geek at the University of Guelph. You can find his writing on video games, comics, movies, and all things geek over at The Rogue's Gallery. Check out his FB page, Vincent Smith: Writer, Scholar, Gentleman, for more musings from the dark corners of the internet. Plus the occasional cat photo.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s All the Broken Things centres around the bildungsroman story of Bo, a boy who wrestles bears and other boys, cares for his sister (Orange) and mother, and navigates Vietnamese refugee identities in 1970s Canada. Bo’s coming of age is as much about coming into his own sense of self as it is (and perhaps this is always the case in this genre) coming to understand that the people around him are as complex and flawed as he is.

As the title suggests, the novel is occupied with exploring questions around what/who is broken and whether these broken things and people need and want fixing, and also, whether such repair is ever possible. These questions get taken up in by the character of Teacher who attempts, over and over, to atone for her involvement in the production of Agent Orange by “saving” Bo and his family (in a somewhat heavy-handed move, Teacher works with a Church organization so that the ‘saving’ is as much about providing material shelter as it is rescuing of souls). At one point Bo remarks on Teacher’s efforts, noting that her attempts shame him – not in the actual acts, but in the idea that what is broken ought to be, or can be, fixed.
The relationship mirrors others in the novel – a classmate, Emily – in the paternalism of the white Canadian rescuing the refugee from his trauma and poverty. It is refreshing then, to find a character like Max – the owner of a carnival freak show interested in employing Bo as a bear-fighter – who (at first, at least) nakedly exploits Bo. The reader finds this exploitation oddly refreshing as it’s not couched or obscured by a rhetoric of benevolence and rescue. The ideas of rescue get further complicated in the relationship between Bo and Bear as the needs of the two and the reliance of each on the other explore exploitation and power in human-animal relationships.

Much like the heavy-handedness of Teacher's allegiance with the Church, the metaphors in the novel feel a bit heavy: Bo’s fear of water; the parallels between Bear and Orange; the demand that Orange be kept hidden, inside. These are metaphors that get, at times, overplayed in ways that made this reader feel less inclined to think carefully about their meaning. It’s as if the predictable arrival of a water/drowning metaphor, which in some ways exonerates the reader from having to think too carefully about the implications and effects of the metaphor because it, gets recognized as “the water metaphor” instead of the thing it is meant to be signifying (helplessness, loneliness). This heaviness comes about in part, I think, from overuse and from a sort of ponderous, solemic introduction of the metaphor, a quiet-on-the-set feel that interrupts, rather than deepens.

The one metaphorical space that I did feel compelled by was the carnival. The layering of spectacle, the ideas of who watches and who is seen, the confusion of expectations/reality of what we think we see and how the object of our viewing sees her/him/itself gets exploded and refracted in exciting and unsettling ways.

In the Author’s Note that precedes the novel, the reader is alerted that the most “fantastical” moments in the novel are those that are “really true” – the production of Agent Orange in Elimra, Ontario; the freak-shows at the CNE until the late 70s; bear-wrestling. In an odd parallel to the ”Believe it or Not” rhetoric of the freak show/carnival itself, the Author’s Note serves as an (uncomfortable) call to the reader to be amazed (and entertained?) by the spectacle of historical fiction. While it’s clear from the narration and characterization of Bo that we are not, in fact, meant to be entertained by the history so much as troubled and unsettled, the Author’s Note in juxtaposition to the carnival metaphor/theme did, for me at least, raise questions about the spectacle – see history different! – elements of historical fiction that I had not considered before.

All this to say it’s a provocative novel with a rich exploration of Canadian history, individual identity, human-animal relationships and how we see/do not see, fix/do not fix those we imagine to be “broken.”

When's she not reading, Erin is teaching, running or eating cookies (sometimes all at once). She prefers fiction and books made of paper. She blogs at

Monday, March 17, 2014


I’ve never been to Amsterdam. It floats out there, watery images, both famous and infamous—a boy with his finger in a dyke; fields of tulips extending beyond the horizon; dark, dramatic Rembrandts; marijuana coffee houses and sex workers beckoning from behind large storefront windows; cheese and canals and bicycles—all waiting for a time when I can visit long enough to “do it justice.”

So Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam: A History ofthe World’s Most Liberal City enticed me with the promise of a way to reconcile, or correct, my misty images of a fascinating place, but also with the more important promise of explaining how these images are connected to the concept of liberalism, a complex term often attached to a wide variety of views, sharing as it does an etymology with liberty, libertarian, and libertine. Shorto links the term to free, open, and permissive, but also with a deeper meaning, going back to the centrality of the individual, having its origins, he claims, in the Protestant Reformation. And while Shorto acknowledges contributions to the rise of liberalism from a number of parts of the world (Paris, London, Jefferson’s Monticello estate in Virginia hills), he makes the case that a remarkable number of forces came together in Amsterdam beginning in the late 1500s, forces that would spawn a new way of thinking about people and their relationship to one another and the state. These forces include:

  • the first wave of scientific experimentation;
  • the rise of the first stock market to sell company shares;
  • the development of secular art with Rembrandt and his contemporaries;
  • the crafting of an official policy on tolerance;
  • the fostering of an atmosphere of intellectual freedom that brought thinkers from all over Europe to create the world’s most dynamic publishing centre; and
  • the transformation of the city with the digging of the canals and the rise of the modern idea of “home.”

But Shorto also relates incidents, both past and present, that cause him to ask how a city famed historically for championing the notion of tolerance could also be the site of deeply disturbing episodes and, even now, seems to be charting odd new frontiers of intolerance.

For example, his son’s day-care provider asks him to sign an immigration document supporting her effort to have her sister visit from a Muslim country. Shorto is confused by the need for all this paperwork for the sister to visit, not emigrate. But he is informed that just recently the laws have changed and it is now necessary for people from “certain countries” to go through an extensive permission process. Some weeks later, he learns that the sister as been denied for reasons of “untrustworthiness.” This although the day-care provider is a legal resident, speaks Dutch at home, and pays taxes. Eventually, the ruling was reversed, but for Shorto it’s another curiosity in a complex web of cultural and historic forces.

For many Canadians, Shorto’s question about the frontiers of intolerance will strike an uncomfortable chord. While we now have one of the highest rates of immigration in the world per capita, adding about 250,000 newcomers each year, during WWI we put thousands of people in camps because they were citizens of enemy nations, and during WWII we interned Japanese Canadians. Only since 1960 with the Canadian Bill of Rights did we put significant emphasis on equality and inclusiveness. In spite of debates about such things as Quebec’s proposed bill banning public servants from wearing religious symbols, immigration is not in question anywhere in the country.

For now. But there is a growing cultural divide and no aspect of human rights can be taken for granted. Who could have predicted the Rob Ford phenomenon, with his speculation that “enough is enough” when it comes to immigration in Toronto? His unsavoury antics and bewildering popularity have distracted us from other actions at the federal level that some view as a dismantling of civic society. Speaking about the rapid closure of seven out of nine world-famous Department of Fisheries and Oceans libraries, with much of the material irretrievably relegated to waste bins and land-fill sites, renowned Dalhousie University biologist Jeff Hutchings said the closures fit into the federal government’s larger pattern of "fear and insecurity … about how to deal with science and knowledge." He elaborates: "You look at the rise of certain political parties in the 1930s and have to ask how could that happen and how did they adopt such extreme ideologies so quickly, and how could that happen in a democracy today?"

The pertinence of this question through time is powerfully demonstrated by Shorto’s coverage of the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam. Although neutral in WWII, the Netherlands was invaded in May 1940, with Dutch forces capitulating after the severe bombing of Rotterdam. In the five years before the Germans surrendered to Canadian forces, Amsterdam’s Jewish population had gone from 80,000 to 22,000 (it is 15,000 today), the lowest survival rate of Jews in Europe. How does this happen in a city famed for tolerance? One where, for a time during the Inquisition’s severe reaction to the Protestant Reformation, the Holy Roman orders to crack down on heretics was obeyed by making offenders do such things as crawl to the pub––rather than burning them at the stake.

Shorto provides an interesting read, teasing out the many forces at work. One of his trains of thought follows the tension between economic liberalism with its desire to ensure trade is not hampered in any way (which comes with a high level of tolerance for differences), and social liberalism, with its emphasis on the government’s role to protect citizens from the ravages of corporate greed. He points to the Industrial Revolution as the engine driving liberalism in these two different directions.

Shorto’s many vivid images capture an extremely capitalist place but one that is whole-heartedly social––capitalists themselves are committed to a safety net, now as in the 17th century when they created orphanages and old-age homes with no segregation of the poor. This itself goes back even further to the founding of the city and the fight against the water.

An essential part of the identity of Amsterdam can be traced to the undesirable swamps and mud flats that most early migratory peoples avoided. But around 1000 CE, early inhabitants, finding the peaty soil to be good for farming, cooperated to reclaim more of it. A series of dykes to keep out the sea and of channels to drain the waters into the rivers required a entire community to come together in an unrelenting process. Eventually they built a dam across the Amstel river. As the land emerged, everyone who participated was given a piece of it to own individually. No king. No church. Individuals were free to buy, rent or sell their lands. As Shorto puts it: proto-capitalist power was infused with an individualistic sensibility, paving the way for liberalism.

At various points, Shorto defines liberalism––beginning with the historical notion of a commitment to individual freedom and individual rights for everyone––but his main argument is that Amsterdam was, uniquely, a special breeding ground for liberalism.

The combination of cooperation and individualism carried over in a significant way to create one of the world’s largest and first trans-global, multi-national companies.

Building on the culture of working together to profit individually, herring fishermen expanded from individual boats bringing back their catch to be processed on shore and sold individually, to the processing of fish on board ship and returning after longer periods of time. This change was made possible by the discovery that leaving the pyloric caeca (pouches in the belly that secrete digestive enzymes) in the cleaned fish both preserved the fish longer and made them taste better. Ships could now come back with larger catches processed and packed, ready to ship around the world, creating an early brand: Holland Herring was stamped on each barrel.

Ships that were sea-worthy for longer times and in deeper waters also had to be invented. And before long, Amsterdam had ships that could travel the world. Ship-building led to specialised lumber processing, which soon became another major export. With herring to deliver around the world, Amsterdam ships came back full of exotic goods. Word of Amsterdam’s rich and vibrant way of life spread rapidly, attracting people and products and causing an economic boom. Individuals could make investments now, not only in one shipping expedition but in a whole series of them, reducing their risk. After a first disastrous voyage to East India, more than 65 ships made the return trip in just four years. Trade became so rich that the military became involved to protect it. Difficult but successful negotiations with provinces around Amsterdam resulted in an entity historian Jonathan Israel calls, “a unique politico-commercial institution, one that could be imitated nowhere else in the world, because the United Provinces were the world’s only federal republic in which a collectivity of town governments, committed to the advancement of trade, industry, and navigation, also wielded great military naval power.”

And thus the East India Company was born, today with archives that measure in the kilometers, detailing advancement of cartography and shipbuilding, but also its “fostering of disease, slavery and exploitation on a scale never before imagined. It shuffled the global ecosystem … by ferrying plants, animals, and insects across the planet.” It transported more than a million Europeans to Asia and brought 2.5 million tons of Asian products back to Europe. Shorto’s account of the growth and reach of this company is fascinating.

The vast economic foundation of Amsterdam gave birth to political and social liberalisms. To provide some security against plagues and storms and other unpredictable circumstances, the stock exchange system developed, as did insurance and facilities for travelers, such as hotels and warehouses.

While the Renaissance is widely held to have begun in Florence in the 14th century, with patronage of the Medici family being an important factor, Cosimo de’ Medici visited Amsterdam in the late 1600s and declared the high Renaissance eclipsed by Amsterdam: “Greater trade is done in Amsterdam than in any other city in the world. Foreigners are astounded when they first see it, and it appears that the four quarters of the world have despoiled themselves to enrich her and to bring their rarest and most curious treasures into her port. Anyone who considers the present state of Amsterdam … will be amazed that the city with such small beginnings and in such a short time has become enriched to such a degree of greatness, beauty, and magnificence.”

Shorto manages to follow threads of various kinds of liberalism and to provide interesting and often bizarre anecdotes, not by providing a wearisome chronology of development, but by offering up biographies of people who were responding to their surroundings and in some cases making major contributions to them. You’ll read about:

Erasmus–– who grew up in a monastery but travelled extensively; although he was an obedient Catholic, he mounted a sustained assault on the structures of the church, insisting that the “essence of Christianity” was not to be found in observance of the sacraments or even in the power of the Vatican. Instead, he developed a Christian humanism with a learned and individual approach to faith, based on the study of the scriptures, that appealed to the Dutch and their culture of strong individuals cooperating with one another to get things done. In his best-selling Handbook for the Christian Soldier, which became the basis for a new curriculum he called “liberal studies,” he encouraged people to drop their “superstitions” and use their brains. Coming at the time of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses (1517), and just seventy-five years after the invention of printing, Erasmus and others created a movement away from their religious culture on such a scale as to be “without precedent or parallel.”

Rembrandt––unlike Michelangelo and Raphael who, for the most part, had been commissioned by churches to do religious scenes, Rembrandt painted more in the service of individuals. His clients and those of other Dutch artists were pious but they were not priests and popes. They were herring merchants and traders who wanted depictions of themselves in biblical settings for their homes. And before he was twenty years of age, he was also inserting himself into the scenes. As Shorto explains it, Rembrandt was using art for his own emotional needs, exploring his identity. Rembrandt has been quoted as saying that his goal was to express “the greatest and most natural emotion.” Between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-five (1632) he made at least twenty self-portraits in a variety of guises and techniques. His technical brilliance and inventive, theatrical approach made him a master realist, but what really made him stand apart was his ability to paint not just what people looked like, but who they were. Art critic Robert Hughes calls Rembrandt the “supreme depictor of inwardness, of human thought.” In just two years, he painted forty-two exquisite, fully realised portraits and dozens of etchings and drawings. As Shorto points out, all of the people he painted are dead and gone and none made what could be called lasting contributions; however, they have Wikipedia listings and live on in canvases hanging in Museums all over the world. Each of these human beings face you as you stand in front of them. They have interior lives. This emergence of the individual, this is liberalism.

Baruch Spinoza––considered one of Western philosophy’s most important thinkers, he was born in Amsterdam in 1632 into a Sephardic Jewish community. Surrounded as he was with the forces of liberalism, Spinoza made it his life’s work to understand what “freedom” means and how individuals can be free. During his lifetime the Thirty Year’s War and the Eighty Years’ War came to an end, but just two years later two rival Dutch political parties seemed set to begin a civil war, one thinking the government should be centralised around Willem II, Prince of Orange, and the other supporting a republican form of government in which power was held by the individual provinces. These conflicts caused Spinoza to think deeply about a government’s responsibility to its people and about whether there was a right form of government. Descartes, who spent five years in Amsterdam, attracted by the freedom to openly discuss and publish ideas, had left for Sweden by this time leaving behind him a raging controversy on these subjects––and the beginning of the Enlightenment. Spinoza built on Descartes’ emphasis on reason––a faculty that had to be developed so that the lies of king and church could be detected––and went so far as to mock the notion of a “chosen people.” He called the idea of angels appearing to holy people “mere nonsense,” considered the Bible to be an historical document and argued for the separation of church and state. Before long, Spinoza was excommunicated by the rabbis of Amsterdam and the roiling controversy was bringing others to Amsterdam. 

John Locke––was one of those attracted by Amsterdam’s hotbed of ideas. He arrived in 1683 and published three hallmarks of the Enlightenment, on democratic government, tolerance and epistemology (the study of knowledge and how it relates to truth).

Anne Frank––the famous little girl––whose diary of life during the two years she was in hiding from the Nazis, sold over 31 million copies in 67 languages––lived just a short distance away from Shorto’s home in Amsterdam (he lived there for five years) and was friends with Freida Brommet, a woman Shorto interviews extensively. Freida, in Auschwitz with Anne Frank, managed to survive and relates the story of her life, a chapter of great horror for the Jews of Amsterdam and of great shame for its history. Yes, there were informants in Amsterdam as in other places, but the devastation was particularly immense, partly due to the great efficiency of the Dutch. Their pillar system, an effort to keep peace by giving different groups their own social space, meant that each group had its own register, with addresses on file, making the Nazi’s work easier. Shorto also points to the expedience that was behind the Dutch sense of tolerance: when circumstances change, so can the notion of tolerance.

After the war, the city’s liberal heritage again attracted activists of all kinds, giving Amsterdam a renewed commitment to that heritage. In 1946 they had the world’s first organisation to advance gay rights. Freida Brommet was the first woman to head the Dutch Union of Progressive Jews, speaking from Miami to Nairobi on the Holocaust and women’s rights. Yoko Ono and John Lennon had their “bed-in” at the Amsterdam Hilton and invited the press. The White Bicycle Plan––a radical movement, initially thwarted by the police––sought to replace cars by giving people bicycles they could ride freely around the city, eventually spawning similar plans around the world. The counter-culture was becoming the dominant culture. By 2000, prostitution, gay marriage and euthanasia had all been legalised, with both economic and social liberals in agreement.

Shorto tells all this history in a fascinating and highly readable way, providing back up references for those who want yet more detail. In short he’s a credible narrator of a great read.

And then something happens. After talking about Amsterdam’s liberal approach to soft drugs and to sex throughout the book, citing statistics that show how progressive they are, Shorto, in the final chapter refers to a “curious flip side.” He finds the acceptance of soft drugs to be inconsistent with their deep mistrust of pharmaceutical drugs and a reluctance to undergo surgery. Similarly he finds it curious that the sexual content of movies does not get the R rating it would in the U.S. but that movies with violence in them, thought to be acceptable for American children, would be restricted in the Netherlands. I find this perfectly consistent.

As for my dreamy images…

Shorto points out that the most remarkable symbol of Amsterdam’s history of liberalism is actually in its buildings––not in monumental structures such as Paris’ Eiffel tower and London’s Big Ben, but in hundreds and hundreds of canal houses where in the seventeenth-century the idea of home as a personal, private space began.


Photo by Normann Szkop

Oh, and that boy with his finger in a dyke? That turns out to be an American conception, one that emphasizes the heroic; for the Dutch with their co-operative culture it’s a bit confusing. But my image of fields of tulips certainly has a solid foundation even if the windmills are a bit more modern that I might have had in mind.

Reginald Sauvages, PhD, is the nom de plume of a local bibliophile (read: bookworm) who goes on building bookshelves and buying paperbacks for the beach so sand doesn’t ruin favourite clothbound books, even while owning an e-reader.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


We anticipate this moment like the latent heat you can taste in the air even before the snow has melted. In the sights of a gun steadied by a principled hand, or under the searing light of an interrogation lamp, the suspect is pinned and starting to struggle.

At first, he’s tearful: “You’ve…you’ve got the wrong person!”

At first, she denies it: “Surely you don’t think that I…”

And then, her voice deepens, his chest puffs up, and the trembling cusp of the confession reaches its breaking point and spews out heartache, resignation, rage, an exhaustive and loose-end-tying back story, and a sizable portion of still-twitching guts. The onslaught of the tell-all: “I did it! It was me! And why not? It’s not like anyone cared anyway, and besides I would have gotten away with it too! I was so close!” The investigator’s eyes glint with satisfaction, or maybe a parental furrowed brow. But the confession is also always the conclusion, the climactic answer to the mysteries of the book or episode, and Hercule Poirot, Scully and Mulder, and Jessica Fletcher can go home basking in the afterglow of another case neatly solved. This is, very obviously, not how things go in real life, where cold cases, thorough investigations, and the necessity for evidence beyond matching lipstick traces and dusted fingerprints prevail. But we are not immune to wanting the truth in simple, tidy admissions, as stories of false confessions or falsely accused convicts who refuse to confess will attest. It is this blind trust in confession and narration and our desire for tidy answers and finite truths that Jesse Ball investigates in his most recent novel, Silence Once Begun.

Jesse Ball has lent his own name to the narrator and interviewer of his story, which begins to complicate the line between truth and fiction. Ball character’s wife and love of his life has inexplicably fallen silent, and subsequently their life together is seemingly over. Prompted by this heartbreak he is seeking to understand, Ball is investigating a series of events that happened nearly 40 years previously in the Osaka Prefecture in Japan. This long-gone criminal case centres on a suspect, Oda Sotatsu, who signed a confession and then, once he had been locked away and the case had begun, fell silent.

The story of the case begins at a bar with three figures around a table: two men and one woman. The one man makes a wager with the other—that the loser will sign a confession and the woman will bring it to the police station. After flipping the wrong card, Oda Sotatsu, a mild-mannered thread salesman with a quiet daily routine of work and sleep and a little light jazz, loses the wager and signs a confession. The confession states that he orchestrated the “Narito Disappearances:” eight elderly people who vanished seemingly into thin air, with no trace of struggle or preparation. Food is left out on the table, no personal items are missing, and a playing card pinned to the front door of each. Though the mystery has a confession, the confessor refuses to speak or give any further information that would lead to the resolution of the case.

The book unfolds like a folio of documents assembled by the reporter Jesse Ball: interrogation transcripts, interviews with Oda’s family, photographs, newspaper clippings of trial coverage, interviewer’s notes, and finally, records of visits with the two key players: Jito Joo, the woman who brought the confession to the police, and Sato Kakuzo, the man who made the wager. From this collection of documents, you make your own sense, draw conclusions from the presented accounts. I’m reminded of Sophie Calle’s excellent accumulation The Address Book, which she made after finding Pierre D.’s address book one June evening. The book is pieced together through the artist’s interviews with its owner’s friends, colleagues, and acquaintances whose addresses and phone numbers were contained in the book. The accounts differ from person to person, those who liked him, those who ate dinner with him every Thursday, those who had a falling-out over a philosophical difference. The collected stories, articles, and pictures in Silence Once Begun are similarly conflicting and sometimes divergent: the newspapers paint Oda as an unfeeling killer, a prison guard recounts talking Oda through each step of his eventual execution, his landlady’s daughter remembers his arrest, Jito Joo talks of her affection for him, Oda’s mother re-tells his favourite childhood story. As Sato Kakuzo warns in his interview transcript, “you have to be careful whom you trust. Everyone has a version, and most of them are wrong.” (211) Ball pays acute attention to the intricacies of projection and understanding throughout the book: the particular way Oda holds his mouth is read as an enigmatic smile by Jito Joo, and as a result of being silent for so long by his brother Jiro. Maybe we’re as much what we present as how we’re read.

The novel brings together Ball’s characteristic dream-speak prose with the kind of grand conspiracy theory narrative he’s explored before in novels like Samedi the Deafness. Weaving together a sturdy intertextual cloth of new parables and semi-fictional resources, Ball’s writing is both intricate and a cipher, eliciting a deep and uncertain reading. In one parenthetical section, the character Jesse Ball recalls a book from his childhood about an Austrian huntsman called Any Trick to Finding. The huntsman has a special trick for finding things/objects, and can find anything at all by not looking for it. When asked to find a spoon in a quiet room, instead of looking for a small metal object, the huntsman would look around the room. He would find something spoon-like in the curve of the couch, emptied of its cushions, and even of the room in which he stood. “He did not permit the previously drawn categories of objects that had been set before him in the world to stop up his eyes and halt his discoveries.” (160) Whatever is set before us—a story, or a work of art, or a confession—is a possibility to look beyond what you are looking for. Instead of trusting the simple answer of the confession, Ball asks us to question the implications, nuance, and ambivalence of the confession as a narrative or story in its own right. Silence Once Begun is an invitation to discover through-lines beyond the previously drawn categories of objects and people and texts. 

Danica Evering is an artist, writer, and Amazon queen from Cobourg, Ontario. She prints, binds, chops, and has heated discussions about books with PS Guelph, and co-hosts The Secret Ingredient, a show about ideas and art on CFRU. Currently she’s been thinking about failure, small mythologies, and the effects of emotion on food.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


Money—that’s what I want. Most of us are familiar with the iconic hit song and its greed-inspired lyrics. But is money really what we want? According to Felix Martin’s Money: The Unauthorised Biography, money is a social technology and not inherently valuable. Money is credit, and the transferability of that credit determines its value. Perhaps the lyrics “Transferable credit—that’s what I want” would have been more accurate. But that would hardly be the basis for a hit song.

In Martin’s intelligently written book about the evolution of money, the reader discovers that, contrary to popular belief, money is not a medium of exchange or an evolved barter system. Money represents economic value; it is measurable, recordable, and transferrable. Martin states that, similar to sentimental value, economic value is innately social and a product of opinion. In other words, money is a social phenomenon which cannot be defined by the physical world like the standards of length and time. 

Dollar bill wallpaper in Tortilla Flats, AZ

In today’s chip-activated and wireless world, it’s hard to comprehend a time when people relied on anything but plastic for payment. I particularly enjoyed Martin’s focus on the era of seigniorage and debasement, when it was possible for a coin’s value to be less than the intrinsic value of the silver comprising it. The idea is laughable now but was the cause of great philosophical and moral debate at the time.

Martin’s unauthorised biography spans money’s misconceived history, from the sub-celestial realm to ancient philosophical times and even the recession of 2007/2008. Martin’s Money is thought-provoking and mildly infuriating in its effortless ability to change the long-held views of money from simplistic to complexly fragile. You don’t have to be a budding economist to enjoy Money: The Unauthorised Biography. 

Laura Martin's lifelong addiction to fiction took a back seat when she went to the University of Guelph for Molecular Biology and Genetics. She became fascinated with neurological conditions like Alzheimer's Disease and dementia, and is hoping to attend Dalhousie University in the spring for a Masters in Neuroscience.

Sunday, March 2, 2014


Alex Berno, a Short (auto)Biography

I was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and moved to Guelph when I was four. I go to St. Joseph Catholic School, and I’m in grade 7. I usually read adventure books and science fiction, and I often read at night after I’ve gone to bed, and stay up too late doing it. I also have been reading the new Lemony Snicket series (All the Wrong Questions) and the James Patterson Middle School books…so sometimes I have two or three books going on at the same time. I love computer games, especially Minecraft, and I like learning about electronics and computers. I like swimming and I’m going to finish all of the Red Cross Lifesaving so I can be a lifeguard and a swimming teacher. 

James Daschner

The Eye of Minds is a fictional book, but it’s really interesting because the author did a good job of making it seem like the story really happened. Michael, the main character, likes computer games a lot, and he’s a hacker. In VirtNet, you can get into your “coffin” – a system which, when it’s activated, lets you go into this place called Life Blood. Life Blood is exactly like real life, but when you die in the game, you wake up back in your coffin. 

Kain is reprogramming other peoples’ coffins so that they can’t leave Life Blood…and if they can’t leave, their core is destroyed, and they go brain dead. There’s a government agency (the VNS) that hires Michael to stop Kain. He and his friends Bryson and Sarah have to figure out how to defeat Kain…and I don’t want to give away whether that happens.

I think that the idea of Life Blood and the whole game system described here is amazing. I love computer games, and I wish we had that. 

Andrew Lane

This book really caught my attention as soon as I saw the title. Lost Worlds is about a boy named Calum who broke his legs in a serious accident that left him paralyzed. He has a website about creatures that supposedly don’t exist. He sends some of his friends (a free runner, an ex-marine, a hacker and a sort of diva) on an expedition to get some DNA from an Almasti (not quite human, not quite ape creature), with the hope that it will cure his paralysis. The group undergoes a long adventure through Georgia, Russia and has to watch out for the evil Nemon Inc., who want to sabotage Calum’s expedition. It’s a great adventure that starts in England and ends somewhere near Georgia in Russia. The way the author writes makes me think that the whole story was actually happening and I was right there with them. The way everything is described makes it easy to picture what everyone looked like, especially the Almasti. I thought it was an amazing book, and I am looking forward to more in this series. 

Peter Lerangis

Interview: What was your first impression of this book? What made you want to review this book?

Alex: I knew that it was an action and adventure book, and those are the kind I like. Just reading the back of the book, and finding out that Jack will die if he doesn’t succeed in his quest, got me interested.

What did you like about this book? Why did you want to keep reading it?

The characters had to get through a lot of challenges, and the writing is exciting. I thought the book was well-written, with lots of descriptive language that captures your attention. It has cliffhangers at the end of most of the chapters and a big one at the end of the book. I was often reading way past normal bedtime because I wanted to find out what happened next.

What is this book about?

Well, the story starts with one character named Jack who wakes up in a strange hospital, and where he makes three friends that have the same problem that he has: they have a genetic disease that gives them special powers, but it will kill them if they don’t find the seven loculi. They go on lots of adventures together but the main quest is to find the loculus, which is one of the items that kept Atlantis intact for so long. It’s pretty exciting, and the end of the book really leaves you in suspense, so I can’t wait for the next book in this series.

You’re a big Rick Riordan fan, so would you compare this book to anything that he’s written?

It’s exciting like the Percy Jackson series, and it has lots of mythology. Instead of Greek Gods, this book is centred around the Seven Wonders of the World, including the lost city of Atlantis, where this story takes place.

Was there anything about this book that you didn’t like?

No, not really. I think the book is amazing and there wasn’t anything that I didn’t like. This is mainly because I liked the action, adventure, and suspense. Like I said before, that stuff really catches my attention.