what i'm reading: brendan's way by matthew bin

Brendan's Way by Matthew Bin is a genre-blending journey story combining adventure, mystery, and conspiracy in a futuristic setting. It's technically science fiction, as it takes place in the future and features some technology that doesn't yet exist. But if, like me, you don't usually read science fiction, don't let that stop you. It's an engrossing story and a satisfying read.

Brendan is immigrating to a new world. As generation upon generation before him have done, he is filled with hope and dreams of a better life. In this case, the travel is intergalactic, but the conditions on Brendan's home planet are familiar to us, as are the difficult conditions onboard the ship.

To win his passage, Brendan is posing as the husband of a political activist who is traveling undercover on some kind of mission. Brendan doesn't know the details, and doesn't want to know. Being granted the unexpected opportunity to begin life anew on a colonial planet is reason enough to spend three months living beside a beautiful woman.

Once onboard, Brendan begins to sense that things are not that simple. His fake wife mistreats him and refuses to give him any explanation or information. As his attempts to investigate are thwarted, he realizes that the ship's destination and its mission may not be what the hopeful immigrants have been told. But how to learn more, and who can be trusted, are not easily sorted.

Most of the action of Brendan's Way takes place on the Imran, the giant ship that is a future version of the great ocean liners of the past. Through vivid descriptions -- the tiny cubicles of the living quarters for the "colonials", a marketplace that is a vast bazaar of delights and dangers, the common area where the colonials scramble for food rations -- the Imran becomes a character in the novel. The sense of place is very strong.

With so many people living in close quarters, and a conspiracy of agents who may be getting closer to the truth, the authoritarian control of the ship becomes harsher and more desperate. The suspense grows, as does the claustrophobia. When Brendan finally discovers the truth, everything is on the line.


what i'm reading: short reviews of fiction by margaret atwood, madeleine thien, frances itani, elizabeth kostova

I've gathered some thoughts about several novels I read but neglected to write about. I enjoyed them all to varying degrees; all are worth reading if you enjoy the type. This is the first of three posts.

* * * *

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood is a subgenre we don't see enough of: the dystopian comedy. We're in the future, one in which the entire economy of the United States has collapsed. Formerly middle-class families are living in their cars. Gangs of menacing scavengers roam the landscape. No one knows what happened -- some complicated financial dirty dealings went awry. It all looks very familiar.

Now some clever entrepreneur offers a solution to hunger, want, and anxiety -- a controlled community where there are jobs for all and every need is met. Well, yes, it partly a penal colony, and no one leaves -- ever. What could possibly go wrong?

As the plot thickens -- and reels, and loops, and spins -- we're treated to a wacky world involving blackmail, espionage, identity theft, human-organ trafficking, sex robots, Elvis impersonators, and some extremely strange extramarital affairs. The book is funnier than it is creepy, but it's plenty creepy, too. There's social commentary to spare woven into the humour, reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut. The Heart Goes Last is bit crazy, maybe a little out of control, but very enjoyable.

* * * *

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is a dense blend of history and myth, suspense and adventure, gothic love story and murder-mystery. It's richly descriptive, like a Victorian novel, with a complex plot that keeps you wanting more, even at 650 tightly-packed pages.

The Historian is said to be a re-telling of Bram Stoker's Dracula, but to capture the feel, you have to throw in gothic classics like Rebecca, time-traveling magic-book mysteries like Carlos Ruiz Zaf√≥n's The Shadow of the Wind, and a dash of international intrigue worthy of old-school 007. Kostova brings off an amazing literary sleight-of-hand, seamlessly blending real-world history with the Dracula myth.

There's also a meta theme, exploring how history is written. Even in this world of semi-fantasy, the intellectual detectives insist on primary sources, search for corroboration, and form no assumptions or conclusions without adequate evidence. And if this isn't enough, the immortal Vlad Drakulya has a thing for librarians.

The story is told in several concentric threads of narration. You'll need to suspend disbelief that anyone could have recorded such brilliant detail in a series of letters. But this letter-writing device alleviates the need for an entire novel that is told rather than shown -- something that has ruined more than one book for me. Don't let the vampires stop you; this is a very impressive and enjoyable novel.

* * * *

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien is another dense, multi-generational saga. The narrator, living in present-day Vancouver, relates the story of her father, a brilliant Chinese classical musician who was pushed to suicide by the cruelties of Mao's so-called Cultural Revolution. (File that sanitized expression along with ethnic cleansing, both more properly called genocide.)

The narrator's father, and others like him who have devoted their lives to music, suddenly find themselves branded as enemies of the state. They are arrested, humiliated, sometimes tortured. Thien uses their family saga to tell the stories of the Cultural Revolution and the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square. Both are seen through the lens of musicians and their love for now-forbidden beauty.

There are many plot lines, spanning two continents and several decades, and many reflections about the effect of history -- both global and family -- on our lives.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing was the winner of the 2016 Giller Prize, considered the most prestigious Canadian literary award. It's not an easy novel to read, but it is well worth the effort.

* * * *

Requiem by Frances Itani is also a historical novel. It is a fascinating, heartbreaking, and deeply satisfying read.

The narrator of Requiem, Bin Okuma, is a Japanese-Canadian visual artist recovering from the sudden loss of his beloved wife. As he drives across Canada to reunite with his aging father, he recalls childhood memories when his family was forced out of their fishing village on Vancouver Island -- given two hours to take what they could carry before they were herded into detention camps. While their white neighbours looted their homes, the men and older boys were separated from their families. No one knew where they were being taken or what would happen to them.

From filthy, reeking farm-animal pens to the brutal cold of the northern interior, with no electricity, no running water, and no outside help, tens of thousands of Canadian citizens were forced to live in brutal dislocation. The legacy of unspoken anger and shame forms the powerful emotional undercurrent of this novel. I thought I knew how bad the internment was. I didn't. Itani brings to life the full weight of the injustice, physically and psychologically.

The story cuts back and forth between Bin's present road trip, his childhood memories of the internment, and his more recent memories of his wife. It's highly readable: I found myself wanting to get back to all three timelines.

I haven't yet read the other well-known novels about the Japanese-American or Japanese-Canadian internment -- Obasan by Joy Kogawa and The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford -- so I don't know how this compares. (There is also Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson.) But Requiem is very immediate and moving, a memorable read.

Locally, Requiem was chosen as the first One Book One Mississauga. It was an enormously successful program, drawing thousands of readers in print, audio, and ebook. I found the huge interest in this novel very encouraging -- a positive force for our understanding of history, for the world we want to build, and for the stubborn persistence of reading as a shared personal and social value.


rip barry crimmins: call me lucky to have known him

In late 2015, I blogged about a remarkable documentary: "Call Me Lucky," about the life and times of Barry Crimmins. Barry died last week at the age of 64.

Describing Barry as a comedian somehow seems wrong. He was a social critic who used biting humour and righteous anger to enlighten and to skewer. He was a fierce opponent of any system that furthers war, poverty, and repression, and a stalwart advocate for equality, justice, and peace. He was also a master of wicked one-liners, as his thousands of Twitter followers knew.

Barry was in many ways a cynic and a curmudgeon, but that didn't stop him from being an idealist. He constantly called attention to the mistreatment of children, the kind that happens every day in our own communities. Barry went public with his own horrific story of child sexual abuse. In the 1990s, he became an activist against child pornography, after discovering that AOL chat rooms were harboring pedophiles. As Barry often said, "Child pornography is not protected speech. It's evidence of a crime scene."

In my review of "Call Me Lucky," I noted:
Allan and I met Barry through a baseball discussion list in the 90s, quickly bonding over our politics and, for me, a shared identity as survivors of sexual abuse or assault. We stayed at Barry's place on the Cleveland stop of our 1999 rust-belt baseball tour, and went to a few games together in New York. We lost touch until re-connecting on Facebook. Barry is the master of the political one-liner, and his feed keeps me laughing about the things that anger me the most.
I have mixed feelings about Facebook, but re-connecting with Barry Crimmins is one of the best things I've gotten from social media. We caught his act in Toronto last year, and said hi and exchanged hugs after the show. The world is a poorer place without Barry, but call me lucky to have known him.

Barry Crimmins' obit from Rolling Stone, along with a few video clips, here.

beyond #iwd: fight for women by opposing privatization

Visit We Own It for all the facts on privatization.
When public services are privatized, everyone loses -- except, of course, shareholders of a private company, who increase their wealth with our money.

But did you know the pain of privatization hits women disproportionately harder? As this excellent article by Jane Stinson in Canadian Dimension says:
Privatization is not gender-neutral. It threatens advances toward women’s equality in the labour market and in the home.

In the labour market, privatization usually means lower wages for women workers, fewer workplace rights, reduced health and welfare benefits, no pension coverage, less predictable work hours, more precarious employment, a heavier workload and generally more exploitative working conditions.
In addition, in a society where women are still the primary caregivers for both children and the elderly, when services become both scarcer and more expensive, women's burdens grow -- often while their wages are shrinking. This is also a direct impact of privatization.

Here's a terrible, typical example. When the province of British Columbia privatized support services in health care, thousands of women lost their jobs, and those who were still employed saw their wages cut by almost 50%. Naturally, services were greatly reduced, which by definition increases poverty and isolation among seniors and people with disabilities.

The UN found that privatized education "exacerbates gender discrimination."

The International Journal of Political Economy found that privatized social security impacts women twice as hard as it does men.

Canada's National Network on Environments and Women's Health found that water privatization leaves "women – especially Aboriginal women – disproportionately making difficult choices about where money is spent, having to choose among food, shelter, and safe water." Fifty years ago, the very concept of privatized water would have seemed unthinkable. Today, it is a struggle between life and death -- a struggle that hits women much harder than it does men.

Let's make International Women's Day more than a hashtag. The fight for quality public services is the fight for women's rights and gender equity. Many thanks to the good folks at We Own It for making this connection visible!


things i heard at the library: an occasional series: #27

This is a scene played out every day in public libraries all across North America.

I'm at the information desk, and I see a boy, by himself, a chubby little toddler, toddle fast in one direction, then back in the other direction. He can't be much over 12 months old. When I see him cross the floor for the third time, I get up and go to chat with him. "Who are you here with, sweetie? Is your mom here? Where's your mom?"

As I talk, his face starts to pucker, his eyes well up with tears.

"Come with me, let's look for Mommy. I know she's here, let's go find her."

He won't hold my hand, but he walks unsteadily beside me. We go around to different moms, dads, and kids. I'm hoping he'll soon recognize his family and run straight to them. By this time he is full-on crying.

A woman reading with school-age kids asks them to wait and joins me.  He wouldn't take my hand, but she lifts him confidently onto her hip. Maybe she looks more like his mom than I do -- younger, brown, hijab -- or maybe it's a motion he's familiar with. She says, "Come on kiddo, let's go find your mum."

We walk together into a busy activity area, and I announce, "Is everyone's child accounted for? Do you have all your children?" Twice. A woman waves and points to someone else -- a woman sitting by herself, texting. I am standing six inches away from her. I say loudly, "Excuse me." She looks up, uncomprehendingly, then sees her sobbing child, and jumps up, takes him from the other woman.

She says, "They were playing on the computer. His sister and brother were supposed to watch him."

I give her The Talk. You must stay close to your children. Your other children are too young to have that responsibility. You are responsible for all your children while you're here. He was very frightened. You must pay attention. I'm saying these things because I have to, but it feels useless. Maybe the sight of her son's face will make a difference.

We see it every day. We all have stories. The child who crawled out of the library into the mall. The child who was found on the public square outside City Hall. The children who are dropped off in the morning and instructed to say their mom is in the washroom. Not just moms, of course. Dads, too, and all manner of caregivers. Neglect, sometimes to the point of abandonment.

For me, it's the worst part of the job.


in which i finally give up my blackberry

Well, I finally did it. I gave up my BlackBerry, and got a Samsung Galaxy phone. Yeah, I know, welcome to the 21st Century.

Goodbye, old frenemy
I previously only used my phone for talk, text, and organizer functions (calendar, contacts), and still felt -- still feel -- that nothing beats the physical keyboard.

But now my Nexus mini tablet is dying, and there's no good low-cost replacement. Which means I'm not buying another tablet. Which means I want a phone that knows how to do everything else. And despite what BlackBerry says and the apps it has and its tiny touch screen, when it comes to everything else, it sucks.

And since I've been blogging about device decisions for nearly 15 years, I thought I should record this momentous decision here.

My last post about a device decision was in 2012: talk me out of buying a new blackberry (if you can). The phone I bought then is the one I am now giving up. Thus I am breaking a personal rule of not replacing something that is still working.

So I've done it. Goodbye, physical keyboard. I will miss you.


listening to joni: #5: for the roses

For The Roses, 1972

Front Cover
For The Roses is often overlooked, sandwiched as it is between two masterpieces. Fans who missed it might be surprised at its richness -- musically, lyrically, and emotionally. It has always been one of my favourites.

For the Roses sits between Blue and Court and Spark not only chronologically, but musically. There are the rich, deep piano chords of Blue, but heralds of another sound are mixed in -- woodwinds, reeds, and strings, Joni's own multi-track backing vocals -- hints here and there of what would be developed so astonishingly on Court and Spark.

Listening to this now, I realize that in the past, listening on LP, I must have strongly favoured side two, beginning with "See You Sometime" and closing with "Judgement of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig's Tune)". This re-listen was an opportunity for me to hear the first six songs with a fresh mind.

The album opens with a political song, a song of social consciousness, which appear sporadically in Joni's work. The singer is at a party, an elaborate banquet, the banquet that is our world.
Tuck your napkins in
And take your share
Some get the gravy
And some get the gristle
Some get the marrow bone
And some get nothing
Though there's plenty to spare

Who let the greedy in
And who left the needy out
Who made this salty soup
Tell him we're very hungry now
For a sweeter fare
This profound and perhaps forgotten song sets the tone for the album, a somber minor key, even when a tune lifts and the lyrics are happier -- not unlike Blue.

Inside Side One
Is this the first time we hear Joni use her guitar as a percussion instrument? I'm not sure, but it's exciting to hear this signature sound in 1972.

The title track of For The Roses traces a familiar theme -- art vs. commerce. Her difficult relationship with the business that brings art to fans. Where the adulation comes from, and how fleeting it is.

Remember the days when you used to sit
And make up your tunes for love
And pour your simple sorrow
To the soundhole and your knee
And now you're seen
On giant screens
And at parties for the press
And for people who have slices of you
From the company
They toss around your latest golden egg
Speculation well who's to know
If the next one in the nest
Will glitter for them so
Another familiar theme -- love vs. freedom -- appears in "Let the Wind Carry Me".
Sometimes I get that feeling
And I want to settle
And raise a child up with somebody
I get that strong longing
And I want to settle
And raise a child up with somebody
But it passes like the summer
I'm a wild seed again
Let the wind carry me 
Inside Side Two
I remember reading an interview in which Joni was asked if she wanted to have children. She said she has thought of it, but feels that there should be two parents, at least for the first 10 or so years of a child's life -- and she didn't see being able to do that with any man. It seemed sad to me, but also strong, realistic, focused. Self-aware. She seemed (to me) to say it without judgement.

"Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" is about heroin. I always think of that "down, down, down the dark ladder" -- an arresting image of addiction.

"Blonde in the Bleachers" is written about a male musician and a girlfriend, but now I wonder if Joni changed her identity for this song, reversing the roles into a more familiar formula.

"Ludwig's Tune," about Beethoven, has always been one of my very favourite Joni numbers. It used to feel very personal to me: They're gonna aim the hoses on you, show them, you won't expire.... Joni identifies with Beethoven -- also with Van Gogh and Picasso. No false modesty for her, and that confidence in her own artistic worth was used against her in many an interview and review. More sexism, of course.

Joni was already experimenting with jazz sounds on this album, through Tom Scott's wind instruments and Wilton Felder's bass, through meandering outros and long instrumental bridges. You can hear this on "Ludwig's Tune," "Barangrill," even "Blonde in the Bleachers".

Joni's voice is fully developed by this time, not only the impressive range, but her unique phrasing and diction. I've seen it called "vocal acting" -- the ability to mine meaning from lyrics, often changing the feel of a song through a single word or phrase. This is one reason why covers of Joni's songs always feel pale and neutered.

Bad critic comment of the album

I actually couldn't find any.

I found many critics referring to Joni herself in ways I find annoying and sometimes offensive -- "the poorest little rich girl in Laurel Canyon" -- but the same critic would praise her honest self-reflection, her writing, her voice.

We're now in a period of incredible creativity and output for Joni: Blue (1971), For the Roses (1972), Court and Spark (1974), The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975), Hejira (1976). I don't know when the backlash starts, but I know it's in full swing by the time Hejira is released.

The album cover

This cover is a really interesting mix. On the front, Joni dressed in deep earth tones, sitting on the ground in the woods. (It's actually taken at her BC hideaway.) Inside, an original painting, and a seascape with a nude photo.

Joni has said that her mother was upset and felt ashamed of the nude photo on the inside cover -- a bucolic, naturist image, and a tame one, not at all provocative or overtly sexual. This highlighted the distance, both literal and figurative, between Joni and her parents.

There's an often-told story about the artwork Joni originally drew for the cover, that Geffen wouldn't let her use, and which ended up as an L.A. billboard.

Cacti or stockings?

Judgement of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig's Tune): Long silk stockings on the bedposts of refinement, You're too raw, They think you're too raw...

Other musicians on this album

Woodwinds and Reeds, Tom Scott (listed as Tommy Scott)
Bass, Wilton Felder
Drums, Russ Kunkel
Percussion, Bobbye Hall
Strings, Bobby Notkoff
Harmonica, Graham Nash
Electric Guitar (Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire), James Burton
Rock 'n' Roll Band (Blonde in the Bleachers), Stephen Stills

Why my album covers look so bad

It was the summer of 1981, in one of my many Philadelphia sublets. I came home to find a pipe had burst and my bedroom was partially flooded. My albums were on the floor, and wouldn't you know it, the M's partially submerged -- Van Morrison, and Joni.

I oh-so-carefully separated every soggy cardboard cover, every sleeve and LP, and laid them out all over the apartment. I discovered you could buy blank album sleeves! I also bought some liquid stuff that was supposed to deep-clean the vinyl.

In the end, no music was lost.

I never could have guessed that within the decade, LPs themselves would become obsolete. At least when I play a CD I don't have to see those ruined album covers.


streaming update: we add appletv to the mix

We've added something new to our streaming capabilities: AppleTV. I never thought I'd own an Apple product, but one app made it irresistible: CraveTV.

Crave is a Canadian streaming service that has exclusive rights to HBO and Showtime content, shows that will never appear on Netflix. And Crave, in turn, has an exclusive deal with AppleTV. Researching this, I could see that Crave won't be available on Roku anytime soon, if ever.

So we bought AppleTV 4K, and it's great. We had been watching HBO and Showtime series through "other means," and now we can stop that. This is easier, not to mention legal. At $250 US, the AppleTV itself is not cheap, but to my mind, it's well worth it. Crave is only $8.00/month.

Like Roku, AppleTV's set-up is simple and takes less than a minute, the remote is super simple, and navigation is intuitive. The only thing AppleTV doesn't have, strangely, is a USB port. But we still have Roku for that; we can leave them both connected and easily switch back and forth.

I can't offer an actual side-by-side comparison of Roku and AppleTV, as our Roku model is old, and the AppleTV is the newest, fourth-generation model. When we first starting using Roku in 2012, the reviews of AppleTV were terrible. CNET and other trustworthy sources advised that Roku was the way to go. Now it's possible that the newest Roku works just as beautifully as the newest AppleTV. But unfortunately, it will not have CraveTV, and that's what I needed.

And just a reminder of what makes all this streaming possible: unlimited internet through TekSavvy.