11.23.2014

what i'm reading: swamplandia! by karen russell

Swamplandia! caught me by surprise. At first, Karen Russell's debut novel seemed like a quirky family story, a strange and somewhat sad tale told with great wit and humour.

Then it deepened, became (possibly) supernatural - or is that just the fantasy of a troubled girl? Then it quickened, and became suspenseful, and dangerous, and a bit heartbreaking. Step by strange step, I was hooked. Swamplandia! is not an easy book to describe, but more importantly, it's not an easy book to put down.

The Bigtree family lives in Swamplandia!, an old-fashioned roadside-attraction theme park deep in the Florida Everglades. In this case, the road is a swamp, tourists and any connection with the mainland world arrives by ferry.

Hilola Bigtree, matriarch of the strange brood, mother of the teenaged narrator, has died. (Not a spoiler.) Thirteen-year-old Ava Bigtree thought her mother's death was the bottom, the end. But the demise of famed alligator wrestler and main attraction of Swamplandia! was only the first link in a chain of events that would take Ava and each member of her family much farther down, into separate hells, and finally, to redemption.

If that sounds spooky or melodramatic, it is. But it's also very funny, and strange, and utterly credible, even when it's not remotely possible. The novel's quirkiness is reminiscent of John Irving at his best; the gallows humour not unlike Frank McCourt or Roddy Doyle. But the story and the language are deeply original.

Russell's language is as quirky as her story. "A brownish-orange algae that...could draw its pumpkin lace across the entire Pit overnight"; a tiny red alligator whose "skull was the exact shape and shining hue of a large halved strawberry". A poor boy's pennies are "a lintlike currency, value that collected in corners"; a chubby boy's jeans on her slim brother "fit him like a puddle"; the white jaw of an alligator "fell open like a suitcase". In Stiltsville, an abandoned swamp community, Ava awakens to "dawn light screaming through the doorways that hung on their hinges, the broken windows that birds could fly through, the plank lace, the cheesed metals".

The voice of Ava Bigtree, the narrator, is a stylistic triumph. Russell doesn't try to mimic the speech of a 13-year-old who has been raised in social isolation. Instead, she gives us a young girls' thoughts and mindset delivered in rich, adult language. It works.

The portion of the book that follows Kiwi Bigtree, Ava's brother - working in a Hell-themed tourist attraction, and his own private hell - is told in the third person. The switch is a bit jarring at first, but as Ava's story darkens, Kiwi's story becomes funnier and more hopeful. Alternating between the two threads builds suspense: the reader wonders how it will all come together, and how bad things will get before it does.

There are also stories within the story (John Irving-esque again). These are told with such precision of emotion and empathy, that, although impossible, they blur the distinction between reality and fantasy. The reader grapples with that issue along with Ava.

And throughout: the swamp. The untamed and untameable water-land, its wild beauty, its mysteries, its dangers, coexisting with the mundane world of bored mainland teenagers and tourists. The alligators, so vital to the Bigtree family's survival, are death machines lurking beneath every surface. But neither the Bigtrees nor the alligators are the most dangerous beasts on the swamp.

For more, I recommend this review of Swamplandia! in the New York Times Book Review from February, 2011. Better still, read the book.

11.15.2014

when sexual assault goes public: #beenrapedneverreported and the presumption of innocence

The revelations about Jian Ghomeshi hit my Facebook feed in waves.

First many friends were shocked by CBC's announcement that they were "severing their relationship" with the longtime and very popular radio host. I don't listen to radio and I'm always surprised at how many people do.

Then came Ghomeshi's own statement, which one friend very perceptively recognized as likely Ghomeshi's attempt to get ahead of a story in which he would be accused of assault.

Then came his victims - now 14 people - who have courageously come forward to tell their stories.

Despite the corroboration of multiple victims, one Facebook contact of mine (a woman) continued to praise Ghomeshi for "pushing the boundaries of what the public finds acceptable sexually" - that is, a brave warrior for BDSM. I unfriended. BDSM has at least one thing in common with any other sexual activity: it's consensual. (See: poor persecuted pervert by Sex Geek.)

Whenever a famous and well-liked public figure is accused of sexual assault, the public's reaction serves as a microcosm - and a litmus test. First it's "He wouldn't do that!" - based on a public persona, as if rapists are somehow recognizable. They're certainly not good-looking, congenial, and hip! Then it's "If these women were assaulted, why didn't they report it?" and "They're only saying this to get attention!"

Statistics: YWCA Canada.
These ignorant reactions present an excellent opportunity for education. But for those of us who have been educating about rape half our lives, it can be so tiring. Do people still think these things? Do they still not understand? Is rape still shrouded in ignorance and myth? Yes. Yes. Yes. Sigh.

#BeenRapedNeverReported

But that's the great thing about solidarity. When one of us is too tired or too disgusted or feeling too raw and vulnerable to do the work, a sister or brother will step up and do it twice as well.

Antonia Zerbisias, who very recently retired from The Star, along with her friend Sue Montgomery, also a journalist, started a hashtag on Twitter - and it took off, big-time. #BeenRapedNeverReported gave survivors a place to share, and it gave the media a peg on which to hang many excellent stories about why victims of sexual assault usually do not report the crime to the police. Sadly, #BeenRapedNeverReported is also awash with stories from women who did report, and wish they had not.

If you are hearing about this for the first time, the Twitter phenomenon has gotten some excellent media attention:
Women find power in #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag (Toronto Star),
#BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag trending, as women share stories of assault (CTV),
Women who were raped take to Twitter to explain why they didn't report it (Montreal Gazette),
#BeenRapedNeverReported: This was our way of silencing the silencers and denying those who would deny us our voices, our justice. (Al Jazeera English)
- Why women go online to report sexual assault but not to police (CBC, "The Current")...
and many others.

It would appear that most people actually don't know that the majority of rapes are not reported to the police. Why would that be? Here's an idea. (Please go and read the full story.)
So what kind of woman is reluctant to report sexual assault? Anyone who consumed drugs or alcohol before the incident, who was intoxicated; who flirted with, has a relationship with, knows, or has significantly lower status than the perpetrator.

Any woman who's had an abortion or messy divorce. Anyone who might be in a custody battle. Anyone with a sketchy social media history. Anyone who's sexted nude photos or has unorthodox sexual tastes.

Any sex worker. Anyone who initially consented to sex. Anyone with addiction issues. Anyone afraid of her assailant. Any First Nations woman. Anyone from a minority or immigrant community. Anyone who's been raped before and not been believed.

Anyone without a strong support network. Any woman who waits too long. Anyone who's seen a shrink, or been prescribed medication for mental or emotional conditions. Any woman who doesn't want her medical records or psychiatric history disclosed. Or who has family members and a community who could be hurt or shamed by disclosure or publicity. Anyone with a criminal record or who is on public assistance.

Any woman with a past. Any woman with a future she doesn't want derailed by the stress of reporting.

In short, the kind of woman who doesn't report a sexual attack is almost any normal rational woman.
The "presumption of innocence" and some other legal concepts

I once saw an online commenter claim that former district attorney Linda Fairstein said that 98% of rape accusations are false. (I think that was when I decided to stop reading comments on news stories.) What Fairstein really said: 98% of rapes don't generate enough legal evidence to be prosecuted as rape, so most are "bumped down" to another category, such as aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault with intent to harm, sodomy, sexual abuse, or other legal categories. These categories are legal distinctions, each carrying different implications for evidence and punishment. But they are all sexual assault.

Prosecutors routinely down-grade formal offenses to the highest level for which they feel they can get a conviction, a kind of legal gamble based on a whole raft of variables, from the likability of the accused to the perceived credibility of the victim, to what kind of defense the accused can afford. Prosecutors don't downgrade rape to other legal categories because they think the victim is lying, or because they're not sure if the accused actually did it. If they thought that, the case would never proceed to court in the first place!

Statistics: RAINN
The legal distinctions of rape, sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault, and so on, can denote all different things: whether or not a weapon was involved, whether the victim was tortured, what sexual acts were involved, whether the victim met the criteria for good victimhood (not a sex worker, not intoxicated or doing drugs), whether the victim and assailant knew each other, whether the victim and assailant had engaged in consensual sex in the past, and so on.

These are legal categories. And none of the categories have any bearing on whether or not a sexual assault occured. That definition is conveniently black-and-white. Was there consent? If no, it's sexual assault.

Think manslaughter versus murder: either way, someone has been killed.

If a friend of yours - or a student, your daughter, your niece, your colleague - discloses that she was raped, you would never ask, "Was that really rape, or was it aggravated sexual assault? Does that constitute sexual assault under the laws of Ontario? Is there enough evidence to prosecute?" You would never even think such a thing. You would know that the finer points of the law have nothing to do with your friend's pain.

Yet one legal concept is frequently invoked in just this inappropriate way: the presumption of innocence. As person after person came forward to say that Jian Ghomeshi had sexually assaulted them, people cried, "Whatever happened to the presumption of innocence? He is innocent until proven guilty!"

The presumption of innocence - or "innocent until proven guilty" - is an important tenet of the legal and judicial systems, and one that is constantly undermined by practices such as pre-trial confinements. (See this excellent column by Carol Goar.) It is not some sort of golden rule that we should invoke by closing our minds to logic and reason.

A blogger I know once posted photos of her daughter's battered face - purple and green with bruises, eyes swollen shut, lips split and bloody - at the hands of her ex-husband. A commenter-troll said, "Whatever happened to the presumption of innocence? Is this guy guilty before proven innocent?"

There was no question that the woman had been assaulted. And there was no question of who had assaulted her. Unless this assault was prosecuted and went to trial (two highly unlikely outcomes), no one had to think about any presumptions of innocence.

Legal guilt is not the only form of truth

Rape is rape whether it is reported, whether it is prosecuted, and whether a rapist is found guilty.

If a person is murdered, that person is dead, whether or not the murderer is ever tried or convicted. If you are mugged and someone runs off with your wallet, a crime has taken place, whether or not you report the crime to the police. Rape is the same way. If you are sexually assaulted or raped, that has taken place, regardless of what comes after. Most women do not report rape, and most reported rapes never go to trial. Does that mean those women were not raped?

Some people seem to think that a legal concept that allows an accused person certain rights in court is somehow applicable in a general sense. That somehow we must wait for a court to convict an offender before we admit what we have seen and heard with our own senses. As if the only kind of truth is the declaration of a court of law.

Or do they?

Have we really confused legal conviction with actual truth? I don't think so. In many cases, we will continue to believe an accused is innocent or guilty, despite what a jury declares. (O.J. Simpson, anyone?) But rape? Suddenly we need a conviction in court before we will believe a woman who says, "This man assaulted me".

I understand that there are false accusations of rape. They are rare, but they do occur. Sexual assault, however, is not rare. And we're not the legal system. We're not a jury. We're not bound by law to process information according to a certain formula. We're human beings, and we can operate from a place of both logic and compassion.

When someone takes a painful and courageous step forward to say, "I was raped": presume truth.

write a letter, save a life: sign up now for write for rights

For the past few years, I have participated in Write For Rights, Amnesty International's annual write-a-thon for human rights - actually the largest human rights event in the world (Canada; US; elsewhere: Google it.)

Every year, on December 10 - International Human Rights Day, which celebrates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - tens of thousands of people all over the world shine a light into darkness. By writing letters, we tell governments that someone is watching. We tell political prisoners - people in jail for opposing dictatorships, for fighting for clean water for their communities, for standing up for women and girls - that they have not been forgotten.

It's really simple to do. Amnesty gives you "case sheets" with background stories and instructions, plus tips on letter-writing. And you write a letter. Or maybe more than one letter.

To make it more fun, you can invite a few friends, print out some case sheets, open a bottle of wine, and write letters together. Or to make it easier, you can write letters on your own. Either way, it's easy and not very time-consuming. And it makes a tremendous difference to people who are enduring real suffering.

After participating in Write for Rights for a few years, I decided to take the next step and join Amnesty's Urgent Action Network. This, too, is not a huge time commitment and not difficult to do. There are no meetings to attend and no fundraising involved. Just you and your keyboard or pen.

The greatest thing about doing activism for Amnesty is knowing that their methods work. Amnesty campaigns have helped win release for political prisoners all over the world. Their observers have helped expose injustice and begun the process of change. And time and again, when activists are finally released from prison, they say, "Without your letters, I couldn't have made it through," or "Knowing I was not forgotten helped me survive". That's a big incentive right there.

If you've never participated before, how about it? This December 10: one letter. Take the pledge.

11.12.2014

e.u. advocate general ruling strongly supports claim of war resister andré shepherd

The fight for justice for US war resisters took a major step forward yesterday, with a ruling strongly in favour of war resister André Shepherd.
In the legal case of U.S. AWOL soldier André Shepherd (37) the European Court of Justice Advocate General, Eleanor Sharpton, today published her final opinion. This official statement contains guiding deliberations for the interpretation of the so-called Qualification Directive of the European Union. Amongst other considerations, these rules state that those endangered by prosecution or punishment for refusal to perform military service involving an illegal war or commital of war crimes, should be protected by the European Union.

André Shepherd, former U.S. Army helicopter mechanic in the Iraq War, during leave in Germany, left his unit and in 2008, requested asylum in that country. 2011, the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees refused Shepherd's application. Shepherd's resulting court action challenge resulted in the Munich Administrative Court's asking for the opinion of the European Court in Luxemburg on significant questions concerning the interpretation of the Qualification Directive. The Justice Advocate General came to the following conclusions:

- The protection guaranteed by the Qualification Directive is also applicable to soldiers not directly involved in combat, when their duties could support war crimes. The German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees has as yet failed to respect this definition.

- Within the asylum application process, a deserter is not obliged to prove that he was or could be involved in war crimes, as the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees required. Necessary is only the evidence of war crime probability, based on past occurrences.

- Even a U.N. mandate for a war, in which the deserter was, or could have been involved, cannot serve as grounds for rejection of his rights as a refugee.

. . . .

Rudi Friedrich of Connection e.V. stated today, “Should the European Union Court of Justice respect the Advocate General's final opinion, the position in asylum cases of military service refusers and deserters will be significantly reinforced.

Bernd Mesovic of PRO ASYL declared, “Should the Court acknowledge the content of the advocate general's final opinion, their verdict would set basic precedence. I hope that deserters will soon have better protection in all of Europe.”

André Shepherd, upon reading Sharpton's decision: The final opinion gives me new reason for optimism, both in my own case, and for the rights of other deserters.
Read more here.

This is a tremendous victory for Shepherd, for all his supporters, and for everyone who objects to wars for empire and profit. We can only hope that the European Court of Justice will listen.

11.11.2014

11.11: honour the dead by committing to peace

Robert Fisk, in The Independent:
But as the years passed, old Bill Fisk became very ruminative about the Great War. He learned that Haig had lied, that he himself had fought for a world that betrayed him, that 20,000 British dead on the first day of the Somme – which he mercifully avoided because his first regiment, the Cheshires, sent him to Dublin and Cork to deal with another 1916 "problem" – was a trashing of human life. In hospital and recovering from cancer, I asked him once why the Great War was fought. "All I can tell you, fellah," he said, "was that it was a great waste." And he swept his hand from left to right. Then he stopped wearing his poppy. I asked him why, and he said that he didn't want to see "so many damn fools" wearing it – he was a provocative man and, sadly, I fell out with him in his old age. What he meant was that all kinds of people who had no idea of the suffering of the Great War – or the Second, for that matter – were now ostentatiously wearing a poppy for social or work-related reasons, to look patriotic and British when it suited them, to keep in with their friends and betters and employers. These people, he said to me once, had no idea what the trenches of France were like, what it felt like to have your friends die beside you and then to confront their brothers and wives and lovers and parents. At home, I still have a box of photographs of his mates, all of them killed in 1918.

So like my Dad, I stopped wearing the poppy on the week before Remembrance Day, 11 November, when on the 11th hour of the 11 month of 1918, the armistice ended the war called Great. I didn't feel I deserved to wear it and I didn't think it represented my thoughts. The original idea came, of course, from the Toronto military surgeon and poet John McCrae and was inspired by the death of his friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, killed on 3 May 1915. "In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row." But it's a propaganda poem, urging readers to "take up the quarrel with the foe". Bill Fisk eventually understood this and turned against it. He was right.
Read the whole piece: Do those who flaunt the poppy on their lapels know that they mock the war dead?

I'm the only person in my workplace not wearing a poppy. This is when I appreciate the Canadian quiet live-and-let-live attitude and aversion to potential conflict. I'm sure the absence has been noted, but no one says anything.

No white poppy for me, either. It has no meaning to me.

I just wear my peace button on my jacket as always, and wait for the collective brainwashing to blow over. When our masters give the signal, everyone can take off the fake poppy - made with prison labour - and create a bit more landfill. And another annual ritual of war glorification comes to a close.

Meanwhile, in my country of origin...

David Masciotra, in Salon:
Put a man in uniform, preferably a white man, give him a gun, and Americans will worship him. It is a particularly childish trait, of a childlike culture, that insists on anointing all active military members and police officers as “heroes.” The rhetorical sloppiness and intellectual shallowness of affixing such a reverent label to everyone in the military or law enforcement betrays a frightening cultural streak of nationalism, chauvinism, authoritarianism and totalitarianism, but it also makes honest and serious conversations necessary for the maintenance and enhancement of a fragile democracy nearly impossible.

It has become impossible to go a week without reading a story about police brutality, abuse of power and misuse of authority. Michael Brown’s murder represents the tip of a body pile, and in just the past month, several videos have emerged of police assaulting people, including pregnant women, for reasons justifiable only to the insane.

It is equally challenging for anyone reasonable, and not drowning in the syrup of patriotic sentimentality, to stop saluting, and look at the servicemen of the American military with criticism and skepticism. There is a sexual assault epidemic in the military. In 2003, a Department of Defense study found that one-third of women seeking medical care in the VA system reported experiencing rape or sexual violence while in the military. Internal and external studies demonstrate that since the official study, numbers of sexual assaults within the military have only increased, especially with male victims. According to the Pentagon, 38 men are sexually assaulted every single day in the U.S. military. Given that rape and sexual assault are, traditionally, the most underreported crimes, the horrific statistics likely fail to capture the reality of the sexual dungeon that has become the United States military.

Chelsea Manning, now serving time in prison as a whistle-blower, uncovered multiple incidents of fellow soldiers laughing as they murdered civilians. Keith Gentry, a former Navy man, wrote that when he and his division were bored they preferred passing the time with the “entertainment” of YouTube videos capturing air raids of Iraq and Afghanistan, often making jokes and mocking the victims of American violence. If the murder of civilians, the rape of “brothers and sisters” on base, and the relegation of death and torture of strangers as fodder for amusement qualifies as heroism, the world needs better villains.
The essay: You don’t protect my freedom: Our childish insistence on calling soldiers heroes deadens real democracy.

11.10.2014

dispatches from the community of readers' advisors: r.a. in a day 2014

Last week I attended "R.A. in a Day," an annual one-day mini-conference on readers' advisory - that is, finding books for readers.

It happens that the manager of my own "Readers' Den" department is one of the principal hosts of the conference, and the Mississauga Library was well-represented in the audience. More than 100 people attended from libraries throughout southern Ontario.

It was a joy to spend the day focusing on the singular pleasures of reading and the experience of people who read. Part of what makes doing readers' advisory fun is that you're already talking to a reader. You're not trying to convince anyone to read; you're a bridge between a reader and books. There are more passive forms of RA, such as book displays. But the active, one-on-one RA that this conference focuses on is - as you know - a part of my job that I really enjoy.

I'll highlight three speakers from the event.

Catherine Sheldrick Ross, into the minds of readers

Making this day especially noteworthy to me, the keynote speaker was a library hero of mine: Catherine Sheldrick Ross, the name in research on reading.

Some years back, I blogged about a book she co-authored, Reading Matters: What the Research Reveals about Reading, Libraries and Community. A chapter had been assigned reading, and I enjoyed it so much that I hunted down the book and read the whole thing. Let me tell you, in library school, that was a rare experience for me! I was so pleased to meet Dr. Ross and tell her I had blogged about her book. I'm going to send her the post, and I'll also read her newest book, The Pleasures of Reading: a Booklover's Alphabet.

An excellent and engaging speaker, Ross highlighted some of the results of her thirty-year inquiry into the minds of avid readers. Ross' research - in-depth interviews about the reading experience - has formed the basis of RA practice. Indeed, understanding the reader's experience is the key to good RA.

And that understanding begins with reflecting on our own experience. As you read these questions, think of how you read.

Are you a selective reader, feeling your time is very limited and what you read must always be very good and worthwhile? Or are you an ominvorous reader, reading everything from quality literature to genre novels and books others dismiss as "trash"?

Do you read only fiction, only nonfiction, or both?

Do you re-read books, feeling that books are old friends who should be re-visited and re-understood? Or do you feel that there are so many books to read and so little time, that you never or rarely read a book more than once?

How do you find your books? Do you have an organized system that you employ, or do you find books more randomly and haphazardly from an eclectic group of sources?

Through questions like these, we in the audience began to reflect on our own reading practices. We then did an exercise, each table discussing a different dimension of reading, and then sharing with the group. I am pleased (and kind of amazed) to say it was one of the more useful library exercises I've done. We could have gone on for twice as much time.

Many insights into the reading experience are nearly universal. Our choice of reading varies not only at different times in our lives, but at different moments, depending on what's going on in our lives at any particular moment. And reading is an enduring paradox. It takes us away from our own lives, into another world - the infamous "escape" that is often denigrated. Yet at the same time, reading broadens our scope, enriches us, strengthens our connections with the world. (Did you know that people who read tend to have more empathy than non-readers?)

Ross has written about a phenonmenon that most readers will relate to: she calls it "finding without seeking". You are reading a book for pleasure. Perhaps you picked it up randomly or were drawn to its beautiful cover, or read a review. You're reading it for pleasure, not information. But as you read it, you recognize something of yourself in the book: a relationship, or a dilemma, a conflict. You reflect on your own experience, and you end up learning, and growing. Ross says:
Readers choose books for the pleasure anticipated in the reading itself but then, apparently serendipitously, they encounter material that helps them in the contex of their lives. (Ross, Finding Without Seeking, 1999)
Although learning about RA begins with reflecting on our own experience, the most important dictum of RA is four little words: It's Not About You. Keeping our own opinions and judgements out of the picture can be challenging! Dr. Ross says: "RA is a conversation, and the library is the place that fosters that conversation."

Claire Cameron, The Bear

Claire Cameron, a Canadian author, read from her current book The Bear, and talked about her sources and her writing process. She was a wonderful speaker and reader. I must confess that I began reading The Bear about a month ago, and put it down, feeling it wasn't for me. But after hearing Cameron read, I'm going to give the book a second chance.

The inspiration for The Bear was an actual bear attack that took place in Ontario's Algonquin Park in 1991. It was a very unusual attack that gave rise to a great deal of publicity: a healthy bear attacked and killed two people. The bear was not threatened, he was not starving - the couple was cooking dinner and the bear left the package of ground beef untouched. What's more, the couple were experienced campers who did everything right. It appears that the bear went out of its way to hunt and kill people.

Using this event as a jumping-off point, Cameron imagines the story from the point of view of a five-year-old girl, hiding with her younger brother - their father manages to hide them in a camping stove while trying to fend off the bear - then surviving in the woods, alone. (There were no children in the actual incident.) The story itself is gripping and suspenseful, and ultimately hopeful. Readers I speak to in the library are recommending it highly.

Cameron had a great deal of experience as a hiker, climber, canoer, and adventurer before becoming a writer. One of her best stories at RA in a Day was about her return to Algonquin Park, with her two sons, after the publication of The Bear. If you're intrigued, there's a good profile of her here.)

Peter Mendelsund, What We See When We Read and Cover

The final speaker of the day approaches the reading experience from an entirely different perspective. Peter Mendelsund is a book designer and art director for Alfred A. Knopf Publishers in New York. Check out the very impressive catalogue of book covers he has designed: Mendelsund.

Mendelsund has just published two books simultaneously: a coffee-table retrospective of his work, called Cover, and a meditation on what the experience of reading feels like, called What We See When We Read.

Mendelsund's talk was a departure and a great end to the day. A fast-talking, witty, literate New Yorker, he jolted us alert after a long, slow afternoon. Most of us love book covers, and Mendelsund's talk was a fascinating peek into the process of their creation.

In response to a question, Mendelsund mentioned that his least favourite projects are usually books expected to be very popular, where authors have earned huge advances. In those cases, there are a lot of stakeholders, high expectations, sales pressure, and many opinions to contend with... and thus much less creative control.

On the other hand, Mendelsund's favourite projects are usually classics that are being reprinted. The author is dead, the publishing house has little investment, and he gets to do pretty much whatever he wants. These books are often being published in a series, an authors' complete work, for which Mendelsund designs an overall concept, then variations for each book. With a slide show, he walked us through the process of designing this series of the work of Franz Kafka. Also, check out his designs for James Joyce, especially that most inspired Ulysses.

Mendelsund's references were more literary than those of most public library workers. He was name-dropping Melville, Joyce, Dostoyevsky, and Foucault, and I suspect that went over the heads of many people in the room. But his famous cover design of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo probably made up for it.

A final note about Peter Mendelsund. He mentioned that his first career was as a concert pianist. (His parents were survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto, and playing classical music increased one's chance of survival.) After decades as a musician, now with a family, he needed to change careers to have a more stable income and health insurance. That's not uncommon, especially in New York. But how many people buy a book on how to become a graphic designer, create a portfolio, and leap into a job as a book designer at a major publishing house? Those are some impressive talents at work, and not only the artistic kind.

11.09.2014

garth hudson returns to big pink

This week, Columbia Records released The Basement Tapes Complete, six CDs of music made by Bob Dylan and The Band at the house they lived in - the legendary Big Pink - in West Saugerties, New York, during the summer of 1967.

Although The Band, and Bob Dylan, and Bob Dylan and The Band, are among my favourite musical artists in the world - and although I love The Basement Tapes (a double-album from 1975) - I greet this announcement with only mild interest. I'll be excited to hear any actual new material, but different versions of already-recorded songs are never that interesting to me.

My lack of interest baffles my bootleg-loving partner, who is over the moon about this release. For more information about The Basement Tapes Complete, you might see Allan's non-baseball blog, currently called Sharp Pencil.

I did, however, love this video from Rolling Stone, documenting Garth Hudson's return to Big Pink for the first time in almost 50 years.


Not only does that house represent some of my most favourite music in the world, it is situated in an area filled with so many important memories for me. This is the Catskills region of New York State - "upstate," in local parlance. We never had a cottage or even a summer rental, but we went upstate with our dogs every summer - first a long weekend in a motel, then a week in a cabin, and eventually a rented house. The whole area is flush with memories for me, including some that are poignant, such as scattering some of the ashes of our beloved dogs Gypsy and Clyde, before we left for Canada. Somehow seeing the video of the drive to that house brought back a flood of memories.

A long time ago, when this blog was just getting going - back when I used one-word titles for every post - I wrote about our experiences upstate, just to preserve it in writing somewhere.

11.08.2014

towards a cruelty-free face: switching to products not tested on animals

I've begun changing my personal care products to cruelty-free: natural products from companies that are better for the environment and don't test on animals. I'm not sure how far I'll be able to go, but I've begun the process.

After a lifetime of using conventional products, I was moved to think more about this by a few different sources.

When I worked in the children's library, I often saw a book about animal cruelty. It was not the one I wrote about here, about dogs, but a book in a series called "Tough Issues," similar to the kind of series I used to contribute to. This "tough issue" asked the question, "Why do people harm animals?" It's a good book, one that successfully treads that very careful line separating honesty from the overly graphic. Even so, there was one image that burned in my brain. (I know this image would have been highly disturbing to me as a child. Considering I saw the image in a children's book, this is very bad.) And now that image from that book joins the panolpy of disturbing images that I will never be able to un-see.

Another source: I belong to the Humane Society International (or HSI Canada), and their excellent advocacy against animal testing has influenced me.

The rational case for using animals in medical research has ended: as one prominent researcher says, "Whatever you discover, you will have to re-discover using people, so not only do the animals suffer using these experiments, the first few patients using these novel treatments will suffer, too." Using animals to test cosmetics and personal-care products shouldn't even be controversial. It is absolutely cruel and unnecessary.
Eliminating animal testing of cosmetics is entirely feasible. In the past three decades scientists have developed many advanced alternatives to animal testing—methods that use human blood, cell lines, artificial skin or computer models to test the safety of products. And many multinational companies have embraced these alternative test methods, reducing and in some cases eliminating their dependence on animal testing. As a result, they cut costs and save time; animal testing is expensive, slow and, because animals are not people, not always predictive.

The movement to eliminate animal testing extends beyond the cosmetics industry. In 2007 the National Academy of Sciences issued a report recommending that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fundamentally change the way chemicals are tested for human health risks. Through a greater reliance on in vitro testing, researchers could evaluate the effects of chemicals on biological processes while using very few animals. Scientists would generate better data and test a greater number of chemicals more quickly and cheaply.
And then there are microbeads. Perhaps I was the last person in North America to learn about microbeads, but the news finally reached me.
Tiny particles of plastic have been added to possibly thousands of personal care products sold around the world. These microbeads, hardly visible to the naked eye, flow straight from the bathroom drain into the sewer system. Wastewater treatment plants are not designed to filter out microbeads and that is the main reason why, ultimately, they contribute to the Plastic Soup swirling around the world’s oceans. Sea creatures absorb or eat microbeads. These microbeads are passed along the marine food chain. Since humans are ultimately at the top of this food chain, it is likely that we are also absorbing microbeads from the food we eat. Microbeads are not biodegradable and once they enter the marine environment, they are impossible to remove.
Although I used products that contain microbeads, I never asked, "What are the scrubbing particles in this product made of?" Indeed, I never even thought of it. But now I have learned that a few products I buy regularly contain these tiny plastic particles that go straight to our water supply and into animals. And so, microbeads became the final kick in the pants I needed.

I looked into cruelty-free products on line, mostly at Leaping Bunny and GoCrueltyFree.org, but I was quickly overwhelmed. There are so many products... where to begin? Then I remembered my dictum from other changes I've made: away from all-or-nothing thinking. This cheered me up.

I decided to start with two products: face cleanser and scrub, since these are most likely to contain microbeads. This would also allow me to stop buying products made by Procter & Gamble, a name found on boycott lists for decades.

The next time I was in Whole Foods, I talked to the person in the "Whole Body" department. She showed me several alternatives. I decided on products by Green Beaver, a Canadian company with an interesting genesis.
As young scientists, Karen was a biochemist with experience in the pesticide industry and Alain was a microbiologist working for the pharmaceutical industry. We were both appalled by the amount of chemicals found in kid’s shampoos, bubble baths and other products. Given our background, we decided to do something about it. We quit our jobs and left the chemical industry behind to create healthier, natural products for your family and ours. We wanted to make a difference, and this is our story.
The scrubbing particles in Green Beaver's grapefruit and aloe scrub are made from bits of bamboo.

Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, and others who have written about the horrors of the industrial food chain often note that the only way we can live with such a disgusting and inhumane system is by purposely not knowing about it - by willful collective ignorance. (This is the same ignorance collectively employed about capital punishment in the US, now unraveling thanks to activists forcing people to see.) We don't want to know where our cheeseburger comes from. We don't want to know about the feed lot, the gestation crate, the chicken prison, the killing floor. Or the lab prison.

Most people want to avoid thinking about cruelty to animals. We don't want to know about it. We especially don't want to know that we're complicit in it! And our closed eyes allow it to continue.