what i'm reading: three books by richard ford

I've been meaning to read Richard Ford for years - actually, for decades. Both the 1986 novel The Sportswriter and 1995's follow-up Independence Day have been languishing on The List since they were published. When Canada came out in 2012, and reviews made me want to read it, it was time to dig up those earlier titles and finally discover Ford. I recently put all three titles on hold in my library, and read them in order of publication. (An aside: there was only one copy of The Sportswriter in our system, so my borrowing it probably saved that book's life for a time. At least for a while, it won't show up on any dead lists and be weeded.)

Ford writes the kinds of novels that are all but impossible to make into a movie and defy description in terms of plot. Readers who need page-turning action would be bored to tears. But readers who love keen perceptions of human desires, thoughts, and motivations, and who value precise and elegant language, with the occasional touch of subtle humour, may want to discover this writer, too. 

Richard Ford's writing is highly reminiscent of Saul Bellow's. Bellow was one of the greatest explorers of "the human condition," as it is often called in literary criticism - the Big Questions, the existential longings, the search for meaning and authenticity, the burden of being conscious of our mortality. Ford mines similar territory, plumbing the depths of thinking people who are contemplating their own existence.

The two early novels, both featuring the character Frank Bascombe, are almost entirely internal monologue. Even the more recent Canada, which features a more recognizable plot, is told rather than shown, so the plot elements take a backseat to the thoughts and feelings of the narrator.

Canada adds to the existential crisis a contemplation of the powerlessness of childhood, and by extension, all of our lives. We meet people who are living the wrong life, so to speak, traveling down a path begun by one wrongheaded decision, but seemingly powerless to choose another path.

Ford's work is full of richly drawn characters, sad lives, and missed opportunities - and also of enduring love and friendship, if sometimes only glimpsed for a moment in a rearview mirror. The writing is always measured, sometimes wry, never melodramatic. These are quiet books, not to everyone's taste, but beautiful in many ways, and worth reading.


what i'm reading: the golden compass by philip pullman

The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman, has been on my to-read list since it was first published in the mid-1990s. Although I generally don't read fantasy fiction, after reading an outstanding review in The New York Times Book Review, I was very intrigued. Thanks to the Teen Book Club I facilitate at the library, I recently had an excuse to read it: The Golden Compass (published as Northern Lights in the UK) is our March title.

This is an absolutely wonderful book. Lyra Belacqua, a smart, spunky 11-year-old girl, is wholly believeable as our powerful, but very human, hero. She lives in a world recognizable to us, but different - a parallel universe which unfolds naturally, without the ponderous world-building that I find so tedious in more typical adult fantasy fiction.

The book is chock-full of adventure, mystery, and action, with just the right touch of thoughtful reflection thrown in. It's an excellent youth or tween read, which is to say it's fast-paced, written in a clear and straightforward style, and with the darker, scarier, and potentially violent material handled with discretion and a gentle touch. There is sadness and loss and frightening elements, as there should be, but there's nothing graphic.

The Golden Compass is sometimes called a youth novel, but it lives on the younger side of that spectrum, perfect for a 10- or 11-year-old who is a good reader. Why, then, is it catalogued in the adult section of our library? I can only speculate that it might have been a response to "challenges" - meaning controversy and calls for banning or limiting access in the library.

To an adult reader, the reason for the challenges - though silly, in my view - are obvious. On the surface The Golden Compass is a straightforward fantasy-adventure, but on another level it can be read as a critique of The Church. The book is certainly not anti-religion or anti-spirituality, but it is a harsh condemnation of the institutional Church - the Church of the Inquisition, the Church of intolerance, and most of all, the Church that has harbored and protected known pedophiles for centuries, allowing countless children's lives to be shattered.

There are other aspects to which some Christian readers might object: our hero is herself identified with Christ imagery. But I believe the principal objections would focus on a negative portrayal of the institution of organized religion.

Some critics see Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass is book one) as a response to C. S. Lewis' The Narnia Chronicles, with its clearly Christian underpinnings. Not being a reader of fantasy, and never having read Narnia (I read and enjoyed The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a child, but stopped there), I can't comment on these critiques. There are many comparisons online, but most focus on film adaptations - not a reliable way to critique a book!

The 2007 movie adaptation of The Golden Compass was greeted with articles like "The Chronicles of Atheism" and "The Golden Compass: A Primer on Atheism". This is nonsense, of course. I'm pretty sure anyone who says the movie version of The Golden Compass is about atheism hasn't seen it. For this, I'll turn to the late, great Roger Ebert's review of the movie.
For most families, such questions will be beside the point. Attentive as I was, I was unable to find anything anti-religious in the movie, which works above all as an adventure. The film centers on a young girl named Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), in an alternative universe vaguely like Victorian England. An orphan raised by the scholars of a university not unlike Oxford or Cambridge, she is the niece of Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), who entrusts her with the last surviving Alethiometer, or Golden Compass, a device that quite simply tells the truth. The Magisterium has a horror of the truth, because it represents an alternative to its thought control; the battle in the movie is about no less than man's preservation of free will.
One of the better pieces I've found on this subject was by Jenn Northington, writing on Tor.com, for Banned Books Week 2013.
One could argue that while the disdain for organized religion and bureaucracy registers in Pullman’s books as well as in his interviews, it doesn’t prevent them from containing all kinds of mystical elements. There are witches with super powers, embodied souls in the form of daemons, a trip to the underworld. One could further say that they promote a sense of spirituality and a belief in the possibility of things beyond our comprehension. There’s a word for that; some call it faith. This argument, of course, is unlikely to hold weight with anyone who objects to the series. In matters of taste there can be no dispute, and each reader finds something different in a book.
If The Golden Compass works equally well as a great children's read, and a response to a famous fantasy series, and a critique of a social institution, that is quite a feat, and Pullman deserves huge recognition for pulling it off. The symbolic meanings are there for discussion and debate, but the solid base of the book is vivid, highly accessible, and simply excellent.


i survive another march break and live to tell the tale

I'm still providing library services to teens, and I'm still loving my job. March Break is one of our big-ticket items. I'm expected to plan and provide a week-long lineup of free programs for teens. I strive for a variety of programming - some tech-y, some crafty, some movement, some just for socializing and fun. Here's what we did this year.

Stop-Motion Movies: Working in groups, teens created their own short animated movies, using the library's tablets and a variety of materials - Lego, Play-Doh, plastic animals, and so on. We were amazed at the creativity on display in the room. All the groups took the activity much farther than our samples and demos.

Learn Bollywood Dance: A professional Bollywood dance instructor based in Mississauga led teens in a free dance lesson. There was a lot of buzz about this program around the system, and staff was very excited about it... but turnout was low, the only poor attendance of the week. I offered the program in response to teens' requests - that's our mandate - but those teens who were clamouring for Bollywood were nowhere to be seen. Oh well! The kids who came had a great time. (So did I!)

DIY Jewelry Making: I suspected this would be the most popular program of the week, and I wasn't far off. For many teenage girls, jewelry-making is something close to nirvana. We amassed a huge array of materials, from which girls made necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and keychains. Despite my best efforts - make something for your mom! make a braided leather friendship bracelet! - no boys attended.

March Madness Party Games: Our TAG - the teen leadership group I coordinate - developed this program with me. We led teams in games like trivia, taboo, and "murder tap", which the teens had created themselves. TAG decorated the room in streamers and balloons, and everyone left with a loot bag, which included a gift card from a popular bookstore. It was really good and silly fun, and turnout was great - most of them repeats from earlier programs, which I take as a good sign.

Game Day plus temporary tattoos: Our final day of March Break (and every Friday during the summer) is always easy and social. We set up videogames and offer a variety of board games, and kids just come by and hang out. This year I added a big bowl of candy and a henna artist - both big draws. We called the henna "temporary tattoos" to sound more gender-neutral, and it worked.

It was a fun, if exhausting, week. As if I needed more challenge, my calendar was crowded with some inconveniently-timed union and activist obligations - including my first appearance at the Library Board! (That's much of where these worries were coming from.) On the other hand, it was made much easier by great support both at home and at work.


the unquiet mind: in which i search for a way to turn down the volume in my brain

Isn't it frustrating when you know you're doing something that hurts you, that makes your life more difficult, yet you can't seem to stop? Awareness is a necessary precursor to change - that's been proven to me again and again - but sometimes awareness becomes another burden. 

I'm in one of those times of my life when my level of busy-ness is well past my comfort level, and there's nothing I can do about it. Although it's not quite short-term, it's not permanent. I've gotten through this before - and I've done it without re-triggering any stress-related symptoms or illness. In some part of my mind, I know I can do that again.

I know that the best approach, the most useful tool I can use to get through this - and even to enjoy each item on my crowded calendar! - is to stay in the present. Not just one day at a time, but one moment at a time. Live life as it comes. 

Yet at the same time, some evil, non-rational part of my mind is sure this busy-ness will destroy me, that I'll fall apart, that I won't get through it. And that part of my mind is trying to live the whole thing at once. Every moment becomes: I have to do this, and this, and this, and this, then there's that, and that, and that! How will I do it all? I can't! I will fall apart! 

And that evil part of my mind, the part that lives in the future, robs me of so much present enjoyment. Worse, it robs me of the down-time I do have! And it triggers insomnia, so I'm less equipped to handle the busy-ness of the following day. 

Like everyone - like all of you - my irrational mental bete noire is well-known to me. I've been wrestling with the same pitfalls all my life, and I can give myself a huge pat on the back for how far I've come. (As should you!) I'm a whole lot better at keeping this stuff under control than I used to be.

But still. I struggle.

I search for ways to "turn off my brain," or at least to lower the volume for a time. Sometimes physical exercise helps... but sometimes I can't relax my brain enough to enjoy a walk. Sometimes reading helps, but if my mind is jumping around too much, I can't concentrate enough to read. 

When I was in grad school and experiencing an increase in anxiety, I tried re-booting a meditation practice, something I hadn't done in at least 15 years. I didn't get very far. Learning to quiet your mind is a gradual process, and - like most new habits - the toughest part is getting started. (Maybe I should just note that and get started anyway.)

So here I am. Trying to live a week or a month or three months all at once. Knowing full well that at the end of that week or month, I'm going to say, There! I did it. It was easier than I thought. Some of it was even fun. And I'm fine. I was fine all along. 

So why can't I just know that now?


march 14: speak out against bill c-51

Guest post by Allan:

Tomorrow - Saturday, March 14 - there will be protests across Canada against Stephen Harper's latest assault on democracy and free speech - Bill C-51 ("The Anti-terrorism Act 2015").

While Harper states the bill would merely "criminalize the promotion of terrorism" and give the government the power to remove "terrorist propaganda" from the internet, left unanswered is who defines "terrorism" and "terrorist propaganda". The bill is written in such overly broad terms it could be applied to nearly anything the Conservative government wants to deem criminal.

The introduction of C-51 comes on the heels of news that the Communications Security Establishment, Canada's spy agency, is operating a covert, mass surveillance program that monitors the online activities of millions of Internet users around the world. Ron Deibert, a professor at the University of Toronto, likened the CSE program to a "giant X-ray machine over all our digital lives. . . . Everything single thing that you do . . . is being archived, collected and analyzed."

To find out where the nearest rally is to you, click here or here. (Information about the Toronto rally is here.)

Amnesty International lists seven reasons to oppose C-51. Other groups endorsing the rallies include: Leadnow.ca, Idle No More Toronto, Toronto Coalition to Stop the War, Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), Occupy Canada, and Greenpeace Canada.

C-51 will expand the mandate of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) while also allowing the Conservatives to increase their crackdown on legal political dissent.

Paul Champ, a civil liberties lawyer, said there are serious concerns that C-51 "is going to target not just terrorists who are involved in criminal activity, but people who are protesting against different Canadian government policies." Indeed, an internal RCMP report from January 2014, obtained by Greenpeace, reported that the so-called "anti-petroleum" movement is a growing security threat to Canada.

C-51 would relax privacy restrictions, lower the legal threshold for police to obtain a warrant, and allow Canadian authorities to hold suspects without charges for as long as one year. The Toronto Star reported the bill would give 17 security agencies "access to any information in any government department on any Canadian".

Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, has sharply criticized the bill, saying it would "allow the Conservatives to turn CSIS into a secret police force". After some initial waffling, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has spoken out against C-51.

Silencing of dissent appears to be one of the bill's main goals. When May asked the public safety and justice ministers during question period if C-51 could be applied to non-violent civil disobedience, such as blockading along a pipeline route, she did not receive a direct answer.

Micheal Vonn, Policy Director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, said C-51 "proposes an unprecedented expansion of powers that will . . . impose a broad chill on legitimate political speech".

Harper and the Conservatives remain hostile to transparency and accountability. CSIS's internal watchdog was eliminated by the Conservatives in 2012 and C-51 offers little in the way of additional oversight. University of Ottawa law professor Craig Forcese says the Conservatives want to return to an era when the security services were free to engage in illegal, dirty tricks. He wrote that the bill creates a "secret jurisprudence on when CSIS can act beyond the law".

We must speak out against such obvious anti-democratic activities and resist Harper's totalitarian measures.


what i'm reading: stuff: compulsive hoarding and the meaning of things

Hoarding is a hot topic these days, and often approached through a lurid, sensational lens - eccentric recluses and their hoards of junk are exposed for public entertainment. You'll find none of that in Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by psychologists Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee. Instead, the book is rich with insight based on solid research, combined with large doses of empathy, patience, and compassion. The book was written to help hoarding sufferers and the people who love them recognize and understand their affliction, and begin to seek help.

The words sufferers and affliction are appropriate, as readers of this book will learn. Hoarding is a serious psychological disorder that ruins lives. People with comfortable incomes live in poverty, marriages end, families are wrecked, children grow up isolated, fearful, and ashamed, all because of an addiction to amassing things, and a total inability to part with any material object.

Many people love to collect things, and most people in our culture attach emotional meaning to certain objects - things that we would find painful to lose or have taken from us. What distinguishes the healthy collector or saver from a hoarder is the same metric applied to most addictions. Does this behaviour cause distress? Does it interfere with a person's health and happiness? Frost explains:
Many of the people we see experience great distress because of their hoarding. Acquiring and saving things has wrecked them financially and socially, driven their families away, and impaired their ability to carry out basic activities of living.
Stuff is organized around personal case studies, people who generously (and anonymously) shared their painful stories with the researchers, and whose stories illustrate the strange signatures of hoarding addiction. Although not written in a tabloid style, the stories themselves are nonetheless amazing and sometimes horrifying.

You'll meet wealthy brothers who fill up their huge apartment until it's no longer habitable, then move to another apartment - and fill that up, and move again. You'll meet people who cannot drive by a mall without buying dozens, hundreds of items - although they have no money to buy them with and no space to put them. Then they don't allow anyone to touch what they buy. There are people who cannot part with a single piece of paper - not a cash register receipt, not a coupon flyer - ever, for any reason. There's the woman who collects cookbooks, piled so high on every kitchen surface that her kitchen is completely unusable.

Many strange and fascinating features come to light. For example, when a person who hoards sees photographs of her own home, she doesn't recognize it, and cannot - does not - believe it is the place she lives in. She's disgusted and wants to change. But when she's in that same home, within her hoard, she doesn't see it at all and believes it to be perfectly normal.

The authors show that help is possible, but progress is typically slow, painful, and yields only partial success. Forced clean-outs - often undertaken by a department of health, at tremendous expense - produce only short-term success. As the underlying issues that cause the hoarding behaviour have not been addressed, the hoarder re-fills the space, often within days.

Not only are the forced clean-outs ineffective, they are dangerous. There are several documented cases of forced clean-outs being followed by suicide. This reminded me of the horrific advice of some pseudo-professionals who counsel families of children (and dogs) with phobias to "flood" the sufferer with massive amounts of what they fear. The results are predictable and tragic: permanent trauma, often with dangerous, violent expression.

Yet these forced clean-outs may be necessary: hoarding is associated with extreme health and safety issues - malnutrition, fire hazards, and vermin, to name only the obvious few. (Readers with insect phobias are strongly cautioned: do not read Chapter 9! I wish I hadn't. My stomach still churns at the thought.)

The famous Collyer Brothers of New York City, whose names have become synonymous with hoarding, were killed by their hoard. Homer Collyer was incapacitated and depended on his brother Langley to feed him. One day, Langley tripped one of his own traps, and suffocated to death under a crush of bales of newspapers. Without Langley to attend him, Homer died of a heart attack caused by starvation. Homer's emaciated body was found first. After three weeks of excavating, workers recovered Langley's body - which had been only 10 feet away.

When the rumour spread that the brothers had died, it took police hours to create even the tiniest crawl space to enter the Harlem mansion. In the first two weeks of work, workers removed 19 tons of debris, and had barely made a dent. Even more amazing is the fact that the Collyer Brothers were not unique in the annals of hoarding. Stuff is full of many such extreme stories.

The psychological underpinnings of hoarding are complex and only partially understood. The defense mechanism known as avoidance is definitely in play. People who are afraid of experiencing any anxiety, unhappiness, or loss - all normal parts of life - find that shopping and accumulating temporarily assuages these feelings. By constantly employing avoidance techniques, they never learn to cope with these normal feelings - never build up the requisite strength and maturity to withstand ordinary stress - thus creating a cycle of dependency on the drug of accumulation.

During therapy, a hoarding sufferer can gradually - oh so very gradually - learn to face unpleasant feelings, learn that they can withstand those feelings, and can gradually begin to let go of their coping mechanisms. Frost and Steketee also point to other traits shared by most hoarders, such as an ability to find beauty and meaning in absolutely everything, no matter how seemingly trivial, and extreme indecisiveness.

Many readers who are not hoarders themselves may recognize hoarders in their own families. Children of hoarders grow up afraid and isolated, ashamed to allow outsiders to see the condition of their homes, learning to lie easily as they create cover stories for their parents, similar to children of substance abusers. Children of hoarders often don't realize that their "big secret" - as one adult child of a hoarding parent called it - is a recognized problem, that other households like theirs exist. Children of hoarders have found support, comfort, and coping advice through online and in-person support groups.

The final chapter of Stuff was especially interesting to me: the authors frame hoarding in a social context. Although hoarding has been documented over centuries and in many cultures, it appears to be more prevalent now than ever, a psychological disorder of our age. Consumer culture, which encourages acquisition and measures value according to things, would seem to lead inexorably to hoarding. We live in a world of buy, buy, buy, more, more, more.

If an attachment to material wealth is seen on a continuum, with an ascetic refusal of all materialism on one end, and hoarding on the other, what is "normal" in our culture falls much closer to the hoarding end of the spectrum. The authors reference the psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm, who contrasted a life defined by having versus a life defined by being. Fromm forecasted a society obsessed with possessions, where people were obsessed with having, in an addictive cycle of acquisition, fleeting happiness, followed by the need for more acquisition, but never finding satisfaction.

Frost writes:
Forty years ago, facilities for storing unused personal possessions were virtually nonexistent. Now nearly two billion square feet of space can be rented for storage in more than 45,000 facilities, and most of that space [2 billion square feet] is already full. In March 2007 the New York Times reported that self-storage unit rentals had increased by 90 percent since 1995 and more than 11 million American households rented outside storage space.
Frost explains that this is not temporary storage for people who had just moved. It is long-term storage - like a huge extra closet that you pay for, for stuff you never see or use.


subway tokens, greek coffee cups, and me: missing nyc

This week I received email from my friend Alan, formerly known in this blog as Alan with one L, or AW1L.
Subject line: Re: 34th Street/Penn Station Just Now

Out-of-Towner [leaning into packed Uptown Express [2 or 3] train]: "Does anybody know if this goes to Times Square?"

About 10 Passengers [as one--all with exactly the same *annoyed* tone]: "Yes!"

It was *excellent*! [I *love* this town!!]
I loved this little story! I loved that AW1L thought of me when this happened. It also made me feel homesick and wistful for my old hometown. I replied, in part, "Sometimes I miss my old life. No one I know now would even understand what's so great about this!" I don't know if that's true, but sometimes I'm astonished by how much my life has changed since moving to Canada.

Now I'll use this email and those wistful feelings as an excuse to post these NYC items. One has been sitting in Blogger drafts for five years!

From 2010: A History of New York in 50 Objects, worth a click, including some comments. Coffee cups, sewing machine, an oyster. But... a Metropass and no token??

From 1904 to 1948 subway riders paid their fare with ordinary coins. But since its introduction in 1953, the token has been an absolutely iconic feature of the City. It was phased out when the Metropass was introduced in 2003. Thumbs down for Metropass-but-no-token on this list!

An enduring piece of New York City through the ages can be seen here, documenting the subway tiles and mosaics found on each line and in each station: NY Train Project.

Also from The New York Times, although much more recently, some features on NYC time travel. If the New York Times is writing about it, you can be sure it's on its way out, but they're good stories just the same: Regilding the Gilded Age in New York, and Five Ways to Time Travel (and Party) in New York.

Here's another bit of New York City time travel, something once iconic, and now seldom seen.

See also: leslie buck, we are happy you served us and, further back, we are happy to serve you.