how do you hold a fork and knife? or, in which i discover my table manners are american

As a child, I was taught to use a knife and fork like this: fork in left hand, securing what you want to cut, knife in right hand, cutting. Put knife down, transfer fork from left hand to right hand, put food in mouth. Repeat.

My mother drilled this into me and my siblings. My family was not overly big on table manners, but taking that extra moment to put the knife down, and transfer the fork before putting food in your mouth, was considered a critical lesson.

I recently overheard two people -- Canadians -- talking about this. One of them said, in mock horror, "Do you transfer?" And the other replied in an are-you-crazy voice, "No, I do not transfer!"

I thought, did my mother teach me wrong? Have I been using some crude, impolite technique to eat my food -- all my life?

I heard this conversation a while ago, and finally remembered to look it up online. To my astonishment, the fork-transferring method of eating is considered American, and the non-transfer method is considered European, or as some people still call it, Continental.

I found various stories on this, such as "Put a Fork in It: The American way of using fork and knife is inefficient and inelegant. We need a new way. in Slate and Business Dinner Etiquette: American vs. Continental Style Dining on Workology.com.

Canadian culture is sometimes British-based and sometimes American-based, and I don't know where fork-and-knife usage falls on the British vs. American spectrum. So wmtc readers, how do you use your knife and fork -- transfer or not transfer?


what i'm reading: the library book by susan orlean

I've been on a "books about books" run lately, beginning with Syria's Secret Library, then Robert Caro's Working, and now I'm finishing the wonderful The Library Book by Susan Orlean.

Orlean is a writer for The New Yorker, which generally means excellent nonfiction. Her book about the canine movie star Rin Tin Tin has been on my List since it was published in 2011. Her 1998 book The Orchid Thief is considered a modern classic. (I read The New Yorker story that led to the book, but have not yet read the book.)

The Library Book, like most quality nonfiction, is many things. It's the story of a fire that destroyed much of Los Angeles' Central Library in 1986, and the mystery of who set the blaze, which was definitely arson. It's a history of libraries, and librarians, and a brief history of Los Angeles. It's also a short history of arson, and library fires, and probably a few other things as well. These many threads are intertwined with a smooth narrative flow and a dash of suspense.

Orlean is always a figure in her own writing. In The Library Book, she brings the reader along as she tours different branches of the Los Angeles Public Library, and discovers how contemporary libraries work -- the people who make them work, and the people who use them. Library workers will recognize all the types, and everyone else will find the characters quirky and entertaining. Through scenes and character sketches, Orleans unpacks the ever-evolving role libraries play in our world.

To say a nonfiction writer has a great eye for detail is a bit of a cliche, but Orlean sets a high standard. Her use of detail brings scenes alive, but the story is never bogged down. Her writing is always so crisp and lively. It's a joy to read.

Most reviews of The Library Book talk about libraries and how we still love and need them, but I figure you get enough of that from me already. But if you love libraries and books and hidden histories, don't miss this one.

what i'm reading: working by robert caro

Fans of Robert Caro rejoiced when we learned that Caro, author of nonfiction histories, was writing a book about his writing process. When the book was published, I'm sure I wasn't the only one surprised by its brevity. At a slim 207 pages, Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing is the equivalent of a post-it note for Caro, whose books are often described as tomes.

I read Working over the course of a weekend, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Not only is the subject fascinating, but Caro's warm and genuine voice is truly a joy.

If you read nonfiction and you enjoy history, and you haven't read Robert Caro, you must correct this terrible oversight. Caro's first book, The Power Broker, is considered one of the best nonfiction books of the 20th Century. It is a biography of Robert Moses, who was the most powerful man in the most powerful US city -- a man who was never elected to office and who many people, even many New Yorkers, may never have heard of.

More than a biography, The Power Broker is a history of modern New York City. It's also an examination of how cities are built, how communities are destroyed, and above all, how power is created, consolidated, retained, and wielded. When it was published in 1974, The Power Broker broke new ground in combining painstakingly detailed research with an accessible narrative flow. It is truly one of the great books of our age.

When Caro's Path to Power was published in 1982 -- the first volume of a planned trilogy about Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th President of the United States -- the reviews were off the charts. I wanted to read it, then as successive volumes came out, and I still hadn't read the first one, I decided I was no longer interested. That's what I told myself, anyway. Why do I need to know so much about LBJ?

The answer, of course, is that these books aren't "about LBJ". Similar to Taylor Branch's "King Trilogy" -- purportedly a biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., but actually a history of the American civil rights movement* -- the LBJ books are a history of the United States from 1940 to roughly 1970.

Looking at the US through the lens of LBJ may be particularly interesting, as he embodies the best and the worst of the potential of the US government. Wielding incredible power, LBJ committed some of the greatest acts of any POTUS, and some of the most heinous. He was both a great president and a terrible president. Caro relocated from New York to Texas to write these books.

Caro's legions of fans, including me, don't only love his work -- we genuinely like the man himself. Caro is a warm, modest, and compassionate person who speaks with a strong New Yawk accent and has never forgotten his working-class roots. Although he's a celebrated writer and has mingled with several generations of literati, he still seems like someone you could strike up a conversation with in a city park. Caro does all his own research, working only with his beloved wife, Ina.

Caro's "planned trilogy" of LBJ biographies now contains four volumes, and he's writing the fifth. At 83 years old, the author took time off from his work to give his readers something they've long been asking for -- an insight into his process.

Working is not a full memoir, but Caro says he plans on writing his memoirs after finishing the fifth LBJ book. Because of his meticulous research, Caro's books usually take about 10 years to write. If I believed in prayer, I'd keep Robert and Ina Caro high on my list.

Meanwhile, if you like Robert Caro -- or if you write nonfiction -- or if you read nonfiction -- read this book.

*I've read 2⅔ of this trilogy. The first two books are great. I plan to finish the third one day.


"at your library" in the north island eagle: be "smart": your library can help you keep your new year's resolutions

January is a time for fresh starts and new beginnings. But our best intentions can come back to bite us. How many of us have made grand plans in January, only to see them disappear by February? Change is hard – and personal habits are the hardest to change of all.

A trick that I've found helpful is to create "SMART" goals. SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Action-Oriented, Realistic, and Timely. SMART goals are:

Specific: What do you want to accomplish? "I want to eat healthier" is general and vague. That makes it difficult to achieve. "I want to eat more vegetables" is a bit better. "I will eat one serving of vegetables with dinner, three days per week" is even more specific – which makes it more achievable.

Measurable: How will you measure your progress? Track your progress in a journal, on a spreadsheet, or find an app for your phone.

Action-Oriented: What actions will you take to work towards your goal? What will you need to prepare in advance? Choose goals that you have control over and can change.

Realistic: Chose a goal you know you can achieve. This helps build confidence for future goals.

Timely: Set a start date and a target date. Give yourself a deadline.

You can find more information about goal-setting in several e-resources at the Vancouver Island Regional Library (VIRL).

Lynda.com: Open Lynda.com and type goal setting in the search. Many videos come up. Each is about four minutes long. Lynda.com videos are professionally made by people with expertise. They are sources you can trust.

Consumer Health Complete has many articles on goal-setting. Not all of them will be relevant, but it's a good place to start. Open Consumer Health Complete and type SMART Goals in the search.

On Hoopla, I found "Goal Setting: Discovering Your Gifts" and "Goal Setting For Faster Success", and "The Big Goals System: The Masters of Goal Setting on Achieving Success". These are all videos that you can download and watch on any device.

To find these and many other e-resources, visit the VIRL website. Go to virl.bc.ca > learn > all databases.

There are books on this topic, too. When I typed "goal setting" into the VIRL catalogue, I found: Make Anything Happen: A Creative Guide to Vision Boards, Goal Setting, and Achieving the Life of Your Dreams (ANF 153.8 LIN), and The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals (ANF 658.4092 MCC). (I'm not sure that "the life of your dreams" qualifies a SMART goal!)

Once you have a SMART goal, your library can help you succeed. Whatever you're trying to do, we have books on the topic. The most common library searches after New Year's are: healthy eating, exercise for beginners, getting out of debt, quitting smoking, drinking less alcohol, and feeling happier. None of these are simple or easy to do. But having the advice of experts can make it easier.

You know my favourite New Year's Resolution? Read more. In January and February, VIRL is hosting the Adult Winter Reading Club. For every book you read, you'll receive one entry in a prize draw. The more you read, the greater your chances of winning. Every VIRL branch will have a prize draw, and there's a grand prize for all of VIRL. Reading more – now that's a smart goal.

Happy New Year from the staff at your VIRL branches on the North Island! Hope we see you plenty this year.


#climatestrike vs my brain: i am struggling with pessimism and hopelessness

I started writing this post in September, after the global Climate Strike.

It was exciting to see that so many people -- millions around the globe -- understand the urgency and are willing to take to the streets. I thought, This is beautiful! This is amazing! ... and This won't change anything. Both at the same time.

I hate writing that. I hate feeling this way.

Along with Climate Strike, there are other positive developments -- extinction rebellion, for example, and an increasing number of civil disobedience arrests, both celebrity and ordinary. This will grow. More people will get involved and actions will become even bolder.

Yet I feel utterly pessimistic about humanity's future. I have lost hope.

Of course I know I'm not alone in that. Anyone who looks at the reality of climate change either cloaks themselves in denial, clings to shreds of hope, or vows to fight on without hope.

For me, this hopelessness is a kind of identity issue. I reflect on my own feelings and think, Is this me?

I've been an activist all my life. Integral to that has been a bedrock belief in the collective power of people's movements to change the world. I don't consider myself an idealist. I focus on the points in history where people's movements have produced change. And they are legion. Activism has re-made the world again and again. I know that, I still believe it, on a local or national level.

But when it comes to climate change, the threat to our entire planet and our species, I don't believe it. And that shakes me.

I still want us to fight, of course. We must fight. We have no choice.

But there is only one real solution to climate change, and that is abolishing capitalism. And to call that a pipe dream is an understatement on the grandest level. The corporatocracy is powerful beyond all measure. The ruling class will stop at nothing to retain profit and privilege.

Google "ways to stop climate change," and you'll find lists of ways to reduce your carbon footprint -- the usual suspects. All good, all completely inadequate, all deflecting attention away from the real issue, that a system predicated on so-called "growth" is unsustainable. That capitalism is destroying our planet and killing our future.

Even environmental groups that understand the need for collective, political action, such as (in Canada) the David Suzuki Foundation, fall well short of the mark. "Unite for bold climate action." "Get politically active and vote."

Yes, we should do both those things. But is there a party planning to restructure our economic system? Is there a party that will risk re-election by taking on the extraction industries? Is there a party that can move beyond window-dressing into a true sea-change of action? No, no, and no.

All around me good-hearted people are working hard to reduce their individual footprints, and working on the local level to do whatever they can. That's all good. Less plastic waste and less mindless consumerism are worthy goals. But while we're carrying our reusable shopping bags and not using straws, on the largest scale, it only gets worse.

My comrades talk about a socialist revolution. But revolution is infinitely more likely to bring some form of authoritarianism -- whether theocracy or military state -- than anything else.

The impossible economics of late-stage capitalism, have (predictably) given rise to a resurgence of xenophobia and fascism. As our world is (literally) burning with the need for cooperative, equitable, sustainable solutions, the ruling class doubles down on the unsustainable, unjust system that brought us to this dangerous place.

I've been struggling with this post, writing and deleting and writing and deleting, because writing this is worthless. No one needs my cynicism and my hopelessness. It does nothing, changes nothing. Cynicism and hopelessness are death-knells for activism, and without activism, we are lambs to the slaughter.

All I can do at this point is quote Gandhi: You may never know what results come of your actions, but if you do nothing, there will be no results.

Or maybe Beckett is more apt. You must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on.


happy new year and new decade from wmtc

For the second year in a row, I didn't even bother with the wmtc i hate christmas tradition. I didn't see any shopping fervor, didn't hear or see an onslaught of ads. (Hooray for streaming!)

We put up holiday lights, enjoyed two days off (hooray for vestiges of colonialism!), and "the season" passed quietly. I can't bring myself to say Merry Christmas, but if anybody minds my "happy holidays," they don't show it.

New Year's Eve was even quieter. I did the whole look-back thing in late November and early December, as we passed all the one-year marks of our move west and huge lifestyle change. 

One bit of small-town and remote North Island life did bother me during the holiday season: all the restaurants are closed, and there's no prepared food to buy. If you want to spend a few days holed up at home, you have to plan ahead and cook. I did... but I would have liked a break. This is the price we pay for living in Port Hardy. It's a great bargain.

Allan and I began a new chapter of our lives in 2019, so the fact of the new decade feels almost irrelevant. It will be interesting to see how I'll feel about 2020, as things settle into a routine, and the I can't believe we live here possibly wears off.

That's the small, personal picture. I've been trying to write about the larger picture for months. Coming soon.

The only bad part of 2019: saying goodbye to Diego


what i'm reading: syria's secret library: reading and redemption in a town under siege

Syria's Secret Library: Reading and Redemption in a Town Under Siege is a tribute to the power of books to heal, to offer refuge, and to nourish communities. It's also a tribute to the spirit of resistance to tyranny and oppression.

In 2013, the Syrian town of Daraya was targeted by the country's dictator, Bashar al-Assad. Many residents managed to evacuate, but others stayed, determined to hold the historic and then-thriving town as a stronghold against the Assad regime.

There, as their town was bombed and burned, a group of young men built an unlikely refuge: a library.

The story of how these young Syrians salvaged and rescued books, often placing themselves in great danger to do so, is remarkable -- but even more remarkable is the community they built. Every book was catalogued, dated, and signed out when borrowed. The origin of every book was noted, so that its owners might reclaim it in happier times. There were book clubs and lectures. Some rebel fighters took books to the front lines and started a book club there! The library became a community centre, an oasis, a refuge, and a stronghold of resistance.

In library school, I had occasion to read about reading -- why we read, how we feel about reading. (I've blogged about a wonderful book on this topic: Reading Matters: What the Research Reveals about Reading, Libraries and Community by Catherine Sheldrick Ross, Lynne McKechnie and Paulette M. Rothbauer.) I thought of this as members of the Daraya library community described what the library meant to them. They ticked every box: gaining knowledge of the world, gaining self-knowledge, building empathy, an escape from present-day worries, a search for strategies and solutions to present problems, a connection with something larger than oneself. As the author puts it:
This was a library for everybody. On its polished shelves were books on just about every topic you could think of, each one either an education, an escape or entertainment for the reader, and often all three.
The library team were mostly former students whose educations had been cut short by the civil war. They wanted to keep their minds sharp, and they wanted to learn how to best serve and rebuild their community when the war ended. They came from all backgrounds, and had been enrolled in a wide range of study, from poetry to physics to economics. They set up a system of self-government; they protected books, and they protected each other. Their efforts are one of the most inspirational stories you will ever read.

Of special note is young Amjad, the teenaged self-appointed Chief Librarian. Librarians will recognize not only Amjad's passion for his work, but his spot-on instincts. For example, he made sure to sit where everyone could see him, and to let everyone know he was available to answer questions and find books.

Members of the library team told the author:
We believed that a place like this could store part of our heritage as well as the keys to our future. It would not only help us to continue our education but be there for anyone who loved reading. We also hoped to use the books we gathered to create a curriculum for local youths. This way they would have some sort of guidance, like we had at university, rather than just randomly reading any book they came across. In short, we wanted the library to become a minaret for Daraya.
This minaret was built and guarded not far from the site of the oldest known library of the ancient world: a collection of clay tablets, complete with tags that are believed to be a cataloguing system, uncovered by archaeologists in the 1970s.

Daraya's secret library served as an education centre, lecture hall, and reading room.
Classes were being held there, on everything from English, Maths and world history, to debates on literature and religion. These were usually followed by lively discussions. One of the most memorable and popular talks was on how the Japanese city of Hiroshima had been rebuilt after it was devastated by an atomic bomb in the Second World War. Another lecture which fired people's imaginations was on the London Blitz during the same conflict and how the city and survived near endless bombardments.
The people creating the library are very clear that their work is part of the revolution, and part of their own salvation in these darkest of times.
We believe that building this library is very important, not just for our minds but also for our souls. We are convinced that knowledge rarely comes when you sit doing nothing. It usually follows hard work and sometimes taking great risks. . . .

Among the books we value most are those which describe how people in other countries have dealt with traumas like ours. We hope that by reading these we can learn the best ways of rebuilding our nation when the fighting has stopped. They give us hope in dark says like these.
Syria's Secret Library paints a grimly honest picture of the truth behind the cliche "war-torn region". One heartbreaking detail that stays with me is a teacher cutting out images of food from the books she was using, so her students -- for whom hunger was a constant condition -- wouldn't have to see them.

Mike Thomson, author of Syria's Secret Library, is a reporter who has covered Syria and many other war zones for the BBC. This project, which began as a radio documentary, is an incredible feat of journalism, given how Thomson was forced to conduct his interviews by text, Skype, WhatsApp, and other electronic means. Thomson's subjects had only intermittent access to the internet or mobile networks, and they were under constant threat by bombs and snipers. Their town was blockaded, their crops bombed, burned, and watched by snipers, so they had almost no access to either food or fuel.

Art as resistance: The work of the so-called
"Syrian Banksy" was in the same town of Daraya,
and is featured in this book.
The author frequently felt guilty about enjoying his privileged life in the UK while his subjects, who had become his friends, were suffering. Thomson, who clearly felt it was his mission to tell the world about this horror, was shocked and disgusted that some of his peers remarked that the suffering Syrians "don't know any better" or "must be used to it by now". These comments illustrate such a lack of empathy, such othering! Do people "get used to" starvation, to being bombed? They may lose hope, or they may struggle on in nearly impossible conditions, but I can't imagine anyone truly gets used to it.

I have only two minor quibbles with this book. One, I wish the subtitle had been "Reading and Resistance" rather than "Redemption". It would be a much more accurate reflection of the story -- so much so that I wonder if the publishers felt "resistance" was a loaded word.

My other complaint is the author's occasional musing on why the United States did not intervene in Syria's civil war. Thomson notes that "the previous president" (i.e., Obama) talked a lot about the situation but did nothing, and he quotes one of his subjects praising Trump for bombing Syria. Surely Thomson knows that US interventions have caused more destruction, dislocation, trauma, and starvation than they have ever repaired. Surely he knows, too, that the US did very little to help the millions of refugees created by this civil war -- and has demonized and tormented refugees from other areas. I can understand Thomson's frustration, but looking to the United States as a potential saviour strikes me as bizarre. As I said, these are minor niggles, as the book is largely apolitical.

Syria's Secret Library is a moving, inspiring story about the human hunger for knowledge and community, and the will to resist and endure, even under the most difficult circumstances.


what i'm reading: the instant pot bible

I've never reviewed a cookbook before, but then I've never been this enthusiastic about a cookbook before: The Instant Pot Bible by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough.

Why I love this book

Before I bury the lede with a lot of explanation, I'll tell you why I find The Instant Pot Bible so appealing.

-- The design. When you're using a book for information, design and layout are very important. Someone (or someones) really nailed it with this one. I find it incredibly clear and easy to use.

-- The formatting. Ingredient list on the left, step-by-step instructions, IP times and settings highlighted in a chart. And so on. Not only a great format, but more consistent than many other cookbooks I've used.

-- One specific bit of formatting that I find super useful is a gray box called "Beyond". Here, the authors put all the substitutions, extras, and equivalences. I appreciate not having to sort through those to read a basic recipe.

-- Road maps! The Instant Pot Bible includes many mix-and-match, create-your-own recipe strategies that the authors call "road maps". Here's an example.
This is the first page of a two-page recipe.

If you don't want to use these road maps, they're easy enough to avoid. But for me, using a road map means I'm not only following recipes step by step, I'm learning more about cooking.

-- A huge variety of recipes, using a wide range of ingredients and for all different palates -- and using the IP all different ways. 

-- Useful tags, such as "fast and easy," "can be gluten-free," "vegetarian," "can be vegan," "fewer than 10 ingredients," "freezes well," and so on. Using tags to do this, rather than organizing the book according to these categories was very smart.

-- Really good writing! I love the authors' writing style. It's personable, warm, and down-to-earth. They want cooking to be fun and easy -- and they want to gently help you move out of your comfort zone.

-- Everything is explained. I like a cookbook that doesn't assume you already know how to do everything. Equal access for all levels of cooking experience!

The back story

I was a little late to the Instant Pot craze, which turned out to be a good thing, as the newer models are easier to use and safer. I bought my "Instapot" (as I like to call it) about six months ago. I chose the 8-quart Ultra model. I gave away my beloved slow cooker, and have been using the IP for all my batch cooking -- which is almost all the cooking I do.

Until recently, when I needed to know how to make something in the IP, I would just google "Instant Pot Chicken Noodle Soup," "Instant Pot Beef Stew," or what have you. For variety, I would google "Healthy Instant Pot Meals" or the like.

For the most part, the links that turned up were fake cooking sites. These sites feature recipes copied from anywhere else (often from the Instant Pot site itself), with useless verbiage added for the purpose of forcing readers to click and scroll. They are stuffed with ads, often video ads, that cannot be blocked. I would try to swoop in, get the information I needed, and swoop out. But after a while, the ads, the sameness of the recipes, and the fake-blog writing really started annoying me.

I borrowed a few IP cookbooks from the library, but I most of them had very few recipes for anything I wanted to cook or eat. Then a library customer told me about the Instant Pot Bible.

And not just any customer: Babs, the woman who runs the produce truck that serves the North Island communities during the summer and early autumn. The truck comes into town once or twice a week, rotating through the communities, with high-quality fruits and vegetables that put the supermarket produce to shame.

Babs is a lovely person, a great salesperson, and from what I gather, an accomplished cook. I gave her nonfiction audiobooks all summer, to listen to on her long drives between towns. She told me these audiobooks have changed her life -- the highest praise I can get as a librarian.

When she enthusiastically recommended this book, I gave her word a lot of cred. And now I'm passing along the joy.