HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS

BIANCA MARAIS

Set in Johannesburg, HUM centres on Beauty Mbali and 9-year-old Robin Conrad, each of whom is impacted by the 1976 Soweto Uprising, in which white police officers opened fire on peacefully protesting black schoolchildren. Robin’s parents are killed in the backlash, while Beauty’s daughter, Nomsa, goes missing from her Soweto school after taking part in the uprising. Robin’s liberal aunt is an airline hostess so hires Beauty, an educated Xhosa, as a caretaker for Robin so she can remain in the city and continue her quest to find her daughter. This is a difficult transition for Robin who is used to staff having a separate living unit, not using family plates and utensils and certainly not being treated as part of the family. As she bonds with comes to love Beauty, Robin withholds information about her daughter, Nomsa for fear of losing Beauty. The only criticism I have is that Robin’s narration does not ring true for a nine-year-old girl.

I didn’t know what to say in a world where people were hated and attacked for not being the right colour, not speaking the right language, not worshipping the right god or not loving the right people: a world where hatred was the common language and bricks the only words.”

“She speaks Zulu, but I am able to understand her. All our languages overlay one another like blankets of mist on a mountaintop.”

“a river of blood in the streets and the children are floating in it… they are human debris swept along in a flood of destruction.” 

“Almost everyone who mattered most to me was in the same room…. Black, white, homosexual, heterosexual, Christian, Jew, Englishman, Afrikaner, adult, child, man, woman: we were all there together, but somehow that eclectic jumble of labels was overwritten by the one classification that applied to every person there: ‘friend.’ “

THE LONELY HEARTS HOTEL

 

HEATHER O’NEILL

Two abandoned babies are dropped off at the orphanage run by sadistic nuns. Rose develops a gift for humour and movement; Pierrot for music. When they were young adolescents they were sent to rich people’s homes to entertain for generous donations to the orphanage. Escape seems possible, happiness imminent. They dream of creating their own circus together for fame and fortune. As the mother superior knows, though, happiness always leads to tragedy. Rose and Pierrot are farmed out as teens to separate homes, with no idea where the other has gone. And the Sisters make sure they never find each other. A good portion of the book is the two yearning for each other and almost crossing paths, so it is a delight when they find each other as adults.

Hotel reminded me of The Night Circus which was full of magic realism. O’Neill is a wonderful writer so Hotel is a page turner.

“Women were still strange and inscrutable creatures. Men didn’t understand them. And women didn’t understand themselves either. It was always a performance of some sort. Everywhere you went, it was like there was a spotlight shining down on your head. You were on a stage when you were on the trolley. You were being judged and judged and judged. Every minute of your performance was supposed to be incredible and outstanding and sexy.
You were often only an ethical question away from being a prostitute.”

All children are really orphans. At heart, a child has nothing to do with its parents, its background, its last name, its gender, its family trade. It is a brand-new person, and it is born with the only legacy that all individuals inherit when they open their eyes in this world: the
inalienable right to be free.” 

EVERYBODY LIES

SETH STEPHENS-DAVIDOOWITZ

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz has written a fascinating book about social scientists using data collected by Google or Facebook in their research. Things to be learned from reading LIES:

  1. Some people use search engines as confessionals. They type complete sentences like “I am sad.” or open-ended questions like “Is my daughter ugly?”
  2. People assume machines (like the Google search engine) will keep their secrets. For sensitive topics, Google may generate more honest data than surveys. There are many questions asked to Google that I’m sure people won’t pose to a librarian.
  3. Google searches for “Obama” is frequently paired with “kkk” and the “n” word. The prevalence of racist searches does not exhibit a North-South divide – it’s East-West.
  4. As President of Harvard, Larry Summers spent quite a bit of time brainstorming with Economics PhD students on how to beat the stock market using new data. (And they came up empty-handed, or so they say.)
  5. Some economists found that going to Stuyvesant (a highly influential high school) conferred no meaningful benefit to one’s career – at least, this is the case for those who attain a score close to the cutoff in the admissions test.
  6. There are 6,000 searches on Google a year for “how to kill your girlfriend” while there are 400 murders of girlfriends.
  7. “Big data” does not provide any insights that surveys can’t at the aggregate level so people slice and dice the data to examine “micro” segments, which means they are analyzing a huge collection of small data sets.

I borrowed this interview from VOX’s interview with author Stephens-Davidowitz.

Two weeks ago, I interviewed Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, author of Everybody Liesa new book that uses data on America’s Google habits as an insight into our national consciousness. Two findings from the book dominated the conversation: America is riddled with racist and selfish people, and there may be a self-induced abortion crisis in this country. But there was plenty more revelatory data in the book that we didn’t cover. So I wanted to follow up with Stephens-Davidowitz to talk about some of the other provocative claims he is making. I was particularly interested in sexuality and online porn. If, as Stephens-Davidowitz puts it, “Google is a digital truth serum,” then what else does it tell us about our private thoughts and desires? What else are we hiding from our friends, neighbors, and colleagues? A lot, apparently. Among other things, Stephens-Davidowitz’s data suggests that there are more gay men in the closet than we think; that many men prefer overweight women to skinny women but are afraid to act on it; that married women are disproportionately worried their husband is gay; that a lot of straight women watch lesbian porn; and that porn featuring violence against women is more popular among women than men. I asked Stephens-Davidowitz to explain the data behind all of this. Here’s what he told me.


Sean Illing

Last time we spoke, I asked you about the most surprising or shocking finding in your research. We talked about racism and the possibility of a self-induced abortion crisis in America. Here I want to dive into something a little lighter: sexuality and online porn. What did you learn about this?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Porn is the biggest development in sexuality research ever. I don’t understand how social scientists weren’t begging Pornhub for their data. I was one of the only ones. I sent some of my results to some of the most famous sociologists and sex researchers in the world. Many of them had no interest.

Sean Illing

Why does porn data offer such unique insight?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Well, to learn about sex, the main approach was to ask people. But people lie on sensitive topics such as sex.

Sean Illing

You combed through the data — what did it say about us?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

There’s a lot of variation in what people like. Probably 30 percent of people exclusively watch stuff that you would find disgusting.

Sean Illing

Why focus on sex? Were you initially interested in this, or did the data lead you to it?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

It’s a book about human nature. Sex is a big part of human nature. Some reviews of Everybody Lies have criticized me for being obsessed with sex. Everybody is obsessed with sex. If they say they’re not, they’re lying.

Sean Illing

You point to some interesting data in the book about sexual orientation.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

It’s clear that a lot of gay men remain in the closet. In places where it’s hard to be gay, such as Mississippi, far fewer men say that they are gay than in places where it’s easy to be gay, such as New York. But gay porn searches are about the same everywhere.

Sean Illing

This doesn’t necessarily tell us how many people are gay in these areas, but it’s a revealing data point.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I look at the data a whole bunch of ways and conclude about 5 percent of men are predominantly attracted to men.

Sean Illing

Can you really draw concrete conclusions from this sort of data? People search for things for all kinds of reasons, right?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I think porn is a pretty good measure of people’s sexual fantasies, even if they never act on them.

Sean Illing

What’s your response to people who are skeptical of inferring anything from this stuff?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I think watching a porn video is a lot more telling than answering a survey question. I agree you should be cautious in how you interpret it, though.

Sean Illing

Let’s talk about what married people are up to online.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

The number one question that women have about their husbands is whether he is gay. And these questions are much higher in the Deep South, where my research suggests there are indeed more gay men married to women.

Sean Illing

Do you think women are justified in their curiosity here? Is this a question they should be asking more often?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I think women are too obsessed with their husbands’ sexuality. Women are eight times more likely to ask Google if their husband is gay than if he is an alcoholic and 10 times more likely to ask Google if their husband is gay than if he is depressed. It is far more likely that a woman is married to a man who is secretly an alcoholic or secretly depressed than secretly gay. About 98 percent of women’s husbands are really straight. Trust me.

Sean Illing

What are husbands secretly worrying about?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Whether their wives are crazy.

Sean Illing

What should husbands be asking Google? What would they ask if they knew what their wives were Googling?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Whether their wives are more physically attracted to women than men.

Sean Illing

Tell me about America’s suppressed sexual desires.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

There are still sexual preferences that people hide today, even in socially liberal places. About one in 100 porn searches are for the elderly. Hundreds of thousands of young men are predominantly attracted to elderly women. But very few young men are in relationships with elderly women.

Sean Illing

I’m not sure what I think about that. Any theories?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

It’s interesting. Some sexual preferences I first learned about on The Jerry Springer Show,which featured really poor, uneducated people. People attracted to animals or family members or the elderly. But, now from seeing porn data, I realize those preferences also exist among wealthy, educated people. Wealthy, educated people are more cognizant of contemporary social norms, which means if you have such an attraction, you hide it.

Sean Illing

I recall something in the book about the sexual preferences we hide largely for cultural reasons or for fear of being judged. Can you talk about that?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

If you define being in the closet as picking partners based on what society wants rather than what you want, many people are in the closet. For example, I am certain a large number of men are more attracted to overweight women than skinny women but try to date skinny women to impress their friends and family members.

Porn featuring overweight women is surprisingly common among men. But the data from dating sites tells us that just about all men try to date skinny women. Many people don’t try to date the people they’re most attracted to. They try to date the people they think would impress their friends.

Sean Illing

That says something truly awful about our cultural pathologies. People should be free to like whatever they want, but the pressures to conform are overwhelming — and ultimately unhealthy.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

It’s also inefficient. There are a lot of single men and single overweight women who would be sexually compatible. But they don’t date, while the man tries and fails to date a skinny woman even though he’s less attracted to her. And then there are women who practically starve themselves to remain skinny so their husbands won’t leave, even though their husbands would be more attracted to them if they weighed more. The desire to impress people causes all kinds of inefficiency.

Sean Illing

All right, give me a couple of unusual desires you noticed — one from men and one from women.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

It is really amazing how much tastes can vary. There are women who just watch porn featuring short, fat men with small penises. There are men who just watch porn featuring women with enormous nipples.

Sean Illing

How about other countries?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

The number one Google search in India that starts “my husband wants …” is “my husband wants me to breastfeed him.” Porn featuring adult breastfeeding is higher in India than anywhere else. In just about every country, just about every Google search looking for advice on breastfeeding is looking how to breastfeed a baby. In India, Google searches looking for breastfeeding advice are about equally split between how to breastfeed a baby and how to breastfeed a husband.

After I published this finding, some journalists interviewed people in India. Everyone denied this. But I am sure, based on the data, that there are a reasonable number of adult Indian men desiring to be breastfed. It is really amazing that this desire can develop in one country without ever being openly talked about.

Sean Illing

Any other findings from countries not named America?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Japanese men have recently become obsessed with tickling porn. More than 10 percent of Pornhub searches by young Japanese men are for “tickling.”

Sean Illing

So basically all of humanity is united in its weirdness?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Yeah, basically. Some people respond to Indian men wanting to be breastfed and are like, “Indian men are so weird.” That’s not the right response. The data from porn tells us that everybody is weird. Thus, nobody is weird.

Sean Illing

And yet we all feel weird because we assume (wrongly) that no one else is as weird as we are.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Sometimes I think it would be a good thing if everyone’s porn habits were released at once. It would be embarrassing for 30 seconds. And then we’d all get over it and be more open about sex.

Sean Illing

Any other surprising findings about women in America?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

About 20 percent of the porn women watch is lesbian porn. A lot of straight women watch lesbian porn.

Sean Illing

That’s not very surprising.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Porn featuring violence against women is also extremely popular among women. It is far more popular among women than men. I hate saying that because misogynists seem to love this fact. Fantasy life isn’t always politically correct.

The rate at which women watch violent porn is roughly the same in every part of the world. It isn’t correlated with how women are treated.

Sean Illing

Let me ask you this: Has all of this research changed how you think about sexuality in general?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I have always wondered how homosexuality made it through evolution. Like, isn’t evolution supposed to make people desire heterosexual sex with fertile people? But after studying porn, I realized homosexuality is hardly the only desire that doesn’t make sense from an evolutionary perspective.

Less than 20 percent of porn watched these days features vaginal sex to completion among two people who can conceivably have a healthy baby. Cartoons, anal sex to completion, oral sex to completion, foot sex to completion, incest, elderly porn, tickling, animal porn, sex with objects, etc.

Sean Illing

Sex is clearly about a lot more than procreation, and I’d say a lot of needless suffering has resulted from our confusion about this.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I think the reason is we are growing up under very different conditions than we evolved under. Hunter-gatherer kids didn’t watch The Simpsons. And hunter-gatherer adults didn’t watch Simpsons porn. I think we are evolved so that if we grew up in hunter-gatherer conditions, just about all people would have an overwhelming desire for vaginal sex. But modern conditions take sexuality in all kinds of directions. I’m becoming more convinced of that the more data I look at.

Sean Illing

So what’s the future of online porn? Where is it going?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I think anal sex will pass vaginal sex in porn within three years. That’s what my data models suggest.

Sean Illing

Somehow that feels like a perfect point on which to end.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

People should buy my book. There’s a lot more!

LOST BARBARIAN: Travels in the New China

ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU

Trudeau started his latest travels in China in 2006 as Bejing and the nation were preparing for the Olympics. The heart of the travelogue is his meetings with individual Chinese citizens. The disabled worker, rural families, the university professor, the artist Ai Wei Wei and even his guide, all reveal realities about China and its people that westerners don’t see from a distance. “The Chinese story, especially the recent one over the last 30-40 years is perhaps the greatest success in human history, in terms of the amount of wealth created.”

“On Chinese streets, the people just want to live their lives. We put way too much emphasis on politics. We read China through its state structure.  (Most) Chinese people are radically a-political. They don’t see the Communists as anything different than all the dynasties that preceded. They are a strong authority that has absolute power over them.  The people either embrace politics and become an active player and rise through ranks or turn their backs on it. Ordinary Chinese are also going: ‘Wow look at all the things we have achieved.’ They are very proud of their success.”

If you want to learn more about China, this is your book. Though I wish he included photographs especially since he usually works in a visual media, tv and film.

BLACK BERRY, SWEET JUICE: On Being Black and White in Canada

LAWRENCE HILL

“Canadians have a favourite pastime, and they don’t even realize it. They like to ask—they absolutely love to ask—where you are from if you don’t look convincingly white. They want to know it, they need to know it, simply must have that information. They just can’t relax until they have pin-pointed, to their satisfaction, your geographic and racial coordinates. They can go almost out of their minds with curiosity, as when driven by the need for food, water, or sex, but once they’ve finally managed to find out precisely where you were born, who your parents were, and what your racial makeup is, then, man, do they feel better. They can breathe easy and get back to the business of living. ““I suppose the reason many of us mixed-race people find [This] Question offensive is not just that it makes assumptions, which are often false, about our identity, but because it attempts to hang our identity on one factor: race.”

Part memoir, part thesis and part history Black Berry is a thought provoking read. Hill struggles to understand his own personal and racial identity. Raised by human rights activist parents in a predominantly white Ontario suburb.  “Canadians are quick to point out what we are not – we are not white, and we are not black – but they don’t tell us what we are. This is the quintessential Canada: the True North, Proud and Vague.” Mixed raced people feel alienated from both races: not black enough to be black nor white enough to be white. It must be a lonely existence.

 

THE TEA GIRL OF HUMMINGBIRD LANE

LISA SEE

East meets west as the world impinges on the Akha hill tribe in Hunnun province in China. One of the most interesting themes is the exploration of the Akha culture. Young teens are encouraged to explore their sexuality but if a baby is born out of marriage it must be killed. Twins are considered to bring bad spirits so they must be killed as well.Elaborate cleansing ceremonies help protect the individuals, the families and the village. Li-yan falls in love with San-pa but San-pa is born on Tiger Day, while she is born on Pig Day, so their parents see them as an incompatible match. But their love overpowers tradition and taboo, resulting in Li-yan’s pregnancy.  Tradition is broken and the child is not killed. Li-yan is allowed to take her baby to an orphanage. When foreigners arrive from Hong Kong in search of a renowned, aged tea called Pu’er, Li-Yan is the only one who can translate. Girl is over melodramatic, the worst of the worst and the best of the best happen to Li-yan but the story of tea binds the narrative together and makes an interesting read.

THE HUNGRY GHOSTS

SHYAM SELVADURAI

“In Sri Lankan myth, a person is reborn a peréthaya [hungry ghost] because, during his human life, he desired too much” When his father died,six-year-old Shivan’s mother and sister moved with him into his maternal grandmother’s house. Daya was an angry and demanding woman who refused to talk to her daughter. Shivan, the grandson, became the golden boy, the reason she would take the family in. While he soaked up his grandmother’s recounting of ancient Buddhist tales about ghosts who haunt their future selves until past wrongs are redeemed, Shivan also chafed against her hold on him as he aged. He persuaded his mother to move the family to Canada, as much to get away from Daya as to flee the escalating conflict in Sri Lanka. Not that he could really escape—neither his grandmother nor his troubled country were anywhere near finished wreaking havoc in Shivan’s life. On an extended visit back to Sri Lanka, Shivan was taking over his grandmother real estate business until his grandmother had his lover killed.

Ghosts is a well written book. But when Shiven’s affair with Michael goes south I wanted to tell the young men to grow up. It could have used some paring down.

ALBERTO’S LOST BIRTHDAY

DIANA ROSIE

A little boy and his grandfather embark on a quest to find the old man’s missing birthday. As a child, Alberto lost his birthday in the Spanish civil war when he spent most of his childhood in an overcrowded orphanage. Now an old man living a simple life, he rarely thinks about his disappeared past. But when his grandson discovers his Apu has never had a birthday party, never blown out candles on a birthday cake, and never received a single card or present, he’s determined to do something about it. Since Alberto’s father is recovering from a horrible accident his mother gives permission for him to do a road trip with his Apu. As the two set off to find Alberto’s birthday, they have no idea it will be a journey that takes them through Spain’s troubled past, to places – and people – that Alberto once knew. But in a country that has vowed to move forward, looking back can be difficult. But finding old friends is its own reward.

Birthday is a heart-warming story all will enjoy.

SUCH A LOVELY LITTLE WAR: Saigon 1961-63

MARCELINO TRUONG978-1-55152-647-8_suchalovelylittlewar-1

Both a memoir and a history, War is an informative window to what we call the Vietnam War; in Vietnam it is called the American War. Truong’s father was a Vietnamese diplomat in Washington, his mother a French woman with bipolar disease.During his early childhood in Washington, DC, the Truongs enjoyed a peaceful life in “a quiet middle-class suburb, something Norman Rockwell might imagine.” Truong describes this period as nothing short of idyllic: jazz on the car stereo, picnics by the water, white Christmases. When the father was called home, he became interpreter to Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem. His mother had not wanted to leave the US and was unsettled in her new home. In Saigon, the children live a sheltered existence, punctuated by the war. When the Americans escalate the conflict by sending more weapons and troops, the Truong boys become increasingly more enthralled by the grandiose machines of destruction. They are disturbed more by their mother’s emotional outbursts and irrationalities than the war in the background. We also have the unique perspective of his father who had extraordinary access to the inner workings of power thanks to his role as President Ngô Dinh Diêm’s interpreter.

YUGE!: 10 Years of Doonesbury on Trump

G B TRUDEAUtrudeau-yuge-s650

I am so sick of Trump! I can’t stand seeing his ugly mug, hearing his voice or reading about him. But when I read of this compilation of Gary Trudeau’s Trump cartoons, I knew I had to check it out. And it is worth the time. Trudeau’s cutting sense of humour is a perfect foil for the Donald. It starts in the fall of 1987, can you imagine, when Trump was first starting to talk about running for President. One of the funniest pages comes at the end with Donald asking kids, “Hey Kids, tired of getting killed on insults in the cafeteria? Then start fighting back with my quality TRUMP Brand Insults. Choose from over 500 TREMENDOUS insults I’ve tweeted since last June including…” Then there are two pages of insults. Most presidential.

It all ends of course with the election that is ongoing this fall. Hopefully come Nov. 8 we will be laughing not crying.

THE EDUCATION OF OF AUGIE MERASTY: A Residential School Memoir

JOSEPH AUGUSTE MERASTY with David Carpentered

Anyone interested in truth and reconciliation with First Nations people should read this book. “When I was at that school, it seemed always to be winter time.” One winter when Augie was 11 or 12, he and another boy were forced to retrace their steps 20 miles across the lake and into the wild, by themselves, in the extreme cold, in search of the two mittens they’d lost. Out there alone, as the temperatures plummeted, the boys’ fright was only exasperated when they came across fresh wolf tracks and imagined having to fend off a pack with nothing but sticks. When they found all trace of the lost mittens erased by the blowing wind, they returned to school to admit their failure to Sister St. Mercy. “We, of course, got the strap, twenty strokes on both hands.” It wasn’t just that physical and sexual abuse occurred over and over again, but the school’s hypocrisy of students subsisting on “rotten porridge and dry bread” while Brothers and Sisters of the church feasted on roast chicken and cake.

The students were just kids, but doing the things that kids do—whispering, poking each other in the ribs, or laughing when the livestock on the property mated—resulted in regular, furious punishments out-of-scale with the perceived infraction: getting the strap, being beaten with a hose, or, in Brother Lepeigne’s hands, being forced to fight with another misbehaving boy while the other students gathered round in a circle. Once, when Augie hit a Brother with a bean from a slingshot as a prank, the schoolmaster punished him “with the strap, beaten with fists to the face, and a foot to the ribs. I will never forget how it hurt”

Definitely a must read.

COUNTRY OF RED AZALEAS

DOMNICA azRADULESCA

Azaleas takes place during the Bosnian War (1992-1995), when Serbian soldiers practiced systematic genocide and raped an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 Bosnian women in “rape camps.” In spite of the violence, Lara and Marija — a Serb and a Bosnian, respectively — remain closer than sisters, even in the face of separation and tragedy. The two meet when both are schoolgirls in Belgrade and become inseprable. As college students, they spend hours in cafés discussing politics and philosophy. When war breaks out, Lara leaves for the United States with her new American husband, Mark, while Marija returns to Sarajevo to become a war reporter behind Bosnian lines. Mark tries to help Lara adapt to American life. Some of the most amusing parts of an otherwise unsettling novel are Lara’s attempts to understand concepts such as stay-at-home mom and take-out food. After having a baby, Lara begins a doctorate at the university and throws herself into her studies. At a conference in Paris, Lara meets a handsome, North African named Karim, with whom she has an affair, leading to a devastating divorce. When Marija surfaces in California, Lara races to join her, but finds her vastly changed. Still gorgeous, wild, and irreverent, Marija now has a glass eye and a reconstructed face. Furthermore, she suffers moments of deep dejection and fits of sobbing. Marija presses Lara to help her find her child born from violent rape.

“When I looked at her,” says Lara, “I saw the full horror of that day in July 1995 displayed glaringly on her face. The gushing of blood, the obscene panting, the muffled screams, flesh, organs, guns, screams begging for death, sighing for death, screaming the sharpest scream across the black earth. It all passed for one second on Marija’s face like an apocalyptic cloud. The next second it was gone.”

Despite some horrific scenes, Country of Red Azaleas is an uplifting and optimistic novel. The strength and determination of both protagonists, their love for one another, and their yearning to create a better future for themselves and their children surpass the traumas they have suffered.

 

ALLIGATOR CANDY: A Memoir

DAVID KUSHNER720x405-kushner

Candy  is an intense, dark memoir. In October 1973, Jon, the author’s 11-year-old brother, rode his bike into the woods near his house in Tampa, Fla., and never returned. David, the author was 4. What happens to the family is truly the stuff of nightmares. This memoir is a loving and agonized examination of what Jonathan’s kidnapping and murder did to the family and what it and what subsequent child murders did to society. The family was shocked into silence. No one knew what to say or what to do. This was before there was counseling for children. David felt unable to ask questions. He felt over whelming grief, ” If only I ….”  It is silence that does the most damage, and in the weeks after his brother’s body was found and the two killers apprehended, the thing Kushner recalls most vividly is the closed doors in the house. “We were cast out of orbit, each of us drifting into our own time and space, occasionally feeling the gravity of one another’s pull.”

Disturbing but powerful, this is a must read.

Photo of Jon and little brother David.

Link to excerpt in Rolling Stone.

1035x1028-Alligator-Candy-Back-Jacket-Photo

CLEARING THE PLAINS:

JAMES DASCHUK

“Those Reserve Indians are in a deplorable state of destitution, they receive from the Indian Department just enough food to keep soul and body together, they are all but naked, many of them barefooted,” Lawrence Clarke wrote in 1880 of near-starvation Cree around Fort Carlton. “Should sickness break out among them in their present weakly state,” the long-time Hudson’s Bay Company employee concluded, “the fatality would be dreadful” (Daschuk, 114).

Sickness did break out, with tuberculosis and other infectious diseases decimating a reserve population made vulnerable to disease by years of famine and inadequate government rations. The loss of life was immense, James Daschuk recounts in Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Lifeand amounted to a “state-sponsored attack on indigenous communities” whose effects “haunt us as a nation still” (186).

ClearingthePlains

University of Regina Press, 318 pages
Casebound with dust jacket, $39.95.

Daschuk’s examination of the ecological, economic, and political factors shaping the history of the Canadian plains—and its Aboriginal inhabitants—from the early 1700s to the eve of the twentieth century is divided into two sections. The first, covering up to Canada’s acquisition ofRupert’s Land in 1870, outlines how the spread of smallpox and other diseases through fur trade networks was devastating for some but presented economic and territorial opportunities for others. The Anishinabe expanded their fur trade participation onto the plains, Daschuk illustrates, when the once-dominant Assiniboine were decimated by disease.

The lethality of infectious outbreaks for individual Aboriginal communities was shaped by the type and degree of its contact with traders and missionaries, its population density, and mobility among others. The spread of disease was largely an organic process, rather than the result of the willful malevolence of human actors.

In the book’s second half, Daschuk explores the Canadian state’s growing presence on the plains. First Nations leaders were willing to formalize their relationship to the crown through treaty, which they envisioned as a bridge to a bison-less future that required a difficult transition to farming. The Dominion, however, seemed only open to negotiations when settler development was imminent.

Widespread famine struck the plains with the disappearance of bison caused in part by the herds’ susceptibility to new pathogens—like bovine tuberculosis—carried by the domesticated cattle settlers introduced to the region. Although Cree leaders had succeeded in convincing the crown’s representative to include clauses covering medical aid and famine relief in Treaty 6, when they sought assistance the Dominion, with little infrastructure in the west initially, was ill-equipped to fulfill its treaty obligations.

At the depth of the famine, emaciated First Nations arrived at forts and settlements begging for food. Frequently, the official response was not to provide emergency food, but to construct stockades around ration houses. There were, however, relatively few incidents of law-breaking or poaching of cattle in response to the crisis. Many of those seeking relief were willing to work for rations, but the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) didn’t have enough work to go around.

Daschuk points to the election of the Conservatives in the fall of 1878 as a turning point when the “[m]anagement of the famine took on a more sinister character” (184). An ever-tightening budget at the DIA meant staff cuts, including medical staff who’d proven effective in vaccinating against smallpox, and orders that the file be managed “as economically as possible” (122). When the Opposition still complained about the budget, Macdonald promised that emergency rations would be refused “until the Indians were on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense” (134). Available food rotted in government storehouses as malnutrition, sickness, and death ravaged the reserve population.

With the government also neglecting the agricultural assistance promised by treaty, there was no alternative source of food on reserves. Furthermore, even if reserve residents managed to achieve a measure of success in farming, government regulations limited their ability to sell their crops or produce beyond the reserve—systematically marginalizing indigenous peoples from the West’s emerging economy. Adding insult to injury, many low-level, but powerful DIA officials and farm instructors abused their positions, exchanging food for sex, or colluding with government contractors for personal gain.

Prolonged malnutrition, the desperate scavenging of tuberculosis-infected animals, and the consumption of subpar or even tainted government rations, eventually made First Nations on reserves vulnerable to emerging epidemics. Staggering rates of tuberculosis mortality—rising from 40 deaths per 1,000 in 1881 to 127 per 1,000 in 1886—were significantly higher than in nearby settler communities. Misreading the evidence and denying a link with malnourishment, medical researchers confidently declared that Aboriginal peoples were simply more susceptible to disease.

This convenient narrative—soon accepted as orthodox in the medical and political establishment—made the incredible loss of life on the plains a question of biological predisposition rather than one of state policy. It’s proven to be a remarkably resilient idea, too, and one which lies at the root of our casual acceptance of deplorable health outcomes—higher rates of diabetes, AIDS, and suicide—among the reserve population today.

Perhaps the most damning evidence Daschuk presents are the few exceptions to this cycle of famine and disease. The Dakota who depended less upon the bison and had transitioned to farming at an earlier stage, and northern Cree communities in Saskatchewan who were able to maintain their traditional economies outside the harsh constraints of the reserve system did not suffer the same rates of tuberculosis seen on reserves. The determining factor in these divergent health outcomes, Daschuk argues, was the degree of Aboriginal peoples’ reliance on government assistance. He concludes that “those with the least contact with the Indian department were the healthiest” (166).

Clearing the Plains is heavy, sobering reading, laced with chilling snapshots of desperation, callousness, and catastrophe. In support of his provocative argument—that the Canadian government stage-managed famine in order to coerce and control the Aboriginal population—Daschuk’s tone is remarkably restrained, never veering into the polemical. He lets his evidence speak for itself, zooming out from explorations of single cultural communities or single infectious outbreaks in the existing historical literature to identify broader patterns. Into his synthesis, he patiently weaves in accounts from diaries, letters, and the records of the HBC and DIA.

As Daschuk moves epidemiological and environmental forces to the forefront—and detailed discussion of key events into the background—of his prairies history, some advance knowledge of the history of the fur trade and the numbered treaties is beneficial to the reader. Swiftly shifting the discussion between locales and First Nations affected—given the expanse of time and territory the book spans—can also be disorienting for the reader at times. But, Clearing The Plains rewards careful reading.

This is a book all Canadians should read.

I borrowed this review from ActiveHistory.ca

THE UNQUIET DEAD

unquietAUSMA ZEHANAT KHAN

An unusual death.   A man fell off a cliff. But was it an accident, a suicide, or a murder. Who was Christopher Drayton? A wealthy patron of the arts, supporting the new museum of Andalucia, the Spanish state with most Moorish influence. But could he be Drazen Krstic, the driving force behind theSrebrenica massacre of 1995, in the genocidal war that followed the break up of Yugoslavia. Esa Khattak, head of Toronto’s Community Policing Section, and Rachel Getty, his sergeant, handle minority sensitive cases, are tasked to find a solution to this case.

This a great mystery. Don’t miss it. I want to read more of her books. Her next is the Language of Secrets.

This is a LINK to a Bosnian woman’s victim’s statement to a UN’s inquest. Khan had an extensive author’s note at the end of the novel.

THE BLUE BETWEEN SKY AND WATER

bluebetween_192_290SUSAN ABULHAWA

BLUE tells another important story: the story of the Palestinians. It traces the Baraka family as they are forced off their land and out of their ancestral village of Beit Daras during the expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland when Israel was created in 1948. They relocate to the Gaza Strip. It tells the story of Israeli colonialism, when victim becomes victimizer. But much more it describes the Palistinian culture. When they celebrate with feast and dancing: “We find our own way to freedom. Zionist sons of Satan cannot imprison our joy, can they?” The women’s culture of cooking and gossiping is beautiful. Nazmiyeh is the matriarch, the center of a household of sisters, daughters, granddaughters, whose lives threaten to spin out of control with every personal crisis, military attack, or political landmine.

“Stories matter. We are composed of our stories. The human heart is made of the words we put in it. If someone ever says mean things to you, don’t let those words go into your heart, and be careful not to put mean words in other people’s hearts.”

“But I have never before watched soldiers entice children like mice into a trap and murder them for sport.”

While reading this novel I frequently thought of the song My Personal Revenge. Jackson Browne singing a Jorge Caleron Poem.

My Personal Revenge

My personal revenge will be the right
Of our children in the schools and in the gardens
My personal revenge will be to give you
This song which has flourished without panic
My personal revenge will be to show you
The kindness in the eyes of my people
Who have always fought relentlessly in battle
And been generous and firm in victory
My personal revenge will be to tell you good morning
On a street without beggars or homeless
When instead of jailing you I suggest
You shake away the sadness there that blinds you
And when you who have applied your hands in torture
Are unable to look up at what surrounds you
My personal revenge will be to give you
These hands that once you so mistreated
But have failed to take away their tenderness
It was the people who hated you the most
When rage became the language of their song
And underneath the skin of this town today
Its heart has been scarred forevermore
It was the people who hated you the most
When rage became the language of their song
And underneath the skin of this town today
Its heart has been scarred forevermore
And underneath the skin of this town today
Red and black, it’s heart’s been scarred
Forevermore
You can listen to it on you tube.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B4NwJLHeYeM

WALKING WITH OUR SISTERS

Travelling Art Display (it is not a book but it tells serious and significant story)w1

Walking With Our Sisters is a commemorative installation that features nearly 2,000 pairs of handmade moccasin tops, or “vamps”, to honour indigenous women, along with children and two-spirited people, who have been murdered or have disappeared in Canada. The vamps are made with love and longing by the women’s families.

The vision for the vamps is they’re unfinished, Vamps usually get sewn into moccasins. But they’re to symbolize lives that have been cut short. They are all beautiful works of art. The sadness is the realization is that each pair of vamps represents a murdered or missing first nations woman.They are not forgotten.  They are sisters, mothers, daughters, cousins, aunties, grandmothers, friends and wives.  They have been cared for, they have been loved, and they are missing. There is a special circle of small vamps for children who were taken from their families to residential schools who never returned.

w2Experiencing the exhibit is a ritualized process. Volunteers guide you so you get the most out of the experience. Women are loaned wrap-around skirts. People can smudge if so inclined. Women and men can smudge with sage. Sweetgrass is men’s medicine; only men can light the sweetgrass and used it to smudge. The smudging process cleanses and purifies. Next we were introduced to an elder, then given tobacco to carry in our left hands – closer to the heart – as we walked the exhibit. As we viewed the Residencial School Circle the elder came and told us her story of being taken from her family and sent to residential school. It was an incredibly moving experience.w3
Everyone should see this exhibit.

w5

SAD PENINSULA

MARK SAMPSON

The sad peninsula is Korea. Invaded and colonized by Japan in 1910, Koreans were forced to become Japanese in language and custom. One of the worst atrocities was the imprisonment and rape of young girls as “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers. Eun-young was a Korean comfort woman sent to China. She was repeatedly raped and tortured as many as 35 times a day.The narrative relies less on sex and more on her emotions, what she thought about, day-to-day events, her relationship with her close friend and their struggle for survival.  Sad is a difficult read but it is important that these stories are told. Eun-young’s story is balanced by the story of Michael, a Canadian man teaching English in present day Korea. He meets and falls in love with the niece of Eun-young.

This was published the day I finished the novel. Check out some of the links. And read the book.

Reparations for the “comfort women”

Yong Soo Lee, a Korean woman forced into sexual slavery by Japanese forces, in Virginia to raise awareness on behalf of fellow survivorsSarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

  • Japan has reached an agreement with South Korea to apologize and provide restitution for the widespread, systematic kidnapping and rape of so-called “comfort women” by the Japanese Army during World War II. [The Diplomat / Yuki Tatsumi]
  • If you aren’t familiar with the stories of the “comfort women,” these testimonies from a UN report, compiled by NPR’s Elise Hu, are a horrifying, but necessary, place to start. [NPR via Tumblr / Elise Hu]
  • As Vox’s Max Fisher explains, the horrific treatment of the “comfort women” was easily swept under the rug after the war: by Japan, by the Allies, and by Korea itself (women were often blamed for their own rapes). [Vox / Max Fisher]
  • It took until 1993 for Japan to issue a formal apology to South Korea — and that apology ended up prolonging the controversy, as Japanese conservatives pushed back against it and claimed that South Korean women were volunteers. [Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan]
  • Japanese nationalism is, if anything, more prominent now than it was then. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been relatively unapologetic for Japan’s behavior during the war, and has rolled back many of the isolationist policies that were designed to protect Japan from returning to the imperialism of its past. [Washington Post / Max Fisher]

THE REASON YOU WALK

WAB KINEW

“To be hurt, yet forgive. To do wrong, but forgive yourself. To depart from this world leaving only love. This is the reason you walk.” Deeply spiritual,
Wabwab2walk is a combination of biography of Kinew’s father and memoir of  his own spiritual journey. Much healing takes place in this history. It is a must read for anyone interested in First Nations issues. Kinew’s description of the Sun Dance ceremonies is particularly powerful. “I could feel the peg push through [ my pectoral muscles] and spun. I felt the blood dripping down. I sensed the air in the cuts; I could taste it. The elders say that when you are cut you are fresh and open to everything around you, vulnerable to the spirit world.”

Reconciliation on an individual level and the national level is an important theme. “Reconciliation is not something realized on a grand level, something that happens when a prime minister and a national chief shake hands. It takes place at a much more individual level. Reconciliation is realized when two people come together and understand that what they share unites them and that what is different between them needs to be respected.”

“More than any inheritance, more than any sacred item, more than any title, the legacy [my father] left behind is this: as on that day in the sundance circle when he lifted me from the depths, he taught us that our time on earth we ought to love one another, and that when our hearts are broken, we ought to work hard to make them whole again. This is at the centre of sacred ceremonies practised by Indigenous people. This is what so many of us seek, no matter where we begin life. This is the reason you walk.”

Read this book!

 

ALL INCLUSIVE

allFARZARA DOCTOR

All Inclusive follows two main characters in their intertwining stories. Ameer works and lives in a Mexican all inclusive resort. It is a heavenly environment but on occasion disgruntled tourist are difficult to placate. The resort offers Ameer opportunities to satisfy her sexual needs with couples. Then in a week the couple leaves so no awkwardness. That is until someone lodges an anonymous complaint that puts Ameera’s job on the line. Even though she is on probation she continues her exploration with three-somes.

We also follow Azeez, a newly graduated PhD who surprises himself by successfully hitting on a girl. A one night stand. The next day he flies to India to rejoin his family. How the stories come together is unusual and surprising, a simple twist of fate.

A good read.

Article: conversation with Farzara Doctor