Rss

Reading With Phyllis in Ottawa

[8-minute read]

The more we read, the bigger the “To Read” pile grows. It’s mysterilicious.

We’ve missed her, but we carry on. This past March, her friends marked a first anniversary, grieved with her husband and family and, oh yes, be very sure of this, a sweet ripe bunch of them felt grateful for her life as they read and reflected on another fine book they’d likely never have heard of without her. And then they did it again in April.

I write here in remembrance of Phyllis Perrakis, a woman I knew only a little, though I felt lucky all the same. It is also a brief history of a book club, full of women, of course, plus one token oddball. (That would be Yours Truly.) I will also offer notes on the BIHE, an educational institution based on courage, justice and belief, but these seeming sidetracks all lead us back to Phyllis, a quiet, unassuming professor of literature. You would not have found her Very Professorial, if that adjective strikes notes for you of bombast or intellectual arrogance, but she surely glowed when she was sharing thoughts about a book she loved. BOOKS. Only now, far too late to learn more from her, do I find out that she was an internationally recognized scholar on the work of the Nobel Prize-winner for literature, Doris Lessing. But to better understand how we came to be Reading With Phyllis In Ottawa, first we need a side trip to Iran…

Once upon an early 21st century time, there was a book. It was written by Azar Nafisi, an Iranian professor of literature who had fallen exquisitely in love with American writers: Twain, Baldwin, McCullers, and the Russian-born Nabokov. It may not surprise you that Nafisi’s prospects for professional advancement in her homeland, after its Islamic Revolution, were bleak, and she has since moved to the United States. But before she did that, she found a clandestine way to share her literary enthusiasms with young women, the ones that she could never engage with publicly in studying “decadent” Western texts. Her book Reading Lolita in Tehran spoke of tense arrivals, a relieved doffing of the hijab upon entry into Nafisi’s home, but above all the rich delights of forbidden conversations among trusted friends about officially banned books, Lolita among them. Nafisi’s account was brilliant and popular and I highly recommend it, but that’s just the beginning.

Continue Reading >>

Neil Gaiman (on books & analogic)

A few years ago, when I read American Gods, likely at the behest of Son One, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I may have waded in expecting some nifty ideas and a dumbed-down bit of guilty-pleasure genre reading, but it was much better than that. Recently, through a Twitter accident, I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman’s blog and watching some of the videos attached to it, and find him a thoroughly engaging and admirable

Gaiman: a humane, generous and eloquent spokesman for the arts of reading and writing.

person. I love his simple and humble description of what he does for a living — I make things up and I write them down — and I will read more Gaiman. The quote below, on the lasting quality of the analog book form, comes from a superb speech he made in support of The Reading Agency, a British supporter of the whole wonderful business — threatened, in so-called “developing countries” everywhere — of libraries and reading and the fuelling of imagination. I think of it as his “We Have an Obligation to Imagine” speech, and it’s fine, all of it. This reluctant e-reader particularly enjoyed his defence of the non-digital book: 

Continue Reading >>

2013 in Review: The Great Eighteen. Writing you can READ.

The last time I compiled a “Best of Howdy” list, for 2012, it was easier. I browsed through the year’s posts, remembered some things I liked, whittled it down to 10, gave a brief description, done. This time I tried to get more scientific, more democratic, and it’s been a mess. Not a lot of people responded to my invitation to submit favourites of the year, but they were some of my best readers and it was satisfying to hear about posts they liked. But.

My correspondents were far from unanimous in their preferences, and often those didn’t match the things I’d have chosen. And now that I have slightly more sophisticated analytics, I can easily check which posts had the most page views, which was often a completely different list from mine or the sometimes-odd choices of my panellists. A blogger’s work is never done. All this did cause extra work, but it was good thinking – along with the sidebar reflections that my Choice Readers had made – about what I’ve done, what worked and didn’t, and especially about what got read, and how. As it turns out, a tour of these will give you a pretty good idea of what I’m on (and off) about.

So here it is, again in the form of a quick trip through the Howdy catalogue. And I know: eighteen posts? Well, I plead indecision, for one thing, but it’s hard to choose among your children. There were 128 of them birthed on JH.com for 2013; also I reached my 500th post overall. Not a bad year, I’m not afraid to admit it.¹

Continue Reading >>

Holiday Tourism of the Local Kind

I can almost imagine a year when late December finds me breaking the pattern. Maybe I’ll jet my carbon-neutral way to sun and beaches, or more likely to visit some holy place or natural wonder. Maybe I won’t go anywhere at all, just batten the hatches and gorge myself on the movies I haven’t seen, whittle down the stack of books that implore me to fondle their pages. A guy can dream.

But neither of these extremes is likely. This is the time of year when I can curl up with a good movie; at this point, it looks like that may be confined to finally having seen The Queen, which reminded me of Ray, oddly enough: an okay movie but a superb central performance, here by Helen Mirren. Good reads have come more readily, with a second reading of Toni Morrison’s Beloved in a month being the recent highlight. But, inevitably, it’s never the cinematic orgy or literary bender that I imagine. And though the last ebb of December is not some spectacular foreign getaway, we do travel to two outstanding Canadian counties. Haliburton and Haldimand. Who’d want to be anywhere else?

As per usual, our pre-Christmas routine found us heading westward along winding, hilly and ever-more-obscure blacktop to visit my mother-in-law in her lakeside retreat near the town of Haliburton. The road to late December is traditionally fairly frantic, especially in my busier years of teaching and coaching like my shoes were on fire. (Thankfully, though, Christmas shopping is a pretty low-intensity imperative for us, as we put more emphasis on Baha’i holy days. If my bride hadn’t been born on the 23rd, I’d have boycotted the malls utterly and religiously.) By the time we descend on Portage Lake, where the nearest neighbours are birch trees and looming hills, things are suddenly languid. Lazy. (This is much easier for me than for HyperBride, but I’m just saying.)

A couple of days before the Day, we had the usual low-key celebration of my bride’s birthday. The princess was happy with her usual perquisites: beef fried in a fondue pot, another song-filled and weepy viewing of The Sound of Music. (Report: The Von Trapps escaped. Again. People regularly broke into song at the oddest moments.) Christmas Eve is another subdued tradition, where Mum-in-law Margery places a shrimp ring gobblefest just before The Main Event: the Portage Lake Plum Pudding Massacre. Flaming brandy. Three sauces. Think you’re ready? You’re not ready. Not even the loons will hear you groaning…

One of the subtle joys of late December is how blissfully predictable and serene it all is, especially on the Haliburton end. On Christmas morning, we eat fresh-baked scones and have the most gentle exchange of gifts among the four of us. No tree, no invocation of sacred rituals and bearded elves. (With my first three, we’d ask them if they wanted to play “the Santa game”, worried that they’d feel left out. Sam is unfazed, though, perhaps in part because about half the kids at his school and all his bus buddies are Muslims.) I predicted: socks for Margery, a low-tech toy for Sam, something warm and fuzzy and hand-knit for Diana, and a gently-broken-in book for me. (Margery has great taste in books, and never leaves crumbs or bent pages or reads it in the bathtub. But THIS time, I am shocked and awed and slightly bent to report, she had believed reports of unread books from Christmases past and broke the pattern!) And more. I got to watch one of the annual Christmas Day NBA games, a much older tradition than Haliburton, but didn’t have the father/son sitdown to absorb the hardwood genius of a genuine Canadian idol, Steve Nash. (He always makes me want to coach again.) Supper was duck rather than turkey, an abrupt and fowl departure from orthodoxy, and a visit from Margery’s basket-weaving friend. Talk and warmth and not much else. Sweet.

Then we drove to suburban Cayuga on Boxing Day aft, where the Howden clan gathers in such numbers (and with such a copious food frenzy) that Haldimand appears, next to the somnolence of Haliburton, like Union Station at rush hour. People, people, people, and so dear. But here, changes are more the order of the day. Nieces and nephews come with new romantic interests in tow. (Some even survive for a second Christmas inspection.) We have finally limited the gift exchange, so it wasn’t the interminable round of consumer delight that it once was. It was also our second Christmas without my Mum. We remembered how absurdly and endearingly and predictably overjoyed she would be at the gathering of such a large, goofy and thoroughly wonderful crew. And for the second straight Howden Christmas, not coincidentally, alchohol has returned after our Noels were decidedly dry for decades. The teetotalling curmudgeon of a Baha’i uncle don’t bloody like it. (Stoical but dramatic sigh.)

As I predicted in my holiday crystal basketball, my Sam got as much cousin-time as he could fit in. As I also predicted, I have failed to encounter quite as many old friends or profound conversations as I’d hoped. And after a couple of days to lounge, recover from big sister’s carefully organized food marathon, maybe run by a corn field or two, we’ll soon be ready for the trip back home. My wife will be frantic to get DOING things. I’ll be worrying about whether the backyard rink survived the rain, and cursing myself for not writing more. Sam will be missing his snow-fort and friends. And all will be right with the world.

A Beautiful Biography

In my typically timeless style — I’m referring to tardiness, not eternal glory — I missed the Ron Howard film A Beautiful Mind when it won all those Oscars in 2001. (Gracious. Ron Howard has Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Film, and Martin Scorcese doesn’t.) It was just before Christmas, actually, that I finally saw it, and I liked it well enough that I watched it again with my girl a couple of weeks later.

An old friend told me years ago that I should see it, partly because of its cinematic merits but mainly because she’d seen pictures of my Dad as a university grad. “Crowe looks just like your father!” It was true: I was knocked out by Russell Crowe’s portrayal of the troubled mathematical genius, John Nash, but there was an extra thrill of creepiness there. My father was in his 50s when I was a young boy. I caught ghostly glimpses of a Dad I’d never known except in black and white photos from the thirties, forties and fifties. And beside that, Crowe was great. He didn’t tower over a so-so film like Jamie Foxx had in RayBeautiful Mind is better than that – but there was a family resemblance. I’d forgotten that it won four Oscars, and its best performance wasn’t even one of them.

I immediately went looking for the Sylvia Nasar biography that had inspired the film, and just finished it. And when I note that the movie version won for Best Screenplay, well, it’s interesting. A Beautiful Mind was based on the Nash bio of the same name, but I was startled by how much “creative licence” Hollywood allows itself in recounting a true story. The love angle, besides being much more central than it actually was, was mainly fiction. Almost the entire depiction of Nash’s paranoid schizophrenia, too, is completely invented. (I guess faithfulness to the book would have eliminated a good role for Ed Harris.) Given the Hollywoodization of life, it’s no wonder how little understanding the public has about mental illness!

But’s let’s concentrate on the book, which was superbly told and incredibly detailed. As a case study of genius, as an examination of psychiatric problems and their effect upon families, and as a recreation of critical times and places in mid-century America, Nasar’s book is a brilliant and compelling investigation. Its detailed description of Nash’s mathematics and of his fall into delusion barely slows down the book. I was engrossed, especially once I gave myself permission to skip the hundreds of end-notes in this densely detailed life history.

It has made me think long and hard about many things: how lonely it can be for our leading minds, how fine the line between creative genius and madness, the courage it takes to be an innovator or to live with one. In our dreamy moments, we sometimes think we’d like to be in the forefront of some great idea or cause, but most of us shrink from the cost. As spookily good as Russell Crowe was in the film, the story of the “beautiful mind” of Dr. Nash is best and most interestingly told – hey, have you heard this before? – in a book. The movie was worth the look, but A Beautiful Mind is a better thing when it’s read.

Writers Festival Highlights

I read Andrew Cohen’s While Canada Slept about a year and a half ago. He’s an Ottawa man, so though his book isn’t new, he’s here and his book is even more relevant. Questions about Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan keep growing with every young man (and one woman) that we bring home to bury. Are we returning to a time when Canada “punches above its weight” as far as international influence goes? Cohen recommends it, from a military but especially from diplomatic and development perspectives. This is a smart and eloquent guy. If he was more prone to performance and less to dispassionate analysis, he’d be a big star in the punditocratic constellation. Punditocratic. a. describing those who make their living by entertaining us with their knowledge. Word of the day. Word to your father. You’re welcome.

Steven Manners has the look of a stubbornly loyal but chronically disappointed pro sports fan. (The Cubs. The Leafs.) He makes Cohen look like a sharpie, a vaudeville showman, but his wryly detached delivery began to grown on me as he discussed his Super Pills: The Prescription Drugs We Love to Take. I enjoyed his historical reminders of how root beer and Coca-Cola starting out as tonics, in the great tradition of Ayer’s Sarsparilla and Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. (For example, only when the forerunner of the American Food and Drug Administration began to investigate why Coke “contains neither coca nor kola” did the company begin marketing it as a mere beverage.) Mainly, though, his book addresses the modern phenomenon that has been called “cosmetic psychopharmacology”: the avid search for and consequently ready supply of meds designed to make us “better than well”. Valium. Prozac. Ritalin. Viagra. The list is long, and the stories around them are a caution. We do love our magic bullets.

After Mr. Manners, I hustled over to fancier digs at Ottawa’s famous Chateau Laurier ballroom to hear my Ol’ Boss, former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson. Her memoir Heart Matters is monstrously important for me and all my former colleagues, and is making a predictably big splash in Canadian newspapers and bookstores. Many in the large crowd, I’m sure, were anxious to hear the “state secrets” she has been admonished in some circles for telling. She was not a big fan of Prime Minister Paul Martin, it is now publicly clear, but she dismisses any idea that she’s broken a sacred code. In any case, she didn’t share anything from that part of the book. What she did read was fine storytelling, much of which I hadn’t heard before, about her family’s harrowing refugee experience and growing up an immigrant in a then very white Canada. She is a superb performer, of course, but she read far too long and the subsequent delightful conversation with host Ken Rockburn was far too short. (Yes, she simply cannot do without me. Ahem.) But then again, the line of book buyers eager to have it signed went on and on. I was in it.

The “Big Idea” series continued Monday night with Stephen O’Shea and his book Sea of Faith: Islam and Christianity in the Medieval Mediterranean World. I was not familiar with O’Shea, but he’s impressive and I’ll read his book. He’s a journalist writing history, and made a point about the importance of being in the place where great events occurred, and not merely consulting texts in libraries. This was perhaps a gentle critique of academic historians and also of our frequent tendency to give greater weight to abstraction and reference than to direct and felt experience. O’Shea devotes much of the book to countering a pervasive fallacy: the idea that war and conflict is what defines the course of history. Most accounts of medieval relations between Christianity and Islam focus on the great battles (“if it bleeds, it leads”), but O’Shea gives considerable attention to the long periods of peace and productive interaction between the two faith communities. He coins the term “Islamochristian civilization”, and terms the historic relationship as “a sibling rivalry, not this dangerous shibboleth of the ‘clash of civilizations’”. And as for “East is East, and West is West”? O’Shea argues, very convincingly, that “the twain did meet, and mingle, and marry”. He eloquently expresses his dismay at the contemporary toxic rhetoric that mixes politics and religion, and especially the West’s ignorance of Islam and its ongoing “fear of the Turk” – a renewable resource, it appears. “Religion, for all its solace, will always be a ready hand grenade for those who wish to make war,” he said. And I liked the following example, thrown off during questioning after his thoughtful and appealing talk. It’s a good conversation starter (or ender!), and rattles some of the slack-minded impressions of Islam into a new context. “Osama bin Laden is as much a Muslim,” O’Shea stated, “as David Koresh and the Branch Davidians at Waco were Christian…” This guy is good. (I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and listening about Islam lately. If you’d like a sample, start here.)  

ODY: Day 12. The Dullard Within.

Just because there are weights I haven’t lifted recently, and long-cherished books I haven’t yet read, it doesn’t mean that my ten-by-twelve home library cum sleepover chamber is where temporary enthusiasms go to die. (I can’t believe that.) That would just be a superstitious and silly way to think when I’m on the verge of two straight weeks of daily guitar practice! But I’m tending to jam it in at the end of long middle-aged evenings, sometimes playing at eleven o’clock, and that may not be a sustainable development.

I am trying to “encourage the dullard within”. Remind me to tell you about that one sometime.