Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Kids: The Missing Manual

I have recently been researching for an article examining current parenting books, and have frequently found myself wondering "why do parenting books even exist?" Most people who became parents previous to my generation would have laughed, nay scoffed, at the idea of an instruction manual for raising children. In fact, I get the impression that prior to the new millennium, the so-called instructions may have been similar to those pertaining to livestock: your child will need a) food, b) drink, c) shelter, d) diversion and e) exercise; thus, as a parent you should a) feed the child, b) water the child, c) warm the child, and d/e) put the child outside.

What I can't figure out is how this formula has become so complicated. For all intents and purposes, the above method still works, albeit with a few tweaks with regard to, say, demonstrating actual affection for your child. Maybe somebody tried to publish a book entitled Loving Your Child: Where to Start, and the editor felt that the ideas needed some "fleshing out"? Perhaps this poor writer wracked her brain and finally just started rambling on about the importance of, among other things, freezing portions of mashed peas, helping your child build a skill set using LEGO, preventing infant brain atrophy using a strobe light, and how to get your child to sleep in twenty-two easy steps.

My only other theory is that parenting books provide us with another much-needed ingredient in the secret recipe: humour. Chances are, if the experience of feeding, dressing, and entertaining your child hasn't left you in stitches (literally), then having a parenting book explain how to do these things properly will certainly cue the hilarity.

That being said, I cannot seem to resist reading these life manuals, if for no other reason than for the comic relief. Also, the first aid tips are somewhat useful. Basically, though, the sheer number of books available on this topic reveals the most important parenting tip of all: "None of us knows exactly what we're doing, but we're trying stuff, and hopefully, it will be okay. We hope."

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Feeding the Body and Mind

Twenty-four degrees in the brilliant light of fall colours this past weekend made for an enjoyable annual planting of garlic. Increasingly, our backyard is being geared to sensual utility. Half of our garden plot right now is garlic; I love planting it with my young kids, then waiting patiently all winter for it to shoot up that "new green" color and watching as it continues to mature through summer. Soon, our chickens will arrive, and I will rely on mags like Backyard Chickens or The Small-Scale Poultry Flock book by Harvey Ussery that had my eight-year-old son so enthralled.

A coop design has been selected, and the gents in the house will get to banging and painting. I realize that I live within minutes of a number of grocery stores ( and great ones at that) but my sense of satisfaction--what I call my "Neruda mood"--is so great when I look at a cutting board full of things we grew that we can make into something to eat. Poetry from dirt. My son was so attached to this year's bounty that while I wasn't looking, he potted whatever still lived and plunked them in the living- room. It certainly changes the insect culture, that's for sure; I've never found an earwig inside until last week. The chicken keener in my house hopes to sell his eggs to his grandparents and uncle--sorry guys :). I'm keeping my fingers crossed that my dogs don't eat them...

Apparently, growing, sharing, and eating your own grub can considerably lengthen your life and increase its quality. Check out this awesome New York Times article on quality of life, which profiles three different spots and explores the way they live their lives--hello nightly wine, and yes to napping!

On the matter of what I am reading, Amos Oz's book Black Box, which is a novel in letters (wild and perhaps not-so-good wild) in which the adult characters, with their complicated histories, try and figure out what to do with one pissed off, wayward adolescent. A collage of "utzing" that I hope sorts itself out. I am also taking home with me The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson tonight. Looks really fun!

Monday, October 29, 2012


Morning of the biopsy, wake and say whatever happens this is the last day of my old life. No pretense of youth or youthfulness anymore. From now on an arduous awareness.
Mortality is the last book by Christopher Hitchens. It is a thin black volume mostly constituted by writing that previously appeared in Vanity Fair. In fact the foreword was written by the editor of the magazine, Graydon Carter. Hitchens displays an undiminished commitment to kicking against the pricks, up to the last minute of his conscious life. Early in his career, he railed against right-wing extremists, later those on the left. Finally it was the religious fundamentalists who took the full brunt of his intellectual vigour. Of course, it didn’t help that some extremist Christians publicly announced that his esophageal cancer was an act of God because he spoke for atheism, or rather anti-theism, the categorical opposition to the belief in any and all deities.

He writes powerfully about being suddenly stricken cancer and all of its implications and impact, such as how people treat him differently, the terrible devastation of body, and trying to strike a balance being ready for death while ferociously fighting for life. There is also lots about his life, appetites, and passions. Mortality is unflinchingly funny, dark, witty, and unsentimental.

- Ken

See also our Bookshelf Review of Mortality.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Lucky Peach


Some months back, before leaving for a quick holiday, I was looking for some juicy reading material for the long train ride home. Issue one of McSweeney's Lucky Peach magazine had just been released, and I picked it up after hearing some buzz about it at work. Excited to see that it was all about ramen, I didn't even crack the spine until I boarded for home. With the hypnotic hum of the rails under me, mid-read I was wishing I was on the bullet train en route to the famous ramen restaurants being described. It was a crash course in the art of the perfect bowl of noodley goodness. All the restaurants, of course, believe they have that special something which makes their ramen superior to the rest.

Editors David Chang and Peter Meehan were hilarious in their escapades, and the other contributors had equally entertaining tales, some of which were delectable and others repulsive, such as the story about a restaurant that served a pig's fetus in a hot bowl of broth. I loved Todd Kliman's “Debunking the Myth of Authenticity,” which asks the question, what does "authentic" really mean when it comes to cultural fare, with so many lacklustre fusion restaurants and chefs "borrowing" from various cultures’ peasant food, then turning around and charging exorbitant amounts for it in their high-end restaurants? Is it really still authentic?

Lucky Peach was chock full of wit and humor, and filled with recipes I was definitely going to try out at home. It's rare for me to actually read a magazine in full, cover to cover, looking at every picture and random drawing. It's times like that when you know something's really good. By the end of my trip I knew two things:
  1. I had a major crush on David Chang.
  2. That I would in fact continue to buy each issue.

It was shortly after issue two's release that I heard Chang was in Toronto and he was building our very own Momofuku restaurant scheduled to open in August. I put it on my "things to do this summer" list. I checked it off last week when a friend took me for dinner on a visit to the city. Although I didn't get a peek at Chang, I did have my own "Momo" ramen and shiitake buns. 

The wait was worth it, just like each issue of Lucky Peach.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Data Mining the Digital Reader

There’s no reason that data miners, those intrepid digital demographers, should leave readers in peace when they already burrow into every nuance of our social networking, net browsing, and game playing. Neil Postman once remarked, comparing Orwell’s dystopia with Huxley’s, that it was Huxley who got it right: in western societies in any case, social control takes place not through oppression, but through happiness. Orwell imagined that the government would have to install cameras in every crevice in order to gather intelligence; Huxley knew that, properly conditioned—and in order to be better served—we’d happily, even eagerly, reveal our every secret. So did this summer's Wall Street Journal article on e-readers and data mining make any difference in the explosive growth of e-readers? Likely not any more than NPR's 2010 article on the same subject did, though it may have given a few buyers and owners pause.

Briefly, e-readers collect and transmit data on their users’ reading habits and transmit them back to the mothercorp (Amazon, Google, Barnes and Noble, Apple): what books you’ve purchased, whether you’ve finished a book and where you abandoned it, how long it took you to read it, whether you skimmed or skipped certain passages, what lines you’ve highlighted or noted. Alone in your La-Z-Boy with your paperback, nobody knows if, unable to delay gratification, you’re skimming that long artsy description of an apartment’s decor to get to the hot scene between protagonist and significant other. Not only will e-book companies know that you’ve skimmed, but they’ll sell that data to publishers so that they can tell their authors to cut it out with the description already and cut to the chase. Apparently many authors, eager to give you just what you want, are overjoyed to have access to these demographics, but in the rare case the author objects, editors will at last be able to counter the vagaries of artistic ambition with cold, hard data. In fact, if stats show that a particular book lags in certain passages, it’s easy to quickly pump out a revised digital edition that better meets readers’ needs, and if readers’ needs change again, well, digital texts are written on water. It could be that in the not-too-distant future, readers will be the writers, and every text we read will be a mirror in which we see our own image. O brave new world!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Bookshelf Non-fiction Book Club

We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us. (Winston Churchill)

On the last Thursday evening of most months, a small non-fiction book club meets in The Bookshelf Greenroom. This book club would like to grow! 

This month we read the book Walking Home by Ken Greenberg. Greenberg, like many of us, loves eminent urban activist Jane Jacobs. He has a lot of interesting perspectives on how a city should grow organically, cherish its architectural ancestors, and should not be planned with a capital P. We started off by chatting about the case studies in the book for a half-hour or so. Greenberg loves the cultural and architectural diversity of Toronto and New York City very much, as he spent years of his career in both cities. 

After familiarizing ourselves with Walking Home, we began talking about some of its principles in the context of Guelph. We all came from different professional backgrounds and have lived in different areas of Canada throughout our lives. In general, people felt that in order for Guelph to reach its fullest potential as a city, we ought to be pro-development in the core of the city while respecting and preserving its architectural and cultural history and limiting sprawl development on the periphery of the city. It was fun applying some of Greenberg's thoughts on urban development to our own city. If you're interested in urban development, I'd highly recommend this book. 

Next month we're reading Rick Mercer's newest book, A Nation to Rant About. Come out for a laugh, a rant, a glass of wine, a cup of tea...and to engage with some of the great folks in your community. 

Next Book Club: Thursday, November 22 at 7:00 pm.

Place: The Bookshelf Greenroom

You can follow the book club on twitter at #reallongtweets

I hope to see you out!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Sloppy Firsts

An ice cold ginger ale, the fizzier the better.That's my top request when I'm sick as a dog. It is probably one of the most comforting things imaginable to me in those times of need. As are fantasy movies, a comfy place to be horizontal, and a light-weight blanket strewn across 45% of my body (if you'd like specifics).

My most recent ordeal had all of those things, as well as me stumbling across one of my all-time favourite YA series on my bookshelf. Sloppy Firsts is the first of five in the Jessica Darling series by Megan McCafferty. I hadn't read it in ages ( I can't believe it's ten years old already). It's one of those perfectly-imperfect coming-of-age stories with an epic and honest love story. Over the years I've read about Jessica Darling as she graduates from high school, heads to uni, and eventually gets thrown into the real world, with all the craziness of life mixed between. So well written and hilariously funny, and for me completely comforting. I'm now over my sickness, but I'm onto book two, Second Helpings.

- Ashley

Monday, October 22, 2012

Joseph Anton

So, I developed a bit of a crush reading Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie's memoir. Decidedly, it is a bit of a strange read because it is written in the third person (Joseph Anton was Rushdie's alias while he was in hiding during the fatwa), and it is so vivid with specific details that it almost seems shaken out of his diary, but I loved it. You meet a man with a poet's heart who loves language and inquiry, a man who has been married four times and honors the love and intimacy of each woman, and seems driven to conjure each relationship as it was in the context of the time, without imbuing it retrospectively with the difficult emotions that followed. Rushdie reveals himself as someone who has a rich, analytical mind and believes strongly in informed debate and creative exploration. He has a great sense of humor, and describes himself pacing in mismatched sweatsuit, told to stay quiet--lest he incite more hatred for continuing to be alive--as he drafts letters he can never send to his detractors in the media.

Although Rushdie claims he holds no resentment toward those that abandoned, defamed, betrayed, or tried to murder him, citing the burden as being too heavy, Joseph Anton is rather full of de-masking and finger pointing. You can almost feel the steam being released as the ink hits the page. The book also gives Rushdie room to thank his incredible circle of friends and fellow writers for keeping the discussion going and supporting him well while he was in exile. Doug and Barb Minett of The Bookshelf were two of those people during the fatwa years.

When, he wanted to know, did it become irrational to dislike religion, any religion, even to dislike it vehemently? When did reason get redescribed as unreason? When were the fairy stories of the superstitious placed above criticism, beyond satire? A religion was not a race. It was an idea, and ideas stood (or fell) because they were strong enough (or too weak) to withstand criticism, not because they were shielded from it. Strong ideas welcomed dissent. "He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves and sharpen our skill," wrote Edmund Burke. "Our antagonist is our helper." Only the weak and the authoritarian turned away from their opponents and called them names and sometimes wished to do them harm. (345)

A cool tidbit: the satanic verses are actually a controversial set of lines allegedly removed from the Quran, wherein the Prophet, peace be upon him, presumably seeking tolerance and acceptance for the followers of Islam, temporarily claimed that it would be OK for people to also revere the local, preexisting Gods alongside Allah, but soon after he retracted it. The Prophet always emphasized that he was a messenger of God, not divine, and that was the very interesting vulnerability Rushdie wished to explore. Cue the assassination plots....

- Hannah

Friday, October 19, 2012

Water water everywhere, but not too good to drink!

Here's the back story. The City of Guelph and the Wellington Water Watchers had organized a documentary series about water. One of the films to be shown was called Tapped and was basically an expose of bottled water companies, starring the conglomerate which taps into our own water table, NestléNestlé's John Challinor didn't like this and felt that Nestlé should be able to present their own propaganda. He wrote a letter to the city complaining. The city cancelled the movie. This made many people angry, particularly the Wellington Water Watchers, the Council of Canadians and the Central Student's Association. And this is how on Monday evening over 500 agitated and passionate citizens gathered in War Memorial Hall to actually see the movie and listen to Council of Canadians chair and water warrior Maude Barlow. 

The movie was incredibly disturbing. There are two issues. Large companies which use water swipe it for almost nothing, while ordinary citizens pay a fair amount for water usage. But it's the evil production of the villain plastic which compromises the ocean, threatens the entire food web, and wreaks havoc with our bodies. There are masses of plastic bottles the size of Texas floating in the ocean. Plastic particles are poison pills for anything that lives in water. Beaches of the future are not going to be comprised of coral and limestone, but ground-up pieces of plastic. 

Maude Barlow, who was an advisor to the UN on water, warned about all of the sneaky international treaties constantly being created. She is an international heroine and it is always such a pleasure to hear her speak. She's been at it a long time and must be getting tired. But as she said, "What else could I be doing that is more important?" We can only hope that she continues her dogged activism. Her books Blue Gold and Blue Covenant will give you insight into what is probably the most important issue of the future.

- Barb

Thursday, October 18, 2012

A Taoist Meander

For many years now, I've been inspired by Taoist teachings. Initially, it was the Tao Te Ching by Lao-tzu, which is a wonderful collection of about eighty short poems. It profoundly reflects on life, death, action, non-action, and wise governance. However, it is extremely subtle, paradoxical, and rarefied in its insight. Years later I discovered Chuang-Tzu. Chuang-tzu's writing is strange, poetic, and iconoclastic. He is famous for posing the question about whether he is a man dreaming that he is a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming that he is a man. His stories are dense with meaning; however, I would not recommend them to everyone.

Lastly, I happened upon the third great classical sage, Lieh-tzu. Ironically, he is almost unknown, although he is probably the most accessible of all. Eva Wong has compiled and translated a wonderful selection of his work in Lieh-tzu: A Taoist Guide to Practical Livingwhich will hopefully begin a rediscovery of his teachings. He lived and wrote around the fourth century BCE, and often comments on other great teachers such as Confucius and Lao-tzu. Through a mixture of simple storytelling and philosophical reverie he clearly explains the sometimes obscure meanings of his better-known peers. I would recommend Lieh-tzu to Taoists, the philosophically inclined, and t'ai chi practitioners.

- Ken

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

David Suzuki and Jeff Rubin's End of Growth Tour

It was only after getting home from the packed and enthusiastically-received Suzuki/Rubin lecture last night that the oddness of what was a very successful evening really struck me. Here were an environmentalist and an economist saying that the world is on the edge of catastrophe, that the price of oil and the environmental consequences of heedless consumerism and industrialism were about to lead to radical economic and social dislocation, and we were all eagerly lapping it up. Was it because we really didn’t believe it, or because the message was too big to grasp all at once? In retrospect, I was reminded of the famous lines from T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton”: “Go, go, go said the bird: human kind/Cannot bear very much reality.” Daily it seems we are provided with individual and social evidence of our ability to ignore what we don’t want to know, and if there is a cliff we’re approaching, it’s very likely that we will blithely and ignorantly step over the edge with our noses glued to the screens of our iPads.

Both David Suzuki and Jeff Rubin agreed on one thing: the period of rapid economic growth that has characterized most of the twentieth century was, historically speaking, an exception rather than a rule, and that exception is about to end. Further, both agreed that, however painful that ending is, it’s necessary for the environment and, ultimately, for humans. So do we need to pack away the idea that our children’s lives will be better than ours? According to Suzuki and Rubin, in terms of our current definition of better (more money, more stuff), definitely. The end of cheap oil, rising populations, and increasing environmental degradation will lead inevitably to a global correction—the only question is whether that correction will be undertaken in a voluntary, organized way, or whether it will be imposed on us through a series of insurmountable economic, social, and environmental crises.

But a good part of Suzuki’s speech for the evening was also devoted to making the audience re-examine just what the word “better” means. When the government of Ecuador passed up the chance to exploit massive oil reserves because they sit under a national park that is likely the most biodiverse area on the planet, they decided to forego one definition of better for another that is broader in its scope and more long-lasting in its impact. And, as Suzuki pointed out, though Ecuador is one of the poorest countries in South America, its sense of vision and stewardship put to shame the policies and people of richer countries such as ours.

While Suzuki frequently cited the laws of science and nature throughout the evening, Rubin leaned on the laws of economics, and that led to some interesting differences of opinion. For Suzuki, economics is just a human construct that should serve larger ends, but Rubin for his part asserted that, while it was good to imagine ideal situations, as an economist, he had to deal with “the world as it is was rather than the world as it should be.” (I had reservations about both stances—in practical terms, surely we’re as bound, if not more bound, by our own constructions as we are by reality itself, and dealing with the world as it is may be a sound principle, and I believe Rubin is an excellent example of it, but given the 2008 recession, economics as a field can scarcely claim to be in touch with the world as it is.) So while Suzuki advocated carbon taxes, Rubin was skeptical that they could be implemented in hard economic times, and while Suzuki promoted public education, Rubin focused more on economic and environmental consequences as motivators.

The challenge for David Suzuki, as for many environmentalists, is that however important and accurate their message is, most people basically know it—or think they know it—already. When it comes to uncontrolled, unsustainable growth, collectively we’re like a person whose purse is stuffed with pamphlets about why she should kick her smoking habit, but who nonetheless remains hooked. Adding Jeff Rubin to the mix made the audience’s collective ears perk up—he offered a fresh perspective on issues and also refreshed Suzuki’s own message. As a pair, they didn’t so much deliver a one-two knockout that left the audience on its back as plant a seed that, one hopes, will lead to a growing awareness that bears fruit in committed action.

The Suzuki/Rubin presentation was part of the University of Guelph's College of Arts Cafe Philosophique series in partnership with the Bookshelf. Many thanks to Evan Fraser, an associate professor of geography at U of G who was a generous, enthusiastic, and capable host for the event, and to Dan Evans, the Bookshelf's event coordinator. For more information on issues raised at the event, see Jeff’s new book The End of Growth and David’s recent book Everything Under the Sun, or check out the David Suzuki Foundation.

- Bruce (& photos by Ben) 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Food Celebration

Food can cut across social barriers, spanning class and sectarian lines (though it can also, of course, reinforce them). Making and sharing food are essential to maintaining the rhythms of everyday life.

This is excerpted from Annia Ciezadlo's new memoir, Day of Honey : A Memoir of Food, Love And War. If I could I would share the entire book with you, but alas I cannot. Ciezadlo early on sheeplishly discloses that she cannot contain her passions, or her opinions; they just tumble out. She can never stop eating or talking or writing. She is not without swooning doubt, and to root herself to the earth she cooks and she eats. That could be said about a lot of people, but Ciezadlo is a roving journalist who has immersed herself in cultures where she is the other. Through food she finds familiarity; she is still other but finds a place for herself among the hot sour salty sweet. Ciezadlo pursues anthropology through food, across modern battlefields, and into kitchens. This book was inspired by the new context she finds herself in, in love with her perfect opposite who also happens to discover himself suddenly Arab in post 9/11 America.

Mohamad is a refugee from Lebanon's civil war, with a deep intelligence and heavy reserve. Where Ciezadlo wages oratory, he observes. He hardly speaks, but when he does it is with razor precision. He also is among the most picky eaters on the planet, whereas she will eat anything, anywhere. And so begins their story. It takes them to many places--Beirut, Baghdad, and Turkey, among others. I found Ciezadlo's insights fierce and full of heart. Her book reminded me a lot of what Camilla Gibb was doing in her novel The Beauty of Humanity Movement, with Old man Hung, who in Hanoi nurtured himself and those around him through the turmoil of the post- "American War" with his steaming bowls of Pho.

Horror, Truth, Beauty, Full Bellies: Yes!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Until the Night

Until the Night
Giles Blunt

I was so disappointed in the last Giles Blunt book that I almost threw it across the room. But never judge a writer by his or her last book because not only is Until the Night a great yarn, but sections of it are so beautifully written that I thought Blunt was channelling Barry Lopez. Detective John Cardinal and his sidekick Lise Delorme cover the Algonquin Bay (read North Bay) territory. A number of female corpses are found and the duo is racing to crack the crime before the death of the next woman. Blunt grew up in North Bay and paints delicious and stunning details of the rock, trees, water, and sky. He also allows his duo to have some delicious moments of their own. The most beautiful writing, though, comes from the journal of one of a group of scientists who are in the arctic, each obsessed by his own narrow research. The two streams of narrative are separated by twenty years but there is love and passion in both. Cause and effect make total sense and Blunt must be congratulated on his compelling literary architecture.

- Barb

Friday, October 12, 2012

Both/And, Not Either/Or

A whole lotta shakin’s been going on around here. The cinema has a spanking-new digital projector. The floors upstairs have been re-covered with a beautiful new wood laminate--farewell to the 1970s-style linoleum tile in the Green Room, which always reminded me of my primary school gym; adios to that ankle-threatening ridge on the eBar dance floor. The shelves of the bookstore have been re-arranged so browsers now enjoy an inviting event/reading space. And we’re very close to drawing back the curtains on our new web site and online magazine. Drag in that scruffy guy on the corner who’s wearing a “The End is Coming for Books” signboard and stand him in the middle of the store. He’ll probably be too busy perusing the new fiction section to fall on his knees and give thanks, but you’ll find his signboard out back with the blue bags tomorrow.

We’re all about lines in western culture—linear economic growth, linear historical progression, linear life paths. We’re so vector-addicted we forget, in spite of all history and even nature tries to tell us, that what seems a line in the short term is very often in the long term just one part of a pendulum arc, or even a tangent on a circle. Although eBooks, Facebook friends, 24/7 tweeting (and blogging!) aren’t going anywhere, many people caught up in the virtual frenzy are beginning to look over their shoulders and wonder why it feels like something’s missing. It’s not that they’ll suddenly dump all their shiny new things, pick up a hoe, and start homesteading Amish-style. But they might backtrack a bit with their new stuff bulging in their pockets, perhaps realizing that every gain in one direction might entail a loss in another unless the past is brought into the future rather than simply being dumped in favour of it. While the media loves an either/or story, it’s already turning out that for books and eBooks, social media and coffee-klatches, considered thinking and machine-gun telegraphy, it’s really a both/and story.