Category Archives: Books & Reviews

Literature, culture, fiction, non-fiction, writers, authors and the craft of writing.

Thirty Seven Days

37 DaysBack in the mid-1970s, the BBC launched a dramatic, 13-part series called Fall of Eagles, about the last decades of the 19th century and the lead-up to World War One. It also chronicled the end of the royal dynasties in the aftermath of the war. It was a brilliant series, sweeping in its broad brush across the royalty and politics of Russia, Austria, Germany, and England. France got a mere cameo role because France was not ruled by any of the dynasties which form the central cast in the series.

Viewers got from the series an image of the complex network of connections and ties – often familial, as the royal houses were linked by blood and marriage – between these nations, of the rapidly changing political landscapes in each, and the inexorable end of an era, a time in which nations would erupt to alter radically and forever. The Titanic is the perfect metaphor for this time, as the royal houses, blind to the ferment of change happening under their feet, approached the iceberg, unwilling or unable to change course.

It remains one of my favourite historical dramas, albeit somewhat dated by today’s production standards. Patrick Stewart, by the way, was terrific as Lenin.

Last year, the BBC released 37 Days, a three-part mini-series about the final 37 days before WWI (June 28 to August 4). It is mostly about English and German politics, with a tip of the hat to France and a very minor role for Russia and Austria. It was part of the BBC’s several pieces produced last year to highlight the 100th anniversary of the war’s start.

Part one is the first month of that period, starting with the shooting of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Part two is about the week before war broke out, and part three is the final weekend. Despite the shortening time for each part, there is no real sense of urgency or tension as war approaches, especially among the English politicians. There’s more tension between members of the cabinet, some of whom resigned because of military agreements to support war. But we never get to see other political perspectives such as the growing socialist movement that opposed war in all of the European countries.

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Another Archy Poem

Archy and MehitabelMost of Don Marquis’ Archy pieces were written in lowercase. The literate cockroach, we learned, would stand on the typewriter and dive, head first, onto the keys. But this way, he couldn’t use the shift key to get capital letters or punctuation (he did get capital letters, once, when Marquis left the shift-lock on the machine one night; Archy wrote about it in a 1933 piece called ‘CAPITALS AT LAST‘).

But I’ve always felt one of the best pieces to come from the mind of Marquis was Archy’s commentary on criticisms about his grammar and punctuation from readers, in a 1933 piece titled, “archy protests’ which I have copied from the  Donmarquis.com site, but which I came across again this weekend while reading The Best of Archy and Mehitabel (and while enjoying a glass of my homemade wine in the warm spring evening):

say comma boss comma capital
i apostrophe m getting tired of
being joshed about my
punctuation period capital t followed by
he idea seems to be
that capital i apostrophe m
ignorant where punctuation
is concerned period capital n followed by
o such thing semi
colon the fact is that
the mechanical exigencies of
the case prevent my use of
all the characters on the
typewriter keyboard period
capital i apostrophe m
doing the best capital
i can under difficulties semi colon
and capital i apostrophe m
grieved at the unkindness
of the criticism period please
consider that my name
is signed in small
caps period

archy period

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Atheist Spirituality?

Penguin PublishersAndre Comte-Sponville’s elegantly-written book, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, has occupied much of my thoughts and reading time these past few weeks as I try to grapple with his message. I find I need to re-read sections of it, perhaps more than once, to digest and weigh all of the ideas presented.

I’m more accustomed to the polarizing polemics of Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins, and their militant atheism; French philosopher Comte-Sponville’s reasoned and gentle approach quite threw me off guard. Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins may be right (and righteous) in their arguments, but they can be caustic and grating. Comte-Sponville – who also calls himself an atheist – is more conciliatory and willing to concede points to religion that the others are not, particularly in the areas of heritage and culture.

And in death, where Comte-Sponville says religion holds the better hand in dealing with mortality, offering “not only the possibility of consolation, but also a sorely-needed ritual…” that helps us humanize and even civilize death. “The power of religion at such times,” he writes, “is neither more nor less our own powerlessness in the face of the void.”

In the wake of the death of my own mother, mortality has been on my mind somewhat more than usual. Which is one reason, I suppose, I am turning to philosophy with greater frequency to try and make sense of the world.

Calling oneself an atheist has long been a form of rebellion: to challenge three millennia of society, to storm the ramparts of conformity. But only in the last century has that declaration been made without punishment or at least ostracism. No it’s almost chic to do so, like wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt.

Each generation has to find its own centre anew, and each older generation has to agonize over that choice. But what happens when the rebels become the establishment, when the challenge becomes the new conformity? Do we repeat the cycle again from the other side?

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Great Minds, Small Minds

Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.

mis-attributed quotationThat quote has been attributed online to Eleanor Roosevelt in the images shared by people too lazy to check the facts. And like so many other quotations that circulate on social media, it’s not by the person claimed. As far as has been determined, she never used those words.

The saying offers a valid point, especially when it comes to local bloggers, but it was made by someone else, not the wife of the former U.S. president.

Who, then, gave us these pithy lines? Wikiquote – one of the very rare authoritative online sources of quotations* – tells us that one printed source was an American admiral, writing in a magazine, who made it popular, although he himself did not take credit for it:

There are many published incidents of this as an anonymous proverb since at least 1948, and as a statement of Eleanor Roosevelt since at least 1992, but without any citation of an original source. It is also often attributed to Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, but though Rickover quoted this, he did not claim to be the author of it; in “The World of the Uneducated” in The Saturday Evening Post (28 November 1959), he prefaces it with “As the unknown sage puts it…”

Was there really an ‘unknown sage’ behind the saying,? Or was it created, whole cloth, in 1959? Ah, the tale is older than that.

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Books versus E-readers

Books vs ereaderBack in February, Naomi Baron wrote a piece calledReading on-screen versus on paper,” in which she compared the two reading experiences: printed books and e-readers in five areas:

  • Cost
  • Container vs content
  • Environmental impact
  • Quality of screens
  • Concentration

Baron actually looks at these as true-or-false questions, not really comparisons. She doesn’t address issues like aesthetics, tactile sense or emotional response, or the relative value of hypertext to content, nor does she tread into the science and ergonomics of reading. For that, you have to look elsewhere. Which, of course, I did.

First let me state that it is not really an us-vs-them situation: e-readers vs printed books. Both technologies co-exist quite comfortably and each has its own merits. Neither will displace the other, and our civilization cannot survive with only digital content.*

Several Pew Research studies have shown that the number of Americans owning e-readers is still modest (24 percent by the end of 2013 but 32 percent by Jan. 2014; compared with tablet ownership which was at 42 percent by 2014) and the number of adults who had read an e-book within the previous year was a mere 28 percent with only 4 percent reading e-books exclusively (up to 5 percent by 2014). That, however, is a slowly growing figure.**

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Chinese Wisdom

AnalectsAs I promised in an earlier post, here are some of the epithets and sayings found in some of the Four Books of the Chinese canon. I think these are particularly relevant to politics, especially local politics. Hence my commentary after several of them.*

Wikipedia gives us an overview of Confucius’ political philosophy in the Analects:

Confucius’ political beliefs were rooted in his belief that a good ruler would be self-disciplined, would govern his subjects through education and by his own example, and would seek to correct his subjects with love and concern rather than punishment and coercion.
“If the people be led by laws, and uniformity among them be sought by punishments, they will try to escape punishment and have no sense of shame. If they are led by virtue, and uniformity sought among them through the practice of ritual propriety, they will possess a sense of shame and come to you of their own accord.” (Analects 2.3; see also 13.6)**.

So how good is the example set for us by council so far? Are the people led by virtue and propriety? Let’s look at the record, so far:

Raising your taxes. Raising your water rates. Giving themselves a raise. Giving $40,000 of your taxes so one of their own could pursue personal political ambitions out of town, with no benefit to this community. Conflicts of interest both material and perceived. Approving sole-sourced contracts to family members. Vengefully bringing back old political grudges (a formerly-rejected IC report) then protesting when the decision applies to one of their own. A standing committee system that operates too often out of the public eye and appears secretive. Backroom negotiations and lobbying emails. Ideological block voting. Letting staff control the budget and other meetings. Accepting damaging and flawed consultants’ reports. Claiming per-diem expenses for regular committee and board meetings. Breaching their oath of office and their code of conduct.

Hardly setting a good example for anyone to follow. And that’s just in the beginning of this term.

Perhaps they have other attributes that would fit the Confucian model of a good ruler, something not yet manifest in the public eye. Something hidden deep inside that needs must be coaxed out slowly. So let’s look at what Confucius and other Chinese philosophers said about government and politics.

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The Four Books


ConfuciusFor many centuries, the core of Chinese education was focused on four classical works from the Confucian school: The Analects, The Great Learning, The Mencius, and Maintaining Perfect Balance. This didn’t really change until the arrival of the West and the industrial era was forced onto China in the 19th century.

These were sacred books and intimate knowledge of them was considered the mark of a literate, civilized person the same way knowledge of the Bible reflected the literate and cultured Christian in medieval times, as Daniel Gardner mentions in his introduction to his translation of The Four Books (Hackett Publishing, Indianapolis, 2007). He also describes how Chinese literati shifted their attention from the earlier canon of The Five Classics to the new canon of The Four Books over many years.

Early this week I stumbled across a small treasure trove of books about Confucianism in a local bookstore, including translations and studies of these four books. One of these was the translation of the Analects by Arthur Waley; a book that had once been in my possession, now long departed. Plus I found a translation that includes selections from all four titles. This was timely: I have been meaning to study Confucianism and read its texts for the past year or two, but was always sidetracked by some other interest or hobby.

Like many Westerners, I grew up with a Charlie Chan-inspired image of Confucius as a caricature: a wise-cracking master of the one-liner, a Chinese Will Rogers, whose humourous words often concealed real wisdom, if you dug deeply enough. That impression was erased in the late 1960s and early 70s when I studied Eastern philosophy and religion more seriously. And with such knowledge, grew respect, if not necessarily wisdom.

Over the intervening years, my attention focused more specifically on Buddhism and I let my understanding and appreciation of other schools of thought lapse. Now, semi-retired, I have the time to rekindle my interest and restore my studies.

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The Count of Monte Cristo

Count of Monte CristoMany of us grew up on the stories of Alexandre Dumas; from cartoons to comic books, TV series and movies. And, yes, books, albeit often abridged for the young market, with drawings of swordsmen, women in flowing dresses, and the court of kings. Swashbuckling adventures, romances with honour and swordfighting. We may not have always realized that it was Dumas who was the source, of course. Do you watch The Princess Bride and wonder who inspired it? His ideas and plots were mined by many who came after.

We learned to behave, to be men and women, by reading such tales, by imitating their heroes, by wishing on their stars, learning their manners and their wit and their honour; by being our own Musketeers.

Neighbourhood children made swords out of wooden posts and branches, then rolled around on the lawn playing at swordfights, banging our rough sticks together, bruising fingers, laughing, jumping on imaginary horses and riding off, firing our finger-pistols at the approaching Cardinal’s men. We died, histrionically, at a sword thrust defending our imagined Milady.

Athos, Porthos, Aramis, Artemis, d’Artagnan –  I knew the names of all four Musketeers better than I knew the historical names in my school textbooks. I knew at an early age about the subterfuge of cardinals and the honour of queens. As time progressed, d’Artagnan blended into Robin Hood into  Lancelot, the Lone Ranger, Flash Gordon and and eventually into Luke Skywalker. Swords gave way to guns and then blasters then computer games.

Years went by. I didn’t read Dumas after my early teens; the comics and the abridged children’s books yellowed, forgotten on the shelves. Other books, other pastimes, other heroes took my interest. I saw a few films based on his works, some TV, but I didn’t pay a lot of attention to them.  Fun stuff, entertainment popcorn, but I forgot the Musketeers.

It was only last year that I bought Richard Pevear’s recent (and excellent) Penguin translation of Dumas’ Three Musketeers almost by accident. The odd cover art caught my eye and I felt compelled to get it (sadly, the cover art that beguiled me has since been replaced by a poster-type cover taken from a recent movie made of the tale….). It was a good choice…

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