Thursday, April 26, 2012

No Kidding (Book Review)

Myrna Kostash No Kidding: Inside the World of Teenage Girls (1987) Kostash’s account rests on many interviews and many statistics. It’s a good, if often depressing, read. The anecdotes and stories give meaning to the statistics, which haven’t changed much in the last 25 years. She’s very good at giving us both sketches and portraits of the girls. She has the story-teller’s gifts of pacing, selecting the telling detail, and the illuminating quote. These gifts also, of course, mean she’s very good at shaping the narrative to suit her purposes. She’s a persuasive writer, and never more so than when she seems to be just telling a story.
     Kostash is a natural-born reporter, which means that she focusses on the unusual and the painful. I don’t doubt the truth of what she reports (insofar as a report is an honest account of the reporter’s perceptions and experience, it’s true). But I do doubt the impression that for most teenage girls, most of the time, life is more or less awful. My own observation is that teenagers are pretty resilient. Or maybe just short-term amnesic. Their time-horizon is short, their social perception ends a few inches outside their skin, they can empathise deeply and yet be blithely unable to imagine a  point of view different than their own.
     On the other hand, some of the people (groups) she identifies are in great need of help, support, and compassion. Far too many teenagers (not just girls) grow up dysfunctional in families whose members don’t or can’t treat each other as human beings. It’s not easy to figure out reforms that could ease the burden of abuse, but I think among them there must be changes in the environment within which teenagers try to navigate. That is, the environment must make some choices easier and other choices harder. A couple of small ones: make it more expensive to buy sugar drinks, and cheaper to buy fruit. Eliminate bells in schools (we did this for over ten years at the school I taught, and we had less tardiness than when we had bells).
     This book is often heart-breaking, occasionally funny, and sometimes hopeful. Recommended. ***
     Disclosure: Kostash was a student in a freshman English class I taught at the University of Alberta.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Money and Politics (2)

Adam Smith is rarely read these days, but many (especially self-styled "libertarians") invoke his name as a justification for unfettered and unregulated competition.  Here's a salutary reminder of what he really said:

You can download a copy of The Wealth of Nations here:

Libertarians often invoke Henry David Thoreau. Read his Civil Disobedience. Find it here:

Saturday, April 07, 2012

What the Dog Saw (Book Review)

Malcolm Gladwell, What the Dog Saw (2009) Gladwell’s talent as a reporter is to find the significant anecdote that illustrates the statistical generalisation. He also has the story-teller’s sense of timing. But his greatest skill is to present you with the Aha! moments that reveal the underlying pattern, or link apparently random bits and pieces to the larger world in which we live. His essays are like transformer toys: shift your point of view, rearrange a few items, and the car becomes a robot. When it’s well done, you have to look twice to recognise the original fender in the gauntlet protecting the weapon-arm. I won’t summarise any of his pieces: finding out for yourself will give you great pleasure. But I will tell you that I think several of his investigations imply policy changes that we should urge our governments to adopt. ***

Friday, April 06, 2012


I've created a page for Movie reviews, and another for Photos. I'll be updating one or the other every couple of  days or so, so check them out often.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Adams' Rib (Another Old Movie Review)

Adam’s Rib (1949) [D: George Cukor. Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy.] Adam Bonner (Tracy) prosecutes and Amanda Bonner (Hepburn) defends a woman who fired a gun at her husband and his mistress. An early example of a movie that argues for equal rights for women, albeit as a comedy (so it’s not a serious issue), and of course with Hepburn regretting the possible break-up of her marriage. Tracy is the one who manages to mend the breach, so Father Knows Best after all. The characters are amusing, and oddly childish: did men and women really act that way 60 years ago? The dialogue is well done, the courtroom scenes have a few moments of farce, all’s well that ends well. If you can get past the  dated notions of gender roles, you will see that the subtext is about mutual respect and the need for love. Adam and Amanda each want the other to show not only affection but respect; and both realise that loving each other matters most, whatever professional sparring they get into (or indulge in).
     Watching 60-year-old movie reminds us how much has changed. It’s not just the visible bits, the subway, the cars, the clothes (Hepburn’s clothes are very definitely fashionable), or the furniture. It’s the little things like the crew-cut on the young neighbour who puts to moves on Hepburn when her marriage appears to breaking up (and that phrase is also dated). Or the way that Amanda and Adam co-operate in getting their supper: Adam even answers the door wearing an apron. Clearly, he’s a “liberated” husband, one who considers his marriage a partnership (“contract” is the word he uses). It’s unspoken assumptions such as these that inform the dialogue and ground the jokes: the courtroom humour  breaks the unspoken code of decorous behaviour. Later on, on TV’s Night Court, it became a means of oblique comment on the shifting values of the 1970s and 80s. Here, it’s used to give point to the rivalry between husband and wife, and to point up her obliviousness to the humiliation she is visiting on him. She hasn’t grasped what feminists emphasised: the personal is political: home and work are separated not by a brick wall, not even by a fence, but by an imaginary line that’s constantly shifting.
     In short, this movie is more complex than it appears to be. Like all good social comedy, it supports, reveals, and criticises the values of the society in which the story is set. Hepburn and Tracy are a pleasure to watch working together. By this time they had been a couple for several years, they know and trust each other not only as actors but as people. I liked this movie, not despite but because of its firm cultural anchoring. The writers knew they were dealing with themes (domestic violence, marriage, gender roles) that people had begun to see as requiring reexamination. They managed to do this within the constraints of a Hollywood romantic comedy, and so created a subtly subversive work. Well done. ***

Sunday, April 01, 2012

The Pagan Christ (Book Review)

Tom Harpur The Pagan Christ (2004) One half of Harpur’s thesis is that around 300 to 400 CE the Church authorities deliberately suppressed and misrepresented as many traces of the pagan origin of the Christian doctrine as they could. He traces the Bible back to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and claims that the Christ figure originates in Isis/Osiris. He bases his argument primarily on the researches of Alvin Boyd Kuhn, but also draws on Hindu, Greek, Gnostic, and many other sources.
     The other half of his thesis is that the Pagan Christ is the divine light that inheres in every human being. This insight, he claims, was conveyed by myth, which has been “literalised” by the Church, and so the true understanding of the Gospel has been distorted and kept from us. In addition, this insight would bring all religions in the world into one tent, if only the anti-mythological efforts of the Abrahamic organised religions weren’t so effective and divisive.
     Harpur is bit of a crank, I think, but his central message is true enough. The myths do all express the same truth, that we all partake of the divine light. That truth is itself a myth, that is, it is a story and concept that creates significance and meaning. And we do have a regrettable tendency to take stories literally, instead of grasping them as symbols of truths that cannot be expressed literally. Myths are on the one hand stories that justify and explain ritual, and on the other, apprehensions of the meanings expressed through those rituals. People of faith have always, I think, understood this. Superstition consists of taking myth as having the same operational truth as science and craft; in other words, superstition is myth turned into magic. One could go on about this opposition between faith and religion, but I’ll just give you two sentences that I think are true:
     – Faith is the ability to tolerate doubt.
     – God does not like religion.
     As scholarship, Harpur’s book is (based on my own limited reading) incomplete and simplistic. The development of the Bible is as far as I know a far more tangled skein of influences and sources than his account indicates. As testimony to how one man came to a deeper understanding of what his Christian heritage could mean, it’s honest and sincere. Many people will find his story helpful; and many others will feel threatened by it. Worth reading by anyone who needs to find at least a hint of an answer to the central question: Can we make meaning out of, or find meaning in, our lives? **½