Friday, December 29, 2017

Railways in Edmonton, Alberta.

     Alan Vanterpool. The Railways of Edmonton (1997) A well-done overview of the development of railways in Edmonton, Alberta. Published by the British Railway Modellers of North America (BRMNA), it consist of photographs with extended captions, a style that compresses a lot of information into a small space. Twenty years ago there were still many lines in place that have since been lifted, so a follow-up book would be in order.
     Vanterpool begins with water and land transport before the railroads, then offers pictures of earliest roads to arrive in Edmonton, and goes on from there. As far as I know, his history is accurate. About the only flaw in this book is that it presents two photos per page, which makes them too small. I suppose the BRMNA’s usual format of one photo per page would have required a second volume. I for one would have been happy to pay the extra cost. Well done, especially considering there are few photos beyond the news and publicity categories. Out of print, but woirth the search for your own copy. ***

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Don;t Get Too Comfortable (your life's course is changing). Essays by David Rakoff

     David Rakoff. Don’t Get too Comfortable (2005) Rakoff died in 2012. He wrote pieces about culture, mostly about examples of excess, such as the last essay in this book, which reports on cryogenics. (A technology to freeze you so that at some point many centuries hence you can be unfrozen and resume your life. Though why people many centuries hence would want to unfreeze you is a question that apparently never occurs to the believers).
     That parenthetical remark is the kind of thinking Rakoff does, and as often as not triggers in the reader. That makes him a valuable analyst of our times. He was revered as a humourist, but he’s really a satirist. The occasional one-liners and jokes are as on-topic and often as biting as his analytic comments.
     Many of these pieces were written during the Bush years, and some refer back to Reagan. Rakoff was one of the first to recognise that the Republicans were going down a road of self-destruction. As always when a dragon self-destroys, the thrashing of its tail in ita death throes causes damage around it. That’s what’s happening now.
     There I go again, thinking like Rakoff.
     He writes about food, fashion, plastic surgery, politics, flying on the Concorde, and many other topics, trivial and significant, mundane and exotic. The title applies to all of them. There’s an undertone of existential panic, a how-did-we-get-here apprehension of unknown and unexpected consequences.  You can see why I recommend this book. ****

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Humankind's Most Dangerous Invention: A Short History of Progress (Wright)

    Ronald Wright. A Short Illustrated History of Progress (2006) A paperback version of Wright’s 2004 book, with pictures, and coloured pages with pithy quotes displayed in large type. The book doesn’t need these gimmicks, it’s compulsively readable. Wright’s thesis is that civilisation is a trap. He’s an archeologist/anthropologist. He uses “civilisation” to mean a large complex culture based on the domestication of plants, animals, and human beings. A civilisation is marked by hierarchies, administrative complexity, specialisation of work, politics, etc.
     Almost every civilisation we know of has ended destroying itself. The type example of this process is Easter Island, which hosted a simple civilisation which at its peak fed around 10,000 people, but which collapsed when the people focussed on making gigantic statues. the statues which were supposed what we would call ecological collapse. It didn’t work, and when Europeans made contact with easter Island, there were about 1,000 nearly-starving people and a couple of hundred statues left on a treeless, rapidly eroding hunk of rock. To counter the argument that Easter Island culture wasn’t really a civilisation and so cannot stand as a warning, Wright looks at the first city-based civilisation, Sumer, which did the same damage to its ecology as the Easer Islanders did. It just took them longer. The successors to Sumer pretty well all made the same mistakes: Assyria, Babylon, etc, exist only in clay tablets and stone statuary.
     Jared Diamond wrote a longer (and gloomier) meditation on the same themes as Wright (whose book began as a series of Ideas programs on CBC). Wright’s book is a much better read,  Diamond’s book provides more data. They both come to the same conclusion: “Civilisation” is humankind’s greatest and most dangerous invention. If we don’t learn from past experiments, we’ll destroy our civilisation, too. Because it’s a world-wide one, the collapse will entangle a larger swath of the ecosystems on which we depend, and which we persist in either ignoring, or see as an obstacle to further progress.
     Recommended. ****

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

L'Amour Tries Pulp Crime: The Hills of Homicide

      Louis L’Amour. The Hill of Homicide (1983) L’Amour’s authorised collection of detective stories, issued because an unauthorised edition of out-of-copyright stories was issued by another publisher. L’Amour was trying to protect his brand, but this collection doesn’t do much for it. The stories are workmanlike pulp, but that’s all. L’Amour acknowledges that his stories aren’t the same quality as those of the masters.
      Two things stand out: L’Amour likes to describe fist fights, “wicked rights” and all. The two most successful tales are about bent cops. Otherwise, it’s formula all the way, including sexy women that utter wise-crack come-ons to close off the stories. These stories are merely average.  I prefer L’Amour’s westerns. **

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Great Depression Memoir (Why Shoot the Teacher)

   Max Braithwaite. Why Shoot the Teacher (1965) Autobiography dressed up as fiction. The names have been altered, and probably some details too, to prevent too easy identification of the people whom Max met and worked for in his first job. He detrains at “Bleke”, Saskatchewan, and avoids frostbite on the ride to the school only by running behind the wagon from time to time. A foreshadowing of his mostly depressing experiences teaching in a one room school in the middle of the Great Depression.
    His teacherage consists of two rooms partitioned off in the school basement, populated by mice. There is no human company within sight after the children go home. Nor a tree. The farmers are barely able to feed themselves and their livestock, never mind a teacher, yet they manage to eke out some entertainment and pleasure at a dance and the Christmas pageant. At the end of the school year, Max decides to leave. He notes that never once did Lyle King, the school-board chair, call him by his name. Max doesn’t mention his name either.
    The book was made into a film, available on Youtube. It reconstructs the book into a story. Braithwaite’s book is a series of extended anecdotes and musings about his job, education, the economy, the society that surrounds him, and so on. It adds up to his experience of the Depression, and has the ring of truth. Braithwaite developed a reputation as a humourist, but there’s damn little humour in this book. The title has nothing to do with the book. But it’s worth reading all the same, especially if you want to get a feel for what it was like to live through the Depression on the Prairies. **½