What to Read, What to Watch and What to Listen to…

I read an interesting backgrounder on the writer Ayad Akhtar, who lives in New York City. He’s a playwright, a filmmaker, a poet and a novelist. I just read his first novel, American Dervish, and it is excellent. It’s excellent once you ignore the book’s soppy first 10 pages and its last plodding 10 pages. The 320 pages in between are first rate.

What to Read…

American Dervish is told by an 11 year old Muslim boy, Hayat Shah, who grows up in Milwaukee, Wisc. in the late 1980s. His dad, Naveed, is a neurosurgeon and his mother, Muneer, is a homemaker. The parents emigrated from Pakistan before Hayat (an only child) was born. Shah’s parents are modern and open-minded. Naveed is sharply critical of Islam and all dogma. The parents rarely set foot in the Mosque.

The Shahs’ lives change radically when Muneer invites Mina, a family friend who has fallen on hard times in Pakistan, to come to the US and live with them. Mina, who is divorced, brings her four-year-old son.

‘Suddenly, Hayat is exposed to the Quran, as Mina tutors him about Islam, and lessons about life. . Their relationship deepens, as Hayat relies on her knowledge, her faith and her trust. He tries to be a good brother to Mina’s little son, Imran. But life changes quickly – as Mina encourages Hayat’s dedication to and study of the Quran. Hayat’s newfound zealotry and dislike of non-Muslims present a serious problem to his parents. Hayat becomes disgusted by Jews, including Dr Wolfsohn, his father’s best friend and medical research partner.

The book is a bit of a love story, a bit of a thriller and an uncomfortable look at family life of some American Muslims –in the lead up to 9-11.

American Dervish reminds me of Ambivalence, Crossing the Israel/Palestine Divide by Jewish Canadian writer Jonathan Garfinkel. In his painful autobiography, which reads like a novel, Garfinkel recalls his education – at a Toronto Hebrew day school – which fostered intolerance toward non-Jews. He writes his teacher sometimes talked about the Nazis in the same breath as the Palestinians! The Palestinians weren’t involved in WWII at all. In a way, Ambivalence is the mirror image of American Dervish

Both books are worth reading – but having just finished American Dervish, I’d recommend rushing right out to read it. It’s a delight in many ways. Both books are in Halifax Public Library.

There are two lively and ironic short stories in the New Yorker you can read or listen to – as they are read aloud by the author. Since Christmas is barely in the rear view mirror, I recommend The Christmas Miracle by Rebecca Curtis. A family Christmas in a wealthy home in Revelstoke BC, becomes a minefield. One sister’s fixation on having a perfect Christmas holiday melts away when her toxic mother, child-abuser uncle, and druggy sister play their immutable roles. The story is funny, endearing and just what’s needed as an antidote to the post-Christmas slump.

Curtis’s other short story, Hansa and Gretyl and Piece of Shit is brilliant. Again it’s a family drama that features three sisters, an introverted mother and a less than observant father. This story is dramatic, scary though ultimately quite funny. All’s well that does not end well! I narrowly prefer Hansa and Gretyl to The Christmas Miracle.

From a Canadian viewpoint, you could read Harry Glasbeek’s essay “Sick and Tired of Virus Banalities in the online Socialist Bullet here. Glasbeek is a retired York University labour law professor who lives half the year in Toronto, and half the year in Australia. He thinks the following “soothing” motherhood phrases distort the Covid reality and are used to “legitimate… pain and suffering”.

“I am sick and tired of these solemnly, portentously uttered banalities. I do not want to hear any of the following again: are following the science.

“We have to open-up the economy.

“We are all in this together.”

As Glasbeek and others point out, “We’re not in this together. Not even close.”

The Jan-Feb 2021 issue of The Walrus features a good article called “The New Lobster Wars: Inside the decades-long East Coast battle between fishers and the federal government over Mi’kmaw treaty rights by Zoe Heaps Tennant. It gives a clear look at the fishery – and the feds’ Fisheries and Oceans department discriminating against Indigenous fishers despite the decision in the Donald Marshall Jr case 20 plus years ago.

This issue of The Walrus has other interesting articles. Two women physicians, Nadine Caron and Danielle Martin, published “The Myth of Universal Health Care” which assesses how some of the health care we need – is often only available privately. The doctors reveal that our government is spending less than most of our comparator countries on health care. They pen a harsh indictment of long term care in Canada – as Covid has revealed.

“While 70% of our health care spending is public in Canada, that number is 82% in the Netherlands, 77% in in the UK and 79% in New Zealand. Each of those countries’ universal health care systems includes both coverage of prescription medications, … and some degree of mental health care. …We also have less public coverage of home care, dental care and non-physician care outside hospitals…

p. 53, in The Walrus– The Myth of Universal Health Care

Finally in The Walrus, read Max Fawcett’s story “How to Save the Middle Class”. It’s a sobering look at why most Canadians have been caught in the home purchase quicksand that sucks them into the painful realities of being unable to afford child care, save for their kids’ university education, and have trouble even paying the bills. His solutions may surprise you.

What to Watch…

Kanopy has short films (under 10 minutes) which are a real treat. There’s a trio called Modern Romance which features Best Man, Screen Shot and The Red Thunder – all of which are delightful.

More short films on Kanopy– free with your public library card

These two short films are are 20 minutes long – but are deeper and don’t soon leave you. Salam, is about a woman taxi driver in New York who happens to be Muslim. She picks up a ‘party girl’ after a night on the town; here is the trailer. The Phone Call is a 2015 Oscar-nominated short film award winner about a young woman volunteer who answers the phone at a Samaritans’ hotline in the UK. Here’s the trailer with commentary. The Crush is a 15-minute Irish film about an 8-year-old boy, Ardal, who falls in love with his teacher, Miss Purdy. When the teacher and her boyfriend make plans to marry – Ardal reacts impulsively, and even sinisterly. Watch The Crush here.

Ethos: a thoughtful miniseries from Turkey

There is an excellent Turkish series called Ethos on Netflix. The acting is great, and the series takes an emotional toll on the watcher – and that I found unusual yet compelling. The story focuses on a more traditional, covered Muslim woman who wears a Hijab and lives in a rural suburb of Istanbul, and a westernized woman psychiatrist at a downtown hospital. The first woman, who lives with her abusive brother and his needy wife and children, suffers fainting spells and is referred to the psychiatrist. Their relationship — at first friendly — becomes fraught through no fault of the patient. The psychiatrist and her friends – her own therapist and a new acquaintance who is a glamorous TV actress add to the contradictions between women in the “old” and the “new” Istanbul. Each episode is well done, earnest and surprising. Here’s the trailer — with dubbing, but I prefer to watch with English subtitles. Below are stills from the series.

My son Omri recommended I watch the new Borat film. So I did and wasn’t entirely disappointed. About half of Borat was funny, a quarter was pathetic and the rest well – it was classic Borat. The best part of the film was Borat’s on-screen daughter Tutar. Tutar is played by Maria Bakalova, a young Bulgarian actor who was brilliant and far outdoes the star, Sacha Baron Cohen. The storyline is that Borat has to go on some secret mission dictated by some corrupt and violent Kazakh leader. Borat and Tutar are thrown together (driving a trailer and carrying a cage) in the South of the US. Watch for the wonderful exchange in a cake shop; the crazy counselling session in the anti-abortion clinic, and the time Borat accompanies Tutar to a Debutantes’ ball. I also liked the scene when Borat, who finds himself alone on the empty streets of a small town due to Covid, asks the one person he does see if he can stay at the Texan’s home. Once there, Borat asks “What’s more dangerous, the virus or the Democrats?” The reply was, “The Democrats.”

The series “Room 2896: The Accusation” is fascinating and it’s on Netflix. It is the story about DSK – Dominique Strauss-Kahn – a French economics professor, a former cabinet minister from the Socialist Party, and the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Until the charges against him in New York, he was all but a shoe-in to be the next President of France. In 2011, DSK was charged with the rape and sexual assault of a New York hotel maid.

Below, left: DSK second from right, with G-men after arrest in NYC. Right: Nafissatou Diallo, at a media conference. She is the chambermaid whom DSK sexually assaulted.

The short series documents the lengths DSK, his lawyers and his political protectors (including his then-wife) went to cover up what happened and to try to destroy the maid’s life, her family and her job. This is a fascinating story about raw power, social class and whiteness.

Finally, Manhunt: Unabomber the series is mesmerizing. It took the FBI more than 15 years to find the former university mathematics professor who planted dozens of bombs, which maimed and killed a random assortment of people across the US. Lately I’ve seen a lot of series with depressed or dispirited FBI agents and other cops. But this is different. It feels like a psychological thriller, but it is a dramatization of what happened in the years 1995-97 to find the Unabomber, and eventually convict him. One of the FBI profilers, James Fitzgerald, was a mainstay of the operation, according to the miniseries – but apparently not in reality. His website is full of self-congratulations and self-importance because he supposedly pioneered the use of forensic linguistics to trap Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. Now years retired from the FBI, Fitzgerald hawks private services and a 5.5 hour course for police and others who want to do detective work with forensic linguistics. The course is given online through the California University of Pennsylvania, a public university which boasts the second cheapest tuition fees ($7700 US) in Pennsylvania.

from Fitzgerald’s own site

You have to take the series with a grain of salt – since Ted Kaczynski also deserves some of your sympathy. Watching each episode is unsettling and pose questions about the role humiliation, rejection and loneliness play in some men’s lives. A word of advice: don’t watch it right before bed.

What to Listen to…

For satire and pure humour, you want to listen to Jesse Brown’s podcast — Canadaland, Episode 352. He asks people to call in just for the pleasure of arguing with him. The CBC’s own Piya Chattopadhyay phones in to quarrel with Jesse about the talents of singer Billy Joel. Jesse can’t stand him – but Piya says it was one of only three albums owned by her parents when she was growing up in Saskatoon, So she listened to it time after time. Jesse also gets into an argument — which he loses — about how to say the word Quebec. This episode is a delight!! Listen here.

I also heard the Wondery series called the Chicago 7. The trial — which at the start was called the Chicago 8, was a trial of radical leftists who disrupted the 1968 US Democratic party convention in Chicago with an anti-Vietnam war “carnival”. Dubbed the Trial of the Century, defendants included Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman and six others. The podcast is well done, and the sharp and hard-hitting defendants’ voices along with the speeches by their acerbic lawyers bounce off Judge Hoffman who from the start ignored the evidence and pushed the jury for convictions. I’ve seen that Netflix has a video series by the same name, but I prefer to listen to it. Turns out the evidence against the defendants was threadbare to non-existent, so all the convictions were overturned on appeal. But what happened to Bobby Seale, the eighth defendant and the only one who was black, shows the hypocrisy of the US judicial system and is the stuff of nightmares. Get Wondery for free on Spotify, or Apple or listen here.

Below: Posters from the Trial, and (right) photo of Bobby Seale (credit Wikipedia).

Featured Image above: The Chicago 7: from left– lawyer Leonard Weinglass, Rennie Davis, Abbie Hoffman, Lee Weiner, David Dillinger, John Froines, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, and lawyer William Kunstler. Photo credit: David Fenton/Getty Images.

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