What to Read, What to Watch, What to Listen to… early August

Somehow I always start this blog with…

What to Read…

I’m reading about Ethel Rosenberg. Whether or not she was a Russian spy, the American government murdered her. Some say she was merely a typist — she transcribed a message or two for her husband Julius who spied for (the former) USSR. I was recently struck by statements in a new biography about her. Author, Anne Sebba, noted that the judge in the case (also Jewish as were the Rosenbergs) noted how tough and how ideological Ethel was—that she was the “brains” behind her husband’s espionage efforts. This was no compliment. Still the authorities thought if they could break Ethel, by taking her away from her two young sons, after two years in “solitary” confinement she would pressure Julius to confess. It did not happen. Neither she nor Julius confessed to being spies, and they were sent to the electric chair at Sing Sing prison just outside of New York City in June 1953.

Clockwise, top: The Rosenbergs during their trial, 1951 (credit-AP); Sons in Michael, 10, and Robert, 6, reading in the newspaper that their parents had one more day before their execution (AP); Michael (left) and Robert Meeropol (foreground), the Rosenberg sons at the White House in Dec. 2016. They tried ato deliver a letter asking former President Obama to exonerate their mother, Ethel.(Credit-AP); 2 book covers.

So I was looking forward to reading The Vixen by the wonderful novelist and critic Francine Prose. Prose builds a thriller around character Simon Putnam, a new Harvard graduate. His major at university was medieval English. It is the summer of 1953, but as promising as his life sounds, Simon doesn’t get into grad school. He is at a loose end, living with his parents in the same crowded apartment in New York City where he grew up. Through a well-connected relative, he manages to get a job getting coffee and reading mostly dead-end manuscripts for a prestigious book publisher. His boss asked him to edit a bodice-ripper novel about Ethel Rosenberg who has just been executed. Simon realizes how incongruous the book is, and when he tries to discuss editorial changes with the author, the mystery deepens. Wealth, social class, disability – and the CIA –figure into the novel. Somehow it all works. You will be drawn in by the first two chapters – which are riveting, and somehow– poignant.

Why Isn’t More Clothing Made in Canada by Isabel Slone is another kind of who-dunnit. Chatelaine journalist Slone cites an article in Maclean’s in 1978 about Canadian fashion by none other than femme fatale Barbara Amiel. In it she writes,

“While fashion arbiters report rapturously from the French pret-a-porter showings… Canadian consumers turn instead to the burgundy pigskin unstructured blazers of Montreal’s Margaret Godfrey or the modified and narrowed (17-inch) trousers of Toronto’s Alfred Sung.”

Barbara Amiel, 1978, in MacLean’s

Slone’s article explains about the steep slide of de-investment in the Canadian textile industry by the capitalist class, the issue of competition for cheaper-made clothing made abroad, and the winnowing away of import taxes. It’s well worth a read here.

The new investigative and in-depth series in the Toronto Star, What Covid Reveals, here thestar.com/whatcovidreveals is fascinating. Filled with photos, graphs, charts and firsthand accounts, writer Stephanie Nolen weaves a shocking – but very real – tale about how women primarily have been adversely affected in the Pandemic. We all know about the “she-cession” a term coined by economist Armine Yalnizyan—who famously predicted,

“There will be no recovery without a she-covery, and no she-covery without childcare.”

Armine Yalnizyan, Canadian economist
What Covid Reveals: Toronto Star

Well, Nolen’s series takes off from there. I can’t tell you how important this series thestar.com/whatcovidreveals is, to read and to fully understand how our economy is built on the backs of low-wage, and yet essential workers. Often they are women, and immigrants. Here’s a snapshot about one woman who is undocumented — Diana V from Colombia:

“She had a job cleaning an office building, on the night crew. It paid less than minimum wage because the guy who runs the crew knew she is undocumented. But it was steady money. But what if she caught COVID? She would have nowhere to go for help: undocumented people have no access to health care.”

From Stephanie Nolen’s series What COVID Reveals.

As A Muslim, I Face Islamophobia. As An Immigrant, I’ve Failed Indigenous People here is a very thoughtful and sobering piece by journalist Fatima Syed . I highly recommend it. She starts off with explaining she was at the memorial for the four members of the Muslim family, who were run down by a white man driver, in early June, in London, Ont. She saw a bright blue flag with the infinity symbol. She had no idea it was the Métis flag. Syed explains her situation – racialised and often vilified as a Muslim woman and her lack of understanding of the treatment of Canada’s first nations’ peoples. She says they have a similar struggle which has to be fought together. Excellent.

Now for something definitely American, you can read Kyle Rittenhouse, American Vigilante: After he killed two people in Kenosha, [Wisconsin] opportunists turned his case into a polarizing spectacle. . The long article in the New Yorker here, reveals why and how a 17-year-old white man took an assault rifle to a protest. The protest was against the police who had recently shot a black unarmed van driver. Rittenhouse shot and killed two unarmed protesters—one who carried a skateboard. Rittenhouse’s lawyers insist it was self-defense.

For a connected story even more terrifying than the one about Rittenhouse, you can read the July 14 New York Times article Can the Black Rifle Coffee Company Become the Starbucks of the Right?
The company doubled its sales last year by leaning into America’s culture war. It’s also trying to distance itself from some of its new customers. Read it here.

Turns out the ultra right-wing “Cracker” shooters can be very useful to business. After all the owners are big Trump supporters.

credit: Black Rifle Coffee Co.

What to Watch…

The best thing I’ve seen on Netflix for a long time is a documentary called Heist. These three vignettes show criminals who steal millions right in front of the eyes of armed security. And sometimes they get away with it! All told in the first person by the culprits themselves (or in one case an actor standing in), this is not at all a series about how great the cops are. The cops act merely as a clean-up crew.

It’s fascinating to watch the first in the series. It features a 21-year-old woman, a nursing assistant, who hooks up with a seasoned criminal in Las Vegas. She is an accomplice to a very intricate and well-executed plan to rob a Loomis warehouse of millions of dollars destined for stocking the city’s casinos. Not a shot was fired. Her boyfriend, who was a famous and published poet in Sing Sing for more than 20 years, remains a cipher to the viewers. All the vignettes are films are in documentary format — eyewitness accounts by the robbers themselves. Here’s the trailer.

On CBC-Gem I watched Joanna Lumley’s Japan. Lumley is a famous British model and actor. Now, at nearly 75 years of age, she travels from the northern tip of Japan to the southernmost end of the country—more than 2,000 km. She introduces us to school children in Kagoshima who have to wear helmets to and from school because of an active volcano, Sakurajima. Streets are filled with ash, and falling rocks and stones can be hazardous.
As one resident points out,

“… you get used to it and suddenly you’re like, ‘Hmm, another eruption.’ ‘Oh look, more ash to deal with.’ “

Japan is a wonderful and rich travelogue in half a dozen episodes. I highly recommend it. Here’s the trailer

I’d give a miss to French Exit on Amazon Prime. Michelle Pfeiffer chews up the scenery, and is rather delightful, but the film is thin and wearing. I have a feeling the novel of the same name by Canadian writer Patrick DeWitt is a whole lot better than the film. Still –if you have nothing much on tonite, it’s worth $4.99. A gorgeous New York widow finds herself impecunious after her husband’s sudden death. She and her adult son decide to move to Paris, to ride out the last of their money in the City of Light . The key to the film is the family’s cat, which they bring along to Paris. Here is the trailer.

The Goldfinch is worth watching. It’s on Netflix. The book of the same name by Donna Tartt was spellbinding. The film is quite true to the book, however the acting by the lead actor who plays Theo Decker is rather wooden. Still Boris, his Russian friend is well played, as is Theo’s foster dad Hobie.

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius 1632. It’s in The Hague, Netherlands.

A bombing in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, kills Theo’s mother and an older man – an antiques collector –who becomes important in the plot. Theo, who is just 13, manages to walk away. He goes to live with his estranged dad and stepmother in a suburb of Las Vegas, but the real action of the book takes place a decade later in New York City, and in Amsterdam. The Goldfinch is 2.5 hours long, so I watched it in two sessions. Still it’s rather good. Here is the trailer. I think how lucky I was to have read the book first. It’s a marvel.

Kate and Koji- a comedy series

Thanks to my friend Suzanne, I tuned in to Kate and Koji a situation-comedy series on Britbox. In a down-at-the-heels seaside town in southern England, Kate aged about 60 runs an old-fashioned café. The café fare features tea, with a bag in the mug, eggs and toast. Every day a black man, Koji, sits alone at a table sipping a tea and never ordering a meal. We find out Koji, a medical doctor in Nigeria, is an illegal immigrant who is trying to scrape by. The series is cute. Sometimes its caustic humour and racial acuity hits Britain and the British below the belt. One annoyance is the laugh track. There are two seasons to Kate and Koji, worth watching at least one season. Here is the trailer.

Seberg on Kanopy isn’t bad but it’s no comedy. Turns out Jean Seberg, the famous actor of the late 50s, 60s and 70s, was a huge financial and celebrity supporter of the Black Panthers, and other anti-racist causes. Born in the US midwest, Seberg lived and worked in Paris as well as America. In the film, I’m not sure I like the portrayal of the “good guy” in the FBI. Like all US films, a single cop has a conscience and a heart of gold – though the rest of the force is little more than bumbling idiots or trained killers. The “good cop” in Seberg is more than a bit over-the-top. In real life, Seberg’s cause of death at age 40 was undetermined, but a suspected suicide. Her ex-husband, Romain Gary, a well-known French writer and editor 20 years her senior with whom she had a son, committed suicide a year after Seberg died. He was a mystery too – despite his prize winning novels, and his more than 30 volumes of essays. Many said he was a liar and fabricated his life and accomplishments. Here is the trailer.

Seberg and one of her ex-husbands, Romain Gary, in undated photo (Credit: Alamy)

What to Listen to…

There are two short, engaging and to-the-point podcasts – one courtesy of The Big Story. It features an interview with Leilani Farha, a Canadian lawyer who was the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing from 2014 to 2020. Today Farha is Global Director of The Shift, an organization that is working to end homelessness, end unaffordable housing and putting a halt to evictions globally. She explains what is happening in the evictions and arrests in the three parks in Toronto where homeless people have tried to set up encampments. In the interview she evaluates the violent reactions of the police, and the “pass the buck” attitude of other city officials. Well worth listening to here

Clockwise: Police arrest person in Alexandra Park, Toronto (credit-CTV News Toronto); Police entering homeless encampment in Toronto (Credit- Reuters.com); Leilani Farha (credit- Twitter); Person who has been pepper sprayed, and people’s belongings piled up after police bulldoze a Toronto encampment in a Toronto park (credit- CP24.com)

The second recommended podcast is on The Conversation here: Called The Four-Day Work Week – Has its Moment Arrived? it is excellent. The host interviews Jana Javornik, associate professor of work and employment relations at the University of Leeds in the UK. Her research in Scandinavia and elsewhere shows that women are the ones who face less work, and lower pay as a result of the push for a four-day week. She also explains how we must address a “a non-stop work culture” before there can be any serious and lasting reduction in working hours. Fascinating.

The Intercept, a left-wing investigative news site, has a several-part podcast series titled American Isis.
US Journalism professor and writer, Trevor Aaronson speaks with Russell Dennison, a white, Catholic man originally from Pennsylvania, who went to Syria to join and fight for Isis. In fact, he died fighting there. It is an eery series because of course Dennison, the key informant, is no longer alive. Though Aaronson never met him, they did talk on the phone over a six month period and Aaronson agreed not to name him, or tell his story until his death was confirmed. Listen to at least the first episode here.

Slide show: Pacific, painting by Alex Colville (Canadian) 1967; photo of Russell Dennison in ISIS in Syria, on right; Sophie Harkat and husband Mohamed Harkat (Globe&Mail); The Diab family in Ottawa (Ottawa Citizen); book cover for The Terror Factory by Aaronson.

I also highly recommend Trevor Aaronson’s book, The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism (2013). He details some of the hundreds of arrests and even killings of Muslims in the US as revenge for 9/11. We in Canada have many examples of newer Canadians (who are Muslim) who were jailed in this country for years in the wake of 9/11 under the new Anti-Terrorism Act. For example, Mohamed Harkat of Ottawa remains under house arrest –19 years after being charged. None of his crimes have ever been divulged, not even to his lawyers. He is considered a major security threat and Canadian government after government has refused to set him free. From what I know, he was a pizza deliveryman for the first couple of years after immigrating to Canada. He was involved in nothing clandestine or is he a security risk. To read more about him look at this.

Finally, the Guardian Long Read: I am a woman who wants, on disability and desire here
is a must. We seldom see the disabled as they are – whole people with wants, needs, sexual interests and deeply human requirements. This 23-minute podcast is clever, gut-wrenching and quite unique. By the way, I listened twice to this podcast.

The Liberal government of Nova Scotia has done little to help the lives of the disabled. The government continues (at this writing) to deny them the opportunity to live in a group home setting – as they do for the intellectually disabled. The institutionalization of the disabled is legendary in Nova Scotia. As we know, NS Human Rights board of enquiry’s decision about residents of Emerald Hall (2019) said that the provincial government had discriminated against three intellectually disabled adults who were locked in the Emerald Hall wing at Nova Scotia Hospital for decades. They had not been allowed to live in the community—though that is what they had asked for over many years. The decision ordered the government to house the two survivors (one has died) in a small options home and awarded each a paltry sum. Read about it here. But the decision does not address the fact that in NS today, scores of physically disabled people under 40 years of age are forced to live in long term care institutions– which provide little more than warehousing for the disabled and the elderly as well. What a travesty. Think about that when you cast your ballot in the NS election.

Clockwise: Beth MacLean, who lived 15 years on the psychiatric ward of NS Hospital (credit- CBC.ca); Barb Horner of the Disability Rights Coalition of Nova Scotia, Jen Powley (in middle) of No More Warehousing and her carer, John Whittingdon at a media conference about the Emerald Hall decision (credit-Herald file photo); and a view of imposing Nova Scotia Hospital, on the Dartmouth waterfront (credit- Halifax Examiner)

For a great novel about a woman’s experience in psychiatric care and at the NS Hospital, read An Audience of Chairs (2005) by Joan Clark. It’s excellent, Clark is a celebrated Canadian author.

Joan Clark writing (credit: Toronto Sun); book cover for a great novel

Featured Image: Today’s Life and War, Untitled #5, 2008. Photograph by Gohan Dashti an Iranian artist from a show at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC.

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