What to Read, What to Watch, What to Listen to — for the first week of May ’22


In Harsh Times (2021), Nobel prize winning author Mario Garcia Llosa has written the little-known history of the CIA-backed overthrows of legitimate governments (and sometimes not so legitimate) in Central American countries – notably in Guatemala and the Dominican Republic.  Llosa’s novel spans 1950 to the late 60s.  It is a riveting story and clearly based on interviews, historical documents and eye-witness accounts of real people—mainly fascists, but also left-leaning liberals. 

The Communist Party, known as the Guatemalan Labor Party, was a junior partner in the moderate Jacobo Arbenz government of the mid 1950s.  Arbenz’s presidency was shortlived. A coup d’etat in 1954 ousted and replaced him by a fascist ruler backed by the corrupt Catholic archbishop and thanks to the CIA.  Arbenz presented a threat because, working with the peasants and their associations, he had initiated land reforms which directly threatened the pre-eminence and the profits of the biggest US corporation in the region, United Fruit – locally called “La Fruta”.   The US sent their ambassador who was little more than a thug wrapped in a US flag, John Peurifoy, to ensure the overthrow of Arbenz and his cronies. 

After the toppling of Arbenz, a new organization came to the fore:  the National Committee of Defense Against Communism, led by Arbenz’ successor Carlos Castillo Armas, a vicious military man (weren’t they all?).  The novel follows the lives of three fervent supporters of Armas.  One, nicknamed Miss Guatemala (though she never earned the crown) was his lover.  Another was Armas’ head of security and policing.  The third was a colonel who initially pretended to be Arbenz’ friend while being a better friend to the CIA. Ultimately, Armas was assassinated by yet another military strongman.

Armas’ three supporters flee to the Dominican Republic where the security advisor tries to ply his trade to that country’s fascist president, “El Jefe”, Rafael Trujillo.  The reader learns that at that time – the 50s and 60s – except for Mexico– there was no safe place in Latin America for the three to hide.  Despite the fact that almost every country in the region was ruled by a pro-fascist government, these three Guatemalans would not be trusted.

Mario Garcia Llosa, Nobel Laureate, 2010

The first and the last several chapters are the best. They set the mood of terror, the ambience of the times.  Trujillo was also assassinated as were many other military leaders turned politicians.  Nicaragua’s dictator and hitman, Anastasio Somoza, makes a cameo appearance as a total puppet of the US. He too was assassinated – in Paraguay in 1980.  On the upside – for all his rabid and abiding efforts to weed out, jail and kill Communists and their sympathisers in Guatemala, US ambassador Peurifoy was rewarded in his next diplomatic posting with what he anticipated would be a more peaceable country – Thailand.  But, as luck would have it, the Communists found him there and murdered him and his son in a car crash that was no accident. 

Clockwise: Book cover; photo of Mackenzie Fierceton (credit New York Post); Guatemala National Palace (credit Cityseeker.com); photo of University of Pennsylvania where Fierceton was denied her MSW degree (upenn.edu).

Mackenzie Morrison was not a typical victim of physical and sexual abuse when she was a teen.  She grew up with what most thought was a loving mother, Carrie Morrison a single parent who was a top cancer doctor in St Louis. Mackenzie suffered from beatings, being kicked down the stairs, and worse at the hands of her mother, when she was a teenager at a posh private school.  When Mackenzie tried to tell her teachers they either didn’t believe her, or Dr Morrison raised so much hell that the school, social workers and even the courts backed away.  In this fascinating article How an Ivy League School Turned Against a Student by Rachel Aviv in The New Yorker, we also find out what the Ivy League universities are all about – gatekeeping, protecting their revenue streams, their reputations, and keeping dirty laundry out of the news.  Mackenzie ran away from home in her last year of high school, and had to lived in foster homes. But when she tried to access funding or scholarships for university– word got back to her mother who had very powerful allies.  Her mother sought to punish her daughter and force her back home. The events as they unfolded were almost unbelievable. However, Mackenzie had nowhere safe to go, no home, no income, and even had trouble getting welfare.  In fact, she was prohibited from graduating with her MSW (Master of Social Work) degree at the University of Pennsylvania unless she wrote and presented an apology to her university’s administration – confessing that she lied, was not sole-supporting, had betrayed the terms of her scholarship and more.  Mackenzie (who changed her surname to Fierceton) finally won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford – and then there was a higher wall to jump.  This is a must read for anyone who went to university, or teaches at one!  Read it here.

In time for May Day…

Ashlynn Chand has published a fascinating account How Amazon Beat the Union in Alberta in Jacobin magazine.  Chand, who is a young university graduate, went to work  at Amazon in part because she needed a decent-paying job and in part because she wanted to help form a union in this huge warehouse in Nisku, just outside of Edmonton.  So much has been written recently about the impressive union victory at Amazon in Staten Island that this article stands in sharp relief.  While the Staten Island union was independent, home-grown and catered to the workers at that particular location, the Alberta Amazon warehouse was organized by one of the US’s biggest unions – the Teamsters. 

For the uninitiated, let me explain that more than 1/3 of the trade unions in Canada are US-based.  These American unions funnel basically all Canadian members’ dues to their union headquarters south of the border, though a percentage comes back to Canada to “service” the Canadian local unions.  For instance the Teamsters, the Steelworkers (USW), the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and virtually every union in the building trades – are all US unions.   As an industrial relations specialist, I can tell you more – anytime.  But suffice it to say that, according to Chand in Jacobin, the Teamsters’ way of organizing demonstrated a laziness, a disregard of the situation on the ground and frankly not much will to win.  And lose the union did. 

The Teamsters were not alone. In Bessemer Alabama, the RWDSU (affiliated to the UFCW) also tried to organize an Amazon warehouse – and whether it was the union’s ineptitude, or their using old and tired ways of organizing – the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU, based in Massachusetts) also lost that battle.  Amazon won. Due to the company’s anti-union tactics, a new vote has been ordered by the National Labor Relations Board. In the next weeks, there is a chance the union will win.

This is a fascinating article and well worth reading—what made the drive at Staten Island different, you can read about it .  For Chand’s article about Nisku, Alberta, read it here.

More on Workers…

Still on the subject of workers,What Happens when you tell the Truth?” Construction Workers Confront the Industry’s Opioid Epidemic, is a fascinating article by Megan Kinch in Canada’s Our Times here

Kinch who has worked on construction sites, interviewed workers about the dangers and pain of the work. 

She notes:

The work was hard and dangerous — the new guy fell off the side of the building, saved only by his safety harness and lanyard. They were fast, though. Fast is good: fast means you won’t get laid off and replaced. Fast means money.

The demands on the job are so high that workers have to get high to do their jobs. And that’s when the dangers kick in.  Drugs are rife on-site, such that even the bosses offer Percocet among other drugs, just to help some workers keep on working through their pain. 

“…I’m off with Vitamin P [Percoset] that gets me through the day. There are guys taking six a day and are functioning. You might get offered one by the boss, but they aren’t a doctor. They say this will help through the day, or take a half of these. But there is zero tolerance for intoxication at work: [the dose] is either matching their pain or matching their level of addiction.”

Vince, a non-union construction worker

What to Watch

Aditi Mittal is a very funny comedienne from India.  You can watch six minutes of her monologue here.  There are no mother or no mother-in-law put-downs, no “stupid”jokes – no double entendres.  She is political, she is sassy and she is very much alive. 

Some readers tell me they don’t subscribe to any paid platforms such as Netflix, or Britbox, or Crave.  I recommend the Library’s Kanopy platform. It’s brilliant and always free.  The 2015 German film, We Monsters, is definitely worth watching.  In a finely crafted thriller, a 14-year-old girl admits she pushed her best friend to her death –on a dare.  The “killer’s” father swears her to secrecy, but he enlists the help of her mother, his divorced wife.  What happens is oddly believable, and yet very troubling.  The script is tight – the teenaged girl is portrayed unsympathetically as manipulative and selfish.  So we reach for what we hope will be a reassuring dose of reality from the girl’s parents.   Here’s the trailer.

Children, the best actors in Scarborough (Variety.com); NATO’s Secret Armies watch Operation Gladio; scene from We Monsters; scene from I’m Fine; from Anatomy of a Scandal; show poster for 7 Reasons to Run Away.

More films on Kanopy…

I also enjoyed the 2019 Spanish film Seven Ways to Run Away (From Society) on Kanopy.  It’s brilliant and witty.  There are seven different vignettes about impossible situations which have to be resolved. And the result is black comedy with eye-popping events. Here’s the trailer

In I’m Fine (Thank You for Asking), a young Black woman and her 8-year-old daughter live in a tent on the side of a road in an outer suburb of Los Angeles.  It’s 2021 at the height of the Covid pandemic; the mother is homeless, and desperate to earn enough money to pay for a deposit on an apartment.  She relies on a babysitter – to whom she owes money – as her day is spent travelling to find a job, pawn her last valuables, do a hairdressing gig for an old friend (who doesn’t pay her), and beg for favours. She just needs $200.00—but it might as well be $2,000.  She has no car, so she uses roller blades to get around town – and those scenes are fantastic scenes to watch.  I highly recommend I’m Fine (Thank You for Asking) — here’s the trailer.

“Scathingly funny, a smart sophisticated comedy”

NY Times about In the Loop

In the Loop is a clever, political British satire that you should not miss. A useless and easily manipulated cabinet minister inadvertently sets a war on the agenda – and the Americans fall into line.  The New York Times called it a “scathingly funny, a smart sophisticated comedy,” when it was released in 2009.  It’s a delight—on Kanopy.  Here’s the trailer.

Anatomy of a Scandal is a new 6-part series on Netflix. Here’s the trailer.  A Tory government is in power in the UK (no surprise there), and a youthful cabinet minister, who happens to be best friends with the PM from their Oxford days, has an affair with one of his aides.  The acting is fresh, and there is a light touch in the script and the performances.  By itself, this seems to be the old issue of power, entitlement, rich white men and up-and-coming women.  But the plot takes a twist, but you will have to decide  how credible the twist is.

On my Air Canada flight to Vancouver, I watched Scarborough the new Canadian feature film.  It won three Canadian Screen Awards in April.  Here’s the trailer. The film is based on the book by Catherine Hernandez, who also wrote the screenplay. Despite the good acting and the compelling story, somehow the movie sagged in the middle. Maybe it was a tad too long. Or maybe I wanted the depth of spirit I found in the novel.  The child actors were brilliant and the film is a valiant try.  

I have to say, a better book about the impoverished life of some immigrants and some people of colour in Scarborough (portrayed as a gritty Toronto suburb) is the 2018 novel Brother, by David Chariandy.  I’d read that first. The writing and the characters shimmer and dart, but they do not insist on a happy ending.

Operation Gladio:  The Ring Masters is getting a lot of play right now.  The hour-long documentary from the BBC was made in 1992 (correct: 30 years ago). It’s come to my attention because of the recent emphasis on NATO – of course the main reason the Russians invaded Ukraine – ostensibly because the Russians don’t want the country on their door-step joining NATO.   Operation Gladio was a secret NATO-CIA mission that lasted for decades after World War II.  Its goal was to situate the right, and usually the extreme right (including fascists) to take power or at least hold the balance of power in important European countries.  The episode I watched on Youtube here  zeroed in on the fascist right in Italy, as the left was gaining power in the 60s and onward. Worth watching. 

What to Listen to

A Couple Walks into a House:  This two-part series on the This American Life podcast is very special.  An African-American man, Rob Mathis and his wife Reyna, who is Mexican-American, are house-hunting in their home town Muskegon, Michigan.  Though their children are almost grown, the couple are looking for a bigger home sitting on a few acres so that their married kids can settle nearby and build their own homes.  Their realtor takes them to one house that seems perfect.  Except when they enter the dining room, they notice racist memorabilia from the Civil War, Confederate flags hanging up and contemporary photographs of a man in police uniform.  The realtor apologizes to the couple and verifies that the owner is a long-time Muskegon cop.  The couple are not sure what to do.  Do they inform on him and his dubious character (which could inform his policing), or do they keep silent? They do the former and the program examines the fallout from their (what turns out to be a very brave) decision.  This is a brilliant program – well done, shocking to the core.  There’s a review of it in the UK magazine, New Statesman here.  But I recommend you listen for yourself.  Here. It’s what a podcast at the intersection of social justice, police, and race looks like.  Listen here.

Focus on racism in Manitoba

Canadian True Crime is an excellent podcast created and hosted by an ex-Australian who now lives in Toronto, Kristi Lee.  The three-part series The Murder of Helen Betty Osborne is well worth listening to.  Osborne was murdered in The Pas, Manitoba in 1971.  The Pas is 625 km northwest of Winnipeg. Three of the killers were privileged white young men, the fourth was an Indigenous man who hung around with them.  Osborne travelled 430 km from Norway House Cree Nation to The Pas to board with a white family so she could finish high school.  Her goal was to become a teacher and return to Norway House.  From the start the police were less than interested in investigating her brutal murder.  Her parents – from a distance—and her boyfriend tried their best, but this was 1971.  To tell you that only one of the men was ever charged won’t surprise you – but the fact that he was charged and tried in 1987 – 16 years after the crime – might. The 1988 Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, led by Justice Murray Sinclair, was a public response to the Osborne murder and Winnipeg’s police killing of Indigenous leader JJ Harper in 1988.  I was Osborne’s age, and I was living a safe white person’s life in downtown Toronto, newly married with a whole future life ahead of me. I read about her murder in the papers at the time… today I listened to the podcast which was more analytical and more devastating. Listen here

Clockwise: Image for podcast Wrongful Conviction; old statue welcomes us to The Pas, MB; illustration for A Couples Walks into a House on This American Life (credit Reddit.com); Jj Harper, Indigenous leader in Winnipeg; photo of Helen Betty Osborne (credit Medium.com); photo of Allan Woodhouse of Winnipeg (credit Winnipegfreepress)

Wrongful Conviction #252 features Allan Woodhouse, one of four Indigenous men who were wrongly accused of murdering a cook outside a Chinese restaurant in Winnipeg in 1973. A witness, who—without her glasses and from several storeys up – saw silhouettes of four or five people with long hair.  Didn’t all men have long hair in the 70s? Eventually the police dragged in four men, including Woodhouse and forced all four to confess to a crime they never committed.  First none of the men could read the English “confessions” they signed, all three confessions were exactly the same, and there was no physical evidence to link any of them to the crime. All had solid alibis. Still the all-white jury convicted them and each served many years behind bars.  This is an excellent episode – if only because it shows the Canadian police hijacking of the law to suit their purposes and the hardship Indigenous people face every day.  Here it is

Featured image: Water, the Source of Life by Diego Rivera (Mexican 1886-1957). In this photo taken in 2017, shows a little known mural by Diego Rivera from 1951. It was inside a monument to Mexico City’s water system called the Carcamo de Dolores. Originally it was painted to be seen underwater, but the pool was drained when it was clear that the work would be ruined. The mural is located in Chapultepec, Mexico City. (AP Photo/Anita Snow).

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