What to Read, What to Watch and What to Listen to in the dog days of summer 2022

What to read…

He had a personal library of 4,500 books, likely the largest personal library in Saskatchewan.  He was a leader of the Métis Society, and fought for independence and dignity for the Métis people.  He was against accepting government handouts which were endemic to First Nations.  He fought in World War II.  He was an active member of Canada’s Communist Party.  Jim Brady would today be 114 – but he lived only to age 59.  Still, he is a legend. 

An avid woodsman and experienced prospector, Brady along with his friend and fellow Communist Absolom Halkett, a leader of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, disappeared in 1967.  They were prospecting for uranium near Foster Lake about two hundred kilometres north from La Ronge, Sk. where they both lived.  For years the RCMP insisted they died accidentally – but their bodies were never found.  An inquest in 1969 confirmed their deaths, but ignored evidence of possible murder.  Cold Case North: The Search for James Brady and Absolom Halkett is a fascinating investigation into their disappearance, and political plus financial reasons some would have wanted them dead.  This is an excellent “true crime” book by Australian Michael Nest who now makes his home in Montreal, plus university professor Deanna Reder who is Indigenous with roots in La Ronge, and Cree social activist Eric Bell, who also lives in La Ronge. 

From left, clockwise: first search party for Middle Foster Lake in 2018. From Left: Michael Nest, Deanna Reder, Eric Bell, Thompson Mckenzie and Stanley Roberts. Mckenzie and Robertson from Grandmother’s Bay Indian Reserve operated their community’s sonar equipment to search the lake bottom. (credit Deanna Reder); Absolom Halkett is closest to the camera in this 1966 photo from a tree planting ceremony at the hospital in La Ronge (courtesy of Don Neely); photo of Jim Brady in uniform during WWII (Saskculture.ca); painting by artist Donna Langhorne, of Air Ronge.

It’s a captivating read because the book reveals there was a large Communist Party (CP) chapter in La Ronge (which is 400 km north of Saskatoon) from the 1940s.  Disillusioned by the new CCF (Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, the forerunner of the NDP) and its refusal to address colonialism and racism against Indigenous and Métis people, Brady, Halkett and others joined the CP. 

At this point I want to give posthumous thanks to my friend and political ally, Murray Dobbin, who died in 2021.  In 1976, he conducted interviews for an oral history project “Biographies of Two Metis Society Founders, Norris and Brady”.  In 1981, Dobbin published his  first book The Two and a Half Men: The Story of Jim Brady and Malcolm Norris, Métis patriots of the twentieth century .which laid the basis for Cold Case North.

If you like the Guardian column This Week in Patriarchy, by Arwa Mahdawi, and you can easily subscribe to it here – you might like her new book, Strong Female Lead. In a humorous but startlingly blunt book she describes what is wrong with men and male power in politics.  Though she is from the UK, she now lives in the US and sees politics through a refreshing and honest lens. Chapter 6, “Rethink Risk”, is particularly interesting to me as I have visited Iceland a few times.  Mahdawi starts off by talking about an app that many young Icelanders have.  If they meet someone of the opposite sex, their phones “bump” together as the app trawls “an online genealogical database to check if they’re related.” She points out that on an island of 350,000 – it’s a good idea to check if a potential love interest is related.  The chapter then goes into the banking scandal when three main banks over-extended in 2006 and in 2008 they collapsed; the currency collapsed and about a quarter of Icelanders lost their savings. Unlike in other countries, the bankers who caused the crisis went to jail. Enter a woman-based investment firm called Audur Capital.

Iceland’s Ardur Capital: Its aim was to incorporate feminine values into finance. The founders were upset by the “highly testosterone-driven culture” and the fixation about short-term profits and never ending growth.

from Strong Female Lead

Read the book for yourself – fascinating.

The New York Times features a wonderful article about two immigrant men from China.  At first when they met at a Brooklyn NY homeless shelter they did not like one another.  Tin Chin, a naturalized US citizen with a university degree once had a government job.  But he had fallen on hard times.  Mo Lin was a refugee, with little education and less English.  Tin Chin looked at Mo Lin, the only other Chinese man at the shelter, and thought “I’m at the bottom. But I’m better off than him.”  The two men become best friends.  I don’t want to give away too much but you want to read  He Had a Dark Secret. It Changed His Best Friend’s Life here

Tin Chin, left, and his friend Mo Lin (New York Times)

In the New Yorker you can read or listen to a brilliant short story by Andre Alexis, “Houyhnhnm”. Alexis reads the story. This is how deep emotion and love can be expressed without a veneer of sentimentality and stickiness. You must listen. You may even shed a tear. I did.

Lastly, I read Silverview, John le Carré’s last novel, published posthumously in 2021.  In this book, many of the characters are not who they seem to be.  A young man decides to escape his fast and rather unhappy life in London.  He moves to a coastal English village and opens the only bookstore in town. One of his regular customers is an older man with an accent, is it French or Eastern European? The bookshop owner doesn’t know.  But he does figure that the man—twice the bookseller’s age — was either a philosophy professor or a political figure.  Again, I won’t say more but the plot is a good one, and MI6 (plus MI5) figure prominently.  Le Carré can weave a wonderful spell, but I find he can’t write effectively about women — and a family is at the heart of this story.  Le Carré doesn’t handle sentimentality very well either. He’s either too romantic or idealistic, or he’s overly cynical about relationships.  I liked Silverview but not as quite much as my all-time le Carré favourite, Our Kind of Traitor (2013).   .

What to watch…

I watched Swallow, a 2019 feature film on Kanopy.  It’s slow and methodical. A pretty young woman with no career prospects and little money, meets and marries a wealthy businessman.  His parents are suffocating the young couple, with unwanted attention, with their need for a grandchild and with money.  The woman develops a secret weapon against being stifled – she eats what she should not. Here’s the trailer.

Stomach contents of a psychiatric patient with pica: 1,446 items, including “453 nails, 42 screws, safety pins, spoon tops, and salt and pepper shaker tops”. (Wikipedia)

This is not so rare, it seems. Pica is an eating disorder usually found in children.  In the 1970s, on Eastern Avenue, at the time a poor area of east-end Toronto, I was a volunteer community activist.  At the time, it was believed that high lead levels in children there were attributable to Pica.  Authorities claimed that children chewed on their cribs or beds that were painted with lead-based paint. Also that children drank water out of lead pipes.  Of course the truth was that local lead smelter Canada Metal Co. had poisoned the neighbourhood, and lead dust had settled everywhere.  The community started a campaign “Get the Lead Out” which was a 15+ year battle to get Canada Metal to clean up its toxic facility and clean up the neighbourhood.  Canada Metal wouldn’t pay the $11 million to clean up three school yards in the area.  In fact, Canada Metal sued several journalists and at least one activist  — for articles and news reports which exposed the company’s lead poisoning.    So in a way, all these years later, a film about a woman suffering with Pica brought back some exciting political memories.

Larger picture: Mural on walls of Canada Metal, 1989 (credit- Toronto Public Library); Toronto skyline from Riverdale Park, 1914. (Credit W. James, on BlogTO); postcard from Canada Metal (“wish you were here-ed!”)

If you like easy viewing, you could watch The Lincoln Lawyer   It’s an old-fashioned series on Netflix with a good guy lawyer Mickey Haller, who is Latino, and his Black woman driver, Izzy.  The lawyer kept Izzy out of jail but she couldn’t afford his legal bill, so she became his paid chauffeur.  Haller, who had himself has a few skeletons in the closet, including the fact he’s been in rehab for drug addiction– tries to return to his law practice.  But few clients come his way, so rather than paying office rent, he works out of his car.  That is until a stroke of luck and he catches a big murder case.   This is a squeaky clean series, suitable for all ages as they say.  Here’s the trailer.

Top left, clockwise: lawyer Mickey Haller and chauffeur Izzy in The Lincoln Lawyer; the key prosecutor in Two Summers (thecinemaholic.com); portraits of the real Martha Mitchell and Julia Roberts portraying her in the film Gaslit; images of the gang who go on holiday in Two Summers (Variety.com and cinemaexpress.com)

I watched the current series Gaslit on Amazon Prime.  It’s about the Watergate break-in and focuses on Martha Mitchell wife of John Mitchell who along with the others did jail time for his role.  It’s well done, fast-moving.  It stars Julia Roberts and Sean Penn – so it’s very Hollywood.  But I was hooked. Here’s the trailer.

A six part series that is a bit slow, but pretty good is Two Summers on Netflix.  It’s from Belgium, and there are English subtitles, but the trailer’s in English here.

Two Summers – tension or crime from 30 years earlier

A group of seven friends get together to celebrate the 30th anniversary of when– as young single adults — they first went on a vacation together.  This summer they stay at the mansion of the most affluent couple, on a private island off the coast of France. Right from the start we see that at least one member of the group is being blackmailed for his part in a sexual assault that took place during the group’s first vacation 30 years ago.  There are twists and turns, some quite believable. 

What to listen to…

My nomination for the best podcast of the year goes to Kristi Lee the writer and presenter of Canadian True Crime.  Her six part series on The Death of Darcy Allan Sheppard here is nothing short of brilliant.  I reviewed the early episodes in my blog here but the final programs are even better.  I listen to it for free on Spotify (you don’t have to pay to subscribe to Spotify to listen).

From Left: Michael Bryant, Ontario’s former Attorney-General, while driving his Saab convertible on a main street in Toronto, hit and killed Darcy Allan Sheppard who was a bike courier. Bryant is seen in this photo walking with his wife, Susan Abramovitch, who was a passenger in the car at the time. Since that time, they’ve divorced (thestar.com). Bryant was charged with criminal negligence causing death and dangerous operation of a motor vehicle. But the charges were dropped. Portrait of Darcy Allan Sheppard, aged 33 when he died, and the “ghost” bicycle tribute set up by his friends and other couriers. (The Darcy Allan Sheppard Files, at Darcyallansheppard.wordpress.com)

CBC’s Q Podcast has two powerful interviews with two extraordinary women.  I felt uplifted and more optimistic after listening to the interview with Jane Fonda It’s here. She’s quite something.  Her little speech about why she won’t even listen to cynics or cynicism was worth waiting for.   Tom Power’s interview with Buffy Sainte-Marie was also inspiring, and very welcome.  Both women are over 80 and what lives they’ve lived! Listen to both which are listed at this site.

Wrongful Conviction #272 features investigative journalist Maggie Freleng in conversation with Alisha Burns.  Burns was a 15 year old in foster care in 2002 when she was picked up and driven to city after city in the US by her 40 year old boyfriend who “loved” her.  He pimped her out to many men; yet when she was questioned by police who at one point discover she was a minor, she denied she was used and abused for sex.  Finally she was arrested for murder alongside her boyfriend –who did in fact commit the murder.  She got a life sentence, and she wasn’t yet 17.  This harsh and yet very informative episode sheds a lot of light on trafficking, and why young girls can be susceptible. Here is the episode. Have a listen.

The Guardian Long Read:   “A merry-go-round of buck-passing”: inside the four-year Grenfell inquiry” is well worth listening to.  I was tipped off by my friend Claire who was also shocked by podcast.  As you remember, in June 2017 Grenfell Tower, a 24 story apartment building in mid-town London UK, was destroyed by fire.  72 residents died, 70 were injured and 223 managed to escape.  Why it happened, and what could have been done to make the building flame retardant is the subject of the podcast.  As a journalist on the podcast points out, one problem was the sheer volume of emails with attachments that professionals receive every day.  Engineers, planners, architects and even clerks tended to ignore the attachments which had warned about potential fire hazards. Listen here.

London’s Grenfell Tower on fire, June 14, 2017. From Wikipedia.

Featured image: Northern Pintail pair out walking in Saskatchewan, photo by Mark Duffy.

One comment

  1. If you liked this selection of books and love le Carré you are going to love this non-promotional anecdote about real spies and authors from the espionage genre whether you’re a le Carré connoisseur, a Deighton disciple, a Fleming fanatic, a Herron hireling or a Macintyre marauder. If you don’t love all such things you might learn something so read on! It’s a must read for espionage cognoscenti.

    As Kim Philby (codename Stanley) and KGB Colonel Oleg Gordievsky (codename Sunbeam) would have told you in their heyday, there is one category of secret agent that is often overlooked … namely those who don’t know they have been recruited. For more on that topic we suggest you read Beyond Enkription (explained below) and a recent article on that topic by the ex-spook Bill Fairclough. The article can be found at TheBurlingtonFiles website in the News Section. The article (dated July 21, 2021) is about “Russian Interference”; it’s been read well over 20,000 times.

    Now talking of Gordievsky, John le Carré described Ben Macintyre’s fact based novel, The Spy and The Traitor, as “the best true spy story I have ever read”. It was of course about Kim Philby’s Russian counterpart, a KGB Colonel named Oleg Gordievsky, codename Sunbeam. In 1974 Gordievsky became a double agent working for MI6 in Copenhagen which was when Bill Fairclough aka Edward Burlington unwittingly launched his career as a secret agent for MI6. Fairclough and le Carré knew of each other: le Carré had even rejected Fairclough’s suggestion in 2014 that they collaborate on a book. As le Carré said at the time, “Why should I? I’ve got by so far without collaboration so why bother now?” A realistic response from a famous expert in fiction in his eighties.

    Philby and Gordievsky never met Fairclough, but they did know Fairclough’s handler, Colonel Alan McKenzie aka Colonel Alan Pemberton CVO MBE. It is little wonder therefore that in Beyond Enkription, the first fact based novel in The Burlington Files espionage series, genuine double agents, disinformation and deception weave wondrously within the relentless twists and turns of evolving events. Beyond Enkription is set in 1974 in London, Nassau and Port au Prince. Edward Burlington, a far from boring accountant, unwittingly started working for Alan McKenzie in MI6 and later worked eyes wide open for the CIA.

    What happens is so exhilarating and bone chilling it makes one wonder why bother reading espionage fiction when facts are so much more breathtaking. The fact based novel begs the question, were his covert activities in Haiti a prelude to the abortion of a CIA sponsored Haitian equivalent to the Cuban Bay of Pigs? Why was his father Dr Richard Fairclough, ex MI1, involved? Richard was of course a confidant of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who became chief adviser to JFK during the Cuban missile crisis. So how did Greville Wynne and Oleg Penkovsky fit in? You may well ask!

    Len Deighton and Mick Herron could be forgiven for thinking they co-wrote the raw noir anti-Bond narrative, Beyond Enkription. Atmospherically it’s reminiscent of Ted Lewis’ Get Carter of Michael Caine fame. If anyone ever makes a film based on Beyond Enkription they’ll only have themselves to blame if it doesn’t go down in history as a classic espionage thriller.

    By the way, the maverick Bill Fairclough had quite a lot in common with Greville Wynne (famous for his part in helping to reveal Russian missile deployment in Cuba in 1962) and has also even been called “a posh Harry Palmer”. As already noted, Bill Fairclough and John le Carré (aka David Cornwell) knew of each other but only long after Cornwell’s MI6 career ended thanks to Kim Philby shopping all Cornwell’s supposedly secret agents in Europe. Coincidentally, the novelist Graham Greene used to work in MI6 reporting to Philby and Bill Fairclough actually stayed in Hôtel Oloffson during a covert op in Haiti (explained in Beyond Enkription) which was at the heart of Graham Greene’s spy novel The Comedians. Funny it’s such a small world!

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