The Madness of Crowds is a mystery by the prolific novelist, Louise Penny. Many of you might be fans of this writer who has written her 18th book about Sûreté du Québec police chief inspector, Armand Gamache, his dedicated and small squad of police and close-knit families who live in Three Pines. The books take place in the idyllic town Three Pines (loosely based on the town of Knowlton), in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. This is the first Penny book I have read, and frankly I won’t soon pick up another. I found Madness rather repetitive, the characters seemed wooden, and the book was long. On the plus side, the author tried to deal with a number of political and social issues of today, including the isolation and tragic deaths of elders resulting from Covid-10; poverty, barbarism and colonialism in Somalia, euthanasia, disability and selfish academics. All of this was a lot to pack into the book, so the plot is arcane and seems never to end. The murder and investigation occurs over New Year’s. So there is an emphasis on some aspects of Quebec culture and festivities. Characters drink lovely alcoholic drinks, creamy hot chocolate and multi-course dinners. They skate, and enjoy the cold winter days. Sigh. Not for me.
A true delight is Reputations, a novel by Juan Gabriel Vásques. Vásques is a prolific writer, a trenchant social commentator, a political thinker and an award-winning from Bogotá, Colombia. We rarely think about the lives of editorial page cartoonists. Reputations is about one of the most well-known cartoonists in Colombia who works for the major liberal paper in Bogotá. The book opens with him getting a lifetime achievement award at glitzy ceremony in the city. While journalists flock to him during the reception, the next day a young woman who poses as a reporter visits him at his home on the outskirts of town. What happens from that visit is both believable and also contributes to his unravelling. Excellent.
Bombshell : The Secret Story of America’s Unknown Atomic Spy Conspiracy by journalists Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel is a must-read if you are interested in the history and the times of the scientists and the spies (often one and the same) who worked at Los Alamos, and built the atom bomb. This 1997 book, zeroes in on several major players including Ted Hall. Hall was a physicist, schooled at Harvard who was hired at Los Alamos after he finished his first physics degree at the age of 16 (gasp!). He was also sympathetic to the (then) USSR, which at the time was an ally of the US. When the red-scare and the anti-Communist backlash happened in the wake of WWII, Hall managed to find a position at Cambridge where he took his family to live. Others were not so lucky – including engineers, and activists including the Rosenbergs, who were electrocuted by the US government in 1953. Others went to jail for years. Lona and Morris Cohen, aka Helen and Peter Kroger, were excellent spies. They served a decade in British prisons before being swapped for a US serviceman who languished in a Soviet jail. You can read more about the Cohens here. They died in their apartment in Moscow, at the turn of the 21st century. The other players are equally interesting, and if this sort of thing fascinates you, I recommend you watch the series, Manhattan review below.
Kate Beaton’s graphic memoir, Ducks
Gabriel Drolet reviews Kate Beaton’s new graphic book is a memoir, Ducks in Walrus. Drolet’s review is excellent, more so because she has used Beaton’s cartoons. Beaton, originally from Cape Breton, went out to the oil patch in 2008 to help pay off her student loans owed to an undergrad degree. This book seems to tell volumes about life and death in the man-camps, and on the roads and workfaces near Ft McMurray. Read the review here.
As the book review notes,
As she moves between workplaces, she experiences continued, often subtle, harassment and misogyny from her peers. Droves of male co-workers—she estimates the ratio of men to women is fifty to one—leer at her throughout the day. They line up around the tool crib to make comments about her body.
The Victim who became the Accused is a riveting article by the New Yorker’s Rachel Aviv. A young policewoman on her first job in a small town is sexually assaulted by an older well-to-do resident who works part-time in an upper level job for the same police force. As a black woman she becomes the object of scorn and ridicule – her life is threatened. Worth a read here:
And in a recent New Yorker, there is a good short story, Evolution by Joan Silber. You can read it or listen to the author read it to you here A young girl wants to be an iconoclast. At 16, she decides to hitchhike with her 19-year-old boyfriend to Phoenix, Arizona. Of course they have about $50 between them, and end up sleeping on the picnic benches outside a closed McDonald’s for a few nights. There’s nothing so scary or heart-stopping about her experience. But 20 years later, when she is a mother herself, she starts putting her experience and her passion for excitement into perspective. Well written and worth reading.
What to Watch…
There’s a rather nice series, a co-production from Australia and the US called Pine Gap. In the outback of Australia, near Alice Springs, there is a secret defence centre half staffed and finance by the US, the other half by Australia. Right away we see the political fisticuffs between staffers on both sides. The plot is good; we see the American staffers never hesitate to promote themselves and bully the Australians. It’s nicely done. A series that only lasted one season because of panic (and perhaps) outrage by US sponsors and producers. It’s on Netflix.
I’m watching Manhattan, which is a very good series that was stopped after its second season. Created in 2014 to 2016, Manhattan follows the lives of leading physicists during WWII at Los Alamos who are in a race against the Germans to produce the atom bomb. Producers tried to find roles for women, other than as wives and mothers on the base, and had a bit of success in drawing women as they coped at the time. There is one PhD physicist on the team who is female and another leading role is an unemployed botany professor who followed her husband to the dusty, windswept roads of the town. I find the second season better than the first – more action, and more politics. See what you think. It’s on Amazon Prime.
This recent 21 minute documentary film, Saving Masafer Yatta, is great. It’s all about community in the West Bank – Masafer Yatta—which is being demolished by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) as I write. However, Masafer Yatta is not Israel’s land, indeed it all belongs to the Palestinians as outlined in the 1993 Oslo Accords. But in May 2022, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled to expel more than 1200 hundred Palestinians living in Masafer Yatta, the eight communities in the South Hebron Hills of the West Bank. Now those residents have to hand over their homes and their land to the Israeli military. As Mondoweiss, a trusted website, notes:
“The army has used huge swaths of the land as an active firing zone for years, putting the local communities there at risk. Now, with the backing of the Supreme Court, the army has the power to expel an estimated 1,300 Palestinians from the area, and completely demolish eight villages.
As Yumna Patel, Palestine News Director for Mondoweiss said, “Rights groups say it’s an act that would amount to forcible transfer, a war crime under international law.”
If this isn’t an example of Israeli Apartheid, I don’t know what is.
Below left: Palestinians in their home in Masafer Yatta (B’tselem); map of area of Israeli Firing Zone 918, which the human rights organization, B’tselem, says is a land grab by Israel
Canadian Muslim News
Canadian Muslim News is worth watching. In this episode, starting at 4.00 in, we see an interview with Yusuf Faqiri whose brother Soleiman Faqiri was killed by police while in custody at the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ont. He was on remand, awaiting transfer to a mental health facility. The interview is shocking, and once again reveals that racism against Muslims can easily turn lethal. Have a look, it’s 10 minutes here, watch it all or start 4 minutes in.
From Omeleto: short videos
Omeleto features a Canadian made short film No. 2 Hush little baby. It’s excellent. Richard’s grown daughter goes to visit him in jail. Richard is serving time in a maximum security prison for sex offences against children, something he denies. Their talk over the prison phone, separated by a plexiglass wall is revealing and incredibly honest. You must watch it – 13 minutes.
Educated parents in New York City, are told by their 10-year-old son he no longer loves them. Jonah doesn’t want them to kiss him, or cuddle with him, and he doesn’t want to be kind to them. At first the parents put his behaviour down to being tired, or acting out at school but when they take him to a child psychologist, she all but takes his side. Cold Little Bird is a nice 15 minute film from Omeleto—it’s here.
All I’ll tell you about the short film, Second Team, is that it’s about a scorned stand-in actor for a hit TV show. She changes the script to outrage her co-star. You have to see this 10 minutes– it’s funny and fast.
Mrs Lowry & Son
Please don’t rush out to watch Mrs Lowry & Son, on Kanopy. I’m a big fan of LS Lowry, the Salford-based artist who drew “stick men” scenes of his city and northwest England. And there’s a rather new Manchester museum, The Lowry, dedicated to him and his art. But this feature film, despite its high production values and the wonderful acting by Vanessa Redgrave – is a dud. The script is repetitive and boring. Despite all the attention to detail of genteel poverty between the wars, and a son (the artist) who never dares to disappoint his mother – this film is long and does not do Lowry justice.
Below, clockwise: The Village Street (1935); photo of the Lowry Centre in Manchester UK; Woman Walking; A Woman Standing (1965); Pit Tragedy (1919); Self-Portrait (1925)
With Labour Day in the rear-view mirror I decided to watch Blue Collar, a film made more than 40 years ago, in 1978 to be exact. Three workers—two Blacks and one white — at the Ford plant in Detroit plan a heist to steal money from their union. But more issues come into play – in this fast moving drama. I don’t remember it, but my husband does. His concern is that it portrays unions in a corrupt light. And leaves the viewers with a negative feeling toward organized labour. We want to boost unions, not break them.
What to Listen to…
There is an excellent interview on CBC’s Q with artist Peter Doig, who spent his teen years and more in Canada. He left school after grade 10, and headed out to the oil patch. He is a wonderful visual artist and if you pair the interview with this companion piece which shows some of his paintings, it will be a very rich experience. Listen to the podcast of the Doig interview here.
Peter Doig’s work: Clockwise: Swamped (1990); poster for Coburg, Ont film festival (2015); Road House (1991); Cabin Essence (1993-94); Doig at work (CBC).
In 2015, an ex-prison guard who lives in Sault Ste Marie, Ont. insisted this painting was painted by the internationally renowned painter, Peter Doig– whose work commands prices of $20 million and above. It was signed “Pete Doige 76”, which Doig says was not he. Doige 76 apparently painted this while in jail in Thunder Bay, Ont. in 1976-77 on a drug charge. Peter Doig, who did live in Canada on and off for years, said he had never even visited Thunder Bay, nor had he been in jail. Doig won the suit in 2017 — but at quite a personal toll. You can read more about it here.
Two new podcasts come from the CBC. Both are on the CBC Listen app. Or where you get your podcasts:
One series is about the killing of 9 workers during the strike at Yellowknife’s Giant Mine in Sept. 1992. You can listen to Giant—Murder Underground here. To find out more about the landscape, the environmental degradation and the reality of the Giant minesite, read this from the Narwhal.
RCMP style of justice- entrap and jail
The other CBC Podcast, Pressure Cooker, is more interesting. Pressure Cooker is about John and Amanda, a young white Vancouver couple who convert to Islam to find some meaning to their lives. The problem is they are both alcoholics and long-time drug users. When a police agent comes along, who professes to be Muslim and believer like them and involved in radical politics, the couple spins out a plan with him to set pressure cooker bombs in the grounds of the BC legislature, in 2013. The couple are not capable of separating fact from fiction. Neither are they able to carry out a plan to clean their basement apartment let alone organize a terrorist attack. For more on this couple and their “plan” see this article. John and Amanda were charged with very serious crimes – yet it became obvious they were led and entrapped by RCMP agents—who bought them the pressure cookers, spent money on gas, hardware and food for them, even helped pay their rent. Cleared of their “crimes” – spoiler alert: the explosions never took place—the two are now suing the police. You can listen to the podcast here.
This from a new instalment of the Hidden Brain podcast. “All of us want to feel safe… Yet when we think about crime, our first response is often a blanket approach: find the bad guys, and punish them. But what if there were another way? This week on the show, researchers Sara Heller and Chris Blattman explore how technology and psychology can be used to radically transform our approach to crime.” This is an excellent podcast you can listen to here for free.
Murder in Malta
Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed when a bomb detonated in her car while she was driving just outside her home in October 2017. Galizia was a blogger, a journalist and an anti-corruption activist in Malta. Born and raised on the island nation, in her blog she challenged the prime minister and high-ranking members of the government for money laundering, patronage and worse. British journalist Stephen Grey decided to investigate – first by interviewing her grown sons (one is an international investigative journalist), and then by finding informants in the underbelly of Malta. This series reveals a lot about Galizia’s terrifying murder and who her killers may be. Listen here.
Below: The late Daphne Caruana Galizia, photo from Wikipedia and ad for the new podcast
Featured image: Going to Work by LS Lowry, 1943, British artist. (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons). To read a 1966 interview with Lowry about his art and times, go to this site.