What to Read, What to Watch and What to Listen to… in October 2022

What to Read…

In the New Yorker Magazine, you can read From Boy to Bono, by Bono (yes: the rock star).  It’s  a wonderful article — a snapshot of Bono’s  boyhood in Dublin.  His mother had just died; his Dad and brother and he were grieving.  There was little to no money coming in, and all his friends were trying to emigrate to England, or the US.  This is a great personal glimpse into a young man who had no idea he would eventually rock the world. From Boy to Bono  is here and worth reading. As Bono says, 

“I have very few memories of my mother, Iris. Neither does my older brother, Norman. The simple explanation is that, in our house, after she died she was never spoken of again.”

Bono, in From Boy to Bono
Bono (left) with his mother, father, and brother in 1971.

The fall issue of The Walrus has a good article by Martin Patriquin on race and race relations at the Québec Human Rights Commission (QHRC). The executive director, Tamara Thermitus, was a top flight lawyer who worked for the federal Minister of Justice.   She helped frame the mandate of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Thermitus is Black and, according to the article, was betrayed by a number of people at the QHRC, most of whom were white, and resented her being the first Black  woman to run the organization. Four years after she was appointed to the QHRC, Thermitus was forced out.  According to the article, hers “is a story of a leader who was hired as a saviour and then hounded as a monster… subjecting its first Black president to the very racism it was created to eliminate.”  Well worth reading.  The November 2022 issue of The Walrus is on the newsstand now, or you can read it at the library.  You can’t read it online yet, unless you are a subscriber.  Be a subscriber like me.  It costs $31 a year.

I read Celeste Ng’s first novel Everything I Never Told You (2014). Ng won critical acclaim for her 2017 book, Little Fires Everywhere.   The book I just read, Everything I Never Told You, is a bit of pot boiler.  But Ng draws her characters well, the plot is straightforward, yet the outcome is a bit of a surprise.   A young man, born in California to Chinese American parents, is pushed to get ahead. He becomes a professor of English at a small-town college in the very white mid-west of the 1970s.  As a young prof he meets a gifted grad student – a white woman—with whom he falls in love and marries.  Their relationship is fraught in part because he denies his culture and wants to deny his heritage. At the same time, she divorces herself from her own mother who made racist comments at her daughter’s wedding.  In addition, the wife – who had the marks and the ability to enter medical school – missed the opportunity because she became pregnant.  It is her seething resentment, her anger and her clearly disparate treatment of their three children which clinch the story for me.  At times it’s a bit repetitive, but you won’t forget the characters in this book.

Eat the Document, by Dana Spiotta (2006) is a fast paced and clever book about two leftists on the run from the FBI during the ‘70s and ‘80s.  In this fictionalized account, the couple were members of the Weather Underground. The woman, Mary, dyed her hair, changed her identity and worked in cafés and bars across the US.  For years she never staying long in any town for fear of being found out.  Her boyfriend took a different tack and established himself as a bookstore owner near Seattle. What is fascinating is that Mary is modelled on Katherine Ann Power who was on the run for more than twenty years. She became a gourmet cook, ran a successful business, and was a food columnist syndicated in many papers across the US.  I won’t tell you more, but it’s a great read.  It evokes the times, and their politics.  At about age 18, Mary’s son, whom she raised on her own, starts to be suspicious of his mother, who has no relatives, no good friends and no history as far as he knows.  Certain facts fall into place, and Mary has to make a number of choices. Why the title Eat the Document?  It’s named after a 1966 documentary film of Bob Dylan and the Hawks who played a tour of Europe—you can watch it here.  

A brilliant novel by Juan Gabriel Vásquez is The Sound of Things Falling(2012).  A law professor in Bogotá, Colombia has a rich life with a wonderful wife and an adorable toddler daughter.  Suddenly he is shot while standing next to a new friend on the street near a billiard hall they both frequent.  The friend, a man twice his age, is killed, while the law prof is severely wounded.  His recovery is slow, and the psychological impact never goes away.   He knows his dead friend was a pilot, but not much more about him.  Was it a “hit” gone wrong? Was it a drug gang, or a random crime? This is a fantastic read.  It’s political in that Vásquez writes about the ’80s and ’90s in Colombia, about the “war on drugs” and the right-wing backlash from it.  Vásquez writes about drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s empire, his hideaway and private zoo Hacienda Nápoles —  which has become a rather tawdry theme park today.   The novel is well worth reading.  Last month I posted a review of another book book by this author.  My review of Reputations is here. The Sound of Things Falling I downloaded as a free e-book from “Libby” at Halifax Public Library.  

In the lighter-read category, there is Scott Turow’s thriller Suspect.  In the US, a mid-west town’s police chief is charged with demanding sex from junior male police officers before agreeing to promote them.  You should know: the police chief is a woman.   The chief has retained a lawyer who has his own skeletons.  The lawyer has an in-house private eye, a  30-year-old woman with a half-shaved head who describes herself as somewhere on the Autism spectrum. It’s quite a story, not bad at all.  

What to Watch…

If you like John le Carré, you should read Our Kind of Traitor (2010), it is brilliant.  The film version (2016) on Netflix, is confusing and misses the point of the thriller.  Le Carré writes about the new-found Christianity of Russia’s Oligarchs, and their passion for money.  A young British couple on holiday in Morocco meets Dima, a wealthy Russian, who draws them into his fast-paced and life among the élite.  The young British woman, Gail, is attracted to Dima’s family which includes twin 5-year-old girls, whose biological parents – she discovers – were killed by the Russian mafia.  Perry, Gail’s husband begins a friendship with Dima who is warm, a bad tennis player and lives the high life.  As usual with le Carré the plot involves MI6 playing a game of cat and mouse but this time it’s with the Russian mafia.  It’s a fast-paced thriller, that isn’t bad—especially if you have not read the book first. The trailer is here.

Below: Clockwise– From The Wedding Guest (Ganesh Patil/IFC films); also from The Wedding Guest (Filmibeat); from Daphne (Variety.com); Our Kind of Traitor (youtube.com); and from American Pastoral (Filmafinity.com)

Another film that doesn’t live up to the book is American Pastoral.  This is my favourite novel by the late Philip Roth, whom I think is probably the US’s greatest novelist of the 20th century.  I look at those words thinking what about his brilliant book, I Married a Communist.  I may have to take back what I said about American Pastoral.However, the film American Pastoral is still worth watching.  A Jewish high school football hero (nicknamed Swede) from New Jersey becomes a wealthy man when he takes over his dad’s glove factory. Swede’s wife, a beauty queen once crowned Miss New Jersey, becomes increasingly fragile as their strong-willed daughter Merry enters her late teen years.  It’s the 60’s and the rebellious path Merry chooses both bewilders and terrifies her parents.  This is a story that highlights two generations – those who started adulthood in the wake of World War II, and their children the early baby-boomers some of whom angrily rejected their parents’ patriotism and values. It’s on Netflix.

In both of the above films, the star is Ewan McGregor and he is singularly wooden in both of them. I understand under-acting, and prefer it to scenery-chewing, but McGregor is so quiet and subdued that he seems asleep. As director of Pastoral, he hews admirably close to Roth’s novel. But perhaps too much so. The trailer is here:

The French film Iris, and the British film, The Wedding Guest

If you like erotic thrillers, In the Shadow of Iris (2016) is for you.  This French film is about a wealthy conniving couple that plan a murder, but it doesn’t go so well.  The plot has twists and turns (so many that it gets confusing) and the sex scenes are worth a month’s subscription to Netflix.  Have a look—there are subtitles. Here’s the trailer.

The Wedding Guest (2019), is a British-American film on Netflix. It is a thriller — spare and persuasive. A 30-something British man of Pakistani heritage is hired to kidnap a British-Pakistani woman whose parents have forced into marrying a man in Pakistan. The kidnap, meant to be bloodless and hazard-free, turns out to be anything but.  Filmed in various cities in Pakistan and also the Indian cities of Delhi and Goa, the scenery, the food, and the life is mesmerizing.  The acting is understated, and the film is definitely worth watching.  Here’s the trailer.

Daphne (2017) is an excellent film from the UK.  Daphne is a 20-something sous-chef at a restaurant in London.  She doesn’t fit in, she is sarcastic and bright but has little ambition and a lot of rage.  This is a well crafted tale of life without love and with few connections.  It’s on Kanopy, free with your library card. Here’s the trailer.

The Lorenskog Disappearance is a new Norwegian series on Netflix.  On an average day, an older man, Tom Hagen, a well-known billionaire industrialist kisses his wife of 30 years goodbye and leaves for his office. He phones his wife, Anne Elizabeth, after lunch and when he gets no answer he drives home only to discover his home was broken into and Anne Elizabeth is missing.  Was she kidnapped (as the evidence points to) for ransom? Did she walk out on him?  The police are uncertain.  The brilliance of the series is that it highlights two journalists.  One is a family man who believes the victim was an abused and long-suffering woman whom the husband had arranged to have abducted then killed.  His colleague, a single woman journalist, thinks her  colleague and the police have tunnel vision.  The series is based on an actual missing person’s case in Norway. Scary!!  Here’s the trailer.

What Podcasts to Listen to…

A wonderful nine-minute podcast is BBC’s Witness History about the Disney Animators’ Strike of 1941. The top cartoonist for the Disney empire, Art Babbitt, creator of Goofy, was the man who organized the union of more than 1200 cartoonists in the studio.  In an interview recorded  more than 20 years ago, Babbitt’s remembrances  of the reactionary views of Walt Disney are priceless.  While some say Disney was antisemitic, in truth (according to Babbitt and others) he was not against Jews but was friendly with members of the MPAPA – the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals –many of whom were antisemites. 

Below: Scene from the picket line and the wonderful signs; Actor John Garfield supported the strikers; Art Babbitt at his drawing table; Goofy, Babbitt’s famous cartoon creation; 1966 US stamp featured Walt Disney.

You get a good sense of the times, the wealth and power of Hollywood studios, especially Disney’s caught off-guard by a union drive.  Babbitt was fired for union activity four times by Disney himself, but got his job back when the National Labor Relations board ruled in his favour. Today, at a time when strikes are almost as rare as hen’s teeth, this spirited podcast is the shot we all could use.

No Place Like Home…

No Place Like Home, My Bitter Return to Palestine is a Guardian Long-Read podcast here:

Fida Jiryis, a young woman with an Oxbridge degree, returned to her ancestral home in Palestine as a result of the Oslo Peace talks in the early 1990s.  She hoped to make a go of it.  Her parents had come from Fassouta, a village in Galilee in the north of Israel.  (Her father, Sabri Jiryis, wrote the seminal 1966 work The Arabs in Israel 1948-1966.)

Fida points out people like her parents were called Israeli-Arabs, because the term Palestinian could never be used. In 1970, Fida’s parents went into exile in Cyprus, where Fida was born and raised.  This Guardian Long-Read starts to explain how the 20% of Israeli citizens who are Palestinians are treated by the Israeli government, and by Jewish Israelis.  This is a must-read because most people, even Israel’s most trenchant critics, tend to ignore the discrimination and the racism levelled at these “1948 Palestinians” who live in villages especially in the north of Israel, and those in “mixed” cities such as Haifa and Jaffa.

Sabri Jiryis’ 1968 book; Fida Jiryis forthcoming 2022 book; photo of Fida and her father Sabri in Fassouta in 2017 (photo from Fida Jiryis); Palestinian village of Wadi Fukin and Israeli settlement of Beitar Illit beyond. Both are in the West Bank (photo by Nir Elias/Reuters

“Oh, and one more thing. Can we have your army number?”
“Um, I don’t have one…”

Fida finally got an interview for a job in computers in Haifa.  At the interview, she was asked many questions about her education, her excellent English, and her experience. Then this happened:  

“Leafing through my CV, they enquired, in more detail, about my work in Cyprus. I was glad and took it as a sign of interest.

“ ‘Well, thank you,’ the pleasant man finally smiled. ‘Oh, and one more thing. Can we have your army number?’

“I had a sinking feeling. ‘Um, I don’t have one…’

“ ‘OK,’ the smile remained, fixed in place. ‘Thank you. We’ll be in touch.’ ”

Of course the employer never did get back to her. This is a brilliant listen. 

Obscene

Obscene: The Dublin Scandal is a BBC whodunit– though we know the culprit almost from the start.  Yet how the Irish government of the day (1982), especially the Prime Minister and the Attorney General, compromised the case and contributed to shaking people’s faith in government —  is a wonder.  Worth listening to, and a delight!  Listen here

The dangers of working in commercial laundries…

“On the Line”, is a wonderful interview with Daisy Pitkin, author and trade union organizer in the US.  The Dig podcast features longer interviews about contemporary, and sometimes historical struggles.  On the Line is the title of Pitkin’s new book and the podcast is a feature interview with her.  First she explains things well, and she discusses the specific case of laundry workers she was organizing in Arizona.  She points out that the laundries she saw had up to 1000 workers who wash, dry and iron tens of thousands of sheets, johnny shirts, lab coats, and towels mainly for hospitals.   Paid a pittance for their work, the workers were typically LatinX, and suffered both workplace injuries from medical instruments like scalpels and needles, and illnesses due to the bodily fluids in the bedding they had to sort and wash.  Pitkin also talks about rifts within trade unions and the unions’ histories of activism and strikes.  For anyone interested in trade unions, this podcast is for you.  After hearing the podcast, I rushed to buy her book On The Line: A story of class solidarity and two women’s epic fight to build a union  and can’t wait to read it.  You can check out The Dig newsletter here.

Below (Clockwise): Congratulatory tweet from Broadbent Institute; photo of Bruno Manser; Book “On the Line” by Daisy Pitkin; “Obscene”; photo of author Daisy Pitkin (from Twitter)

Disappearance of an environmentalist in Malaysia

I’ve written about the podcast Disappearances, here before.  This episode is about Bruno Manser and it’s  very chilling.  Manser was a well known environmentalist in the 80s.  A Swiss national he went to Borneo then Sarawak in Malaysia in the 1980s and got to know the Penan, the Indigenous people of the region.  Their big concern, and his, was that huge corporations were logging and destroying the Indigenous people’s lands and the environment.  He crusaded against the logging, incurring the wrath of the Sarawak government and the logging companies.  He returned to Switzerland in the 90s, only to realise he belonged with his friends among the Penan.  In 2000 he returned to Malaysia, then he disappeared.  This is a good political look at his life and likely reasons why he was never seen again.  Listen here, 39 minutes.

The Redeye Podcast from Co-op Radio in Vancouver is excellent.  I listened to How growth through the care economy can benefit people and the climate, by well-known Canadian economist Marjorie Griffin Cohen.  It was the 2022 Gideon Rosenbluth Memorial Lecture by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, BC Office. She looks at how our prejudice of believing that the “private sector” e.g. oil, gas, steelmaking, and pulp and paper industries are the most important contributors to GDP—leaves out the fact that human services also contributes to the wealth Canada produces.  For example, for the last 30 plus years, Quebec’s $10 a day childcare has meant hundreds of thousands of women have been able to work and pay taxes – which has added to the country’s wealth.  Listen here: 

Featured image: Goofy, by Art Babbit in the Disney series How to Stay at Home.

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