Read All Over reviews, March

Zero Patience
By Susan Knabe and Wendy Gay Pearson
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011. 181pp.

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Unhelpful attitudes of liberal tolerance towards AIDS resulted in a wide approbation of the film Philadelphia starring Tom Hanks in 1993, perhaps indexed on mollifying the public by the classic redemption-punishment narrative of tragedy. Those with AIDS portrayed on screen or in popular novels tend to follow the standard formula where the afflicted must suffer and die, eliciting a kind of armchair pity but cleaving to an unacknowledged and distorted atavistic sense of poetic justice.

During that same opening weekend of Philadelphia, an independent Canadian film also appeared. It was inspired by the life of Gaétan Dugas in a genre seemingly so inappropriate (a musical, no less) that it bordered on kitsch, in a complete deviation from the standard narrative. Yet, Zero Patience (dir. John Greyson) overturned just about every formula and stereotype by framing the issue of AIDS in terms of real visibility, focusing on the human being rather than the props of tragedy, the ideology of (in)tolerance or the screen of medico-viral othering.

Knabe and Pearson explore the making visible of AIDS by unpacking the film’s multiple layers that deal specifically with the issue of visibility itself – both as part of the narrative (the main character can only be seen by a time-traveling Burton of Thousand and One Nights fame who is intent on making AIDS visible only within the concealed revenge of clinical museumification) and as a meta-text of how the film itself compels the audience to confront the ways in which so many of the unhelpful attitudes have actually obscured seeing AIDS behind the filters of normative discourse.

The Sissiboo River Hallelujah
Jim Freedman, Anthropology professor
Boreal Press, 2011. 298 pp.

Two summers ago, my wife and I stayed in a 300-year-old house in picturesque Prospect, Nova Scotia, amid the briny air and the craggy shore looking much the way it must have looked back when it was initially settled (save for a few signs of the modern world such as a strip of asphalt road, a gleaming postbox, and some new additions to some of the homes). Jim Freedman’s novel, The Sissiboo River Hallelujah, recalls a similar feel to the Nova Scotia landscape, but inscribed in this colonial patch set in Digby County is an uncommon story of black loyalists caught in the conditions of poverty and rampant discrimination. The main character of the book, the oracular Rev. Randolph Langford, is as equally a beacon of spiritual leadership as he is fervid in his intemperance. Dramatizing with particular flair the clerical politics that divided, and then reunited, the spiritually sturdy African Baptist Association, Freedman powers his narrative with  fastidious detail faithful to historical documentation. Freedman sets aside many of the tropes of the clerical tale which generally involve fixation on the narrative of redemption, and instead inscribes the social drama of division and unification in a community church organization as an embedded microcosm of the broader community’s racial politics.

Divorcing Amy
Lisa M. Sobry
Lisa M. Sobry, 2011. 167 pp.

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The self-help genre generally traffics in the same, endlessly shopworn commonsense wisdom, and seldom do any provide any new insights to old problems. The self-help section of any bookstore has shelves sagging with $29.95, 250-page cures for what one can get better and cheaper in one hour over a cup of coffee with a compassionate friend. Sobry’s book is a signal exception. Billed as a kind of case study meets resource survival, Divorcing Amy attempts to make up for the dearth of literature on men who suffer spousal abuse. Although statistically in a minority, men who are targets of such abuse do not have the same number of resources available. Sobry introduces us to ‘Alex’ and ‘Amy’ who, after an acrimonious marriage, decide on separation. Amy’s need for control, alcohol abuse and barely concealed affairs set up a recognizable pattern of abuse, while Alex continues to reconcile with her for the sake of their three children. The sad and common scenario is the use of children as emotional bargaining chips in the divisive politics of divorce, and what psychological toll this takes on these vulnerable persons caught in spousal cross-fire. Sobry’s dramatization ends with Alex learning hard lessons. The remainder of the book offers up helpful advice and a list of resources to those who find themselves on the distressing receiving end of being with an Amy.

Korea: Canada’s Forgotten War 2nd ed.
By John Melady
Dundurn, 2011. 320 pp.

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For some of us, our intimate understanding of the Korean war came via the madcap antics of Alan Alda’s character Dr. Benjamin Pierce of M*A*S*H fame. However, Canada’s engagement in the Korean War is frequently overlooked and overshadowed by a focus on the historical events of the Second World War. Providing just the right balance of drama and detail which are the key ingredients in any military history, Melady gives a studious and readable account of those who shaped, planned, fought and lived through the war. Melady does not spare the readers any of the atrocities and realpolitik of war, but also gives reverent tribute to specifically Canadian heroism in its 25,000-strong force committed to the Korean theatre between 1950-3. Incorporating first-hand testimony and contextual information, Melady succeeds in presenting a highly engaging historical reading where events unfold with suspense but without sacrificing accuracy. There is an added poignancy in this second edition: many of those who served in the Korean War have, in the nearly 30 years since the book was first published, passed on. It is a small but notable comfort that Melady has preserved their memory to ensure that a document of their sacrifice and courageous soldiery will not be forgotten.

Age, Gender and Work: Small Information Technology Firms in the New Economy
Edited by Julie Ann McMullin
UBC Press, 2011. 187 pp.

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A culmination of the Workforce Aging in a New Economy research program (WANE), McMullin et al provide their timely findings acquired during a seven-year period. There is no doubt that our acceleration on the ‘information superhighway’ will be spotted with accidents, of which we may count those who suffer age and gender discrimination in the IT workplace. Exacerbating these phenomena include the economic downturn, the precariousness of IT firms to outmaneuver obsolescence and the high employee turnover rate as the demands of the sector require a constant upgrade in skills for its knowledge workers. The results of this study point to disparities and inequities linked to assumptions about age and gender in the IT industry, namely, the assumption of the ‘ideal IT worker’ who is entirely dedicated to career progression and highly adaptable to new technological requirements. It is no surprise that it is the young male employee who is frequently made to embody this ideality, and this is further entrenched by masculinizing regimes of discourse that are paternalistic with a disproportionate amount of males working in the technical aspects of IT and up to 90 per cent in the upper managerial end. The genderist assumptions as well as those who assume older employees are not as capable of learning or upgrading their skills in this competitive market become imbricated within the organizational logic of such firms.

As McMullin et al point out, the higher susceptibility of small IT firms to market volatility makes strategies to combat implicit workplace discrimination difficult to implement. A full complement of case studies, statistics and detailed analysis shines an unflattering light on small IT firms in Canada, but one can hope that rigorous studies such as these may become a foundation for broad initiatives of awareness. With all the concern about obsolescence in the IT industry, it is the old attitudes and assumptions about age and gender that need to be upgraded.

Suitable Precautions
By Laura Boudreau
Biblioasis, 2011. 182 pp.

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Biblioasis has certainly turned another corner in their prescient knack for bird-dogging literary talent, perhaps rivaling the instincts of other CanLit champions like ECW Press. Under the direction of a poetry legend like John Metcalf, perhaps we should not be too surprised.

The first of these short stories sets the precedent in this collection: vaguely wandering in its celebratory, modern day version of the patio bacchanal, the social interactive near-misses, the accidental eruption in mixed settings of the bon mots, the awkward yet standard partings.

If I had to describe the style of Boudreau’s prose, it is quite velvet. In fact, it might prove suitable to adopt the practice of describing a premium vintage with respect to this literary offering. Boudreau may invite us to consider the moral ambiguities and an almost aggrandized superstitious reactions of a new homeowner finding bags of money left there by the deceased previous owner, or the long delayed forgiveness of a potbellied pig owner when his pet has been hit by a car, or a convincing narrative by a precocious tween negotiating (and exploiting) the vulnerable hypocrisies of the adult world.

In each case, the resolution – as though an anticipated verdict – is suspended, which may exacerbate some readers but empowers others to focus on the processes of narrative development and the sub-narrative murmuring of themes instead. The occasionally innocuous workaday dialogue of characters, spotted in places by brilliant insights on the mores and curious errata of the contemporary world, conceals beneath layers of the whimsical a seismic quality that is certainly more show than tell, and at times a scathing indictment.

Moral Responsibility in Collective Contexts
By Tracy Isaacs
Oxford University Press, 2011. 204 pp.

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The Krever Inquiry, the Rwandan genocide and climate change have at least one common denominator: they solicit the attention of moral philosophers to ask after normative questions of responsibility.

Isaacs dispenses with the narrow view that attributing responsibility should be targeted to either individuals or collectives, and instead advocates an integrated approach which can better evaluate the scope of moral responsibility and resist the crude and unhelpful simplification schemes that apportion blame and punishment. In our contemporary environment, there is a great deal of downshifting responsibility for organizational failures, and many of these tactics are simply a means of ‘passing the buck’ without considering the more intricate confluence of moral agents’ actions. The long-cultivated sense of moral indifference as individuals with respect to our moral obligations and opportunities in the face of large and complex systems does not foster an environment for collective action or responsibility.

If, as Isaacs informs us, we avail ourselves in understanding of what our individual and collective responsibilities are in contributing to large-scale events, we can no longer hide behind convenient excuses of ignorance. And, in fact, this understanding is a kind of royal road to greater moral empowerment with respect to the mounting challenges we face both collectively and individually in the years to come.

Isaacs provides the readers with a well-reasoned argument that is not complicit with merely providing a descriptive etiology of collective abnormal events, but strikes an upbeat chord in prescribing the very ways by which we can and should be taken to account, and how the parallel of collective and individual moral agency works in tandem toward moral progress.

How Schools Worked: Public Education in English Canada, 1900-1940
By R.D. Gidney and W.P.J. Millar
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012. 517 pp.

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Gidney and Millar are explicit about what the book is not about; namely, it is not a reformist primer for improvements upon our current education system by a direct appeal to the past, it is not a pro et contra dust-up of competing educational policies, and it is not a rallying point for addressing issues of First Nations schooling. However, what it does aim to do within its modest and fine-grained scope is provide the reader with a detailed history of all the facets of educational system organization from the rules governing school districts in the early 20th century to the school facilities themselves.

Included in this hefty but highly informative tome are all the metrics with respect to enrollments by age, duration, ethnic distribution and one-room vs. multi-graded schools.

This impressive piece of scholarship and education history Canadiana tells a story of the structural considerations in all aspects of school policy, and how these shaping forces underwent considerable change during this period. If we could travel back in time and occupy these schoolrooms of the past, we would scantly recognize any similarities to our own elementary and secondary school experiences. With meticulous skill in examination of records, but refraining from overwhelming the reader with too much quantitative data, this book offers a wealth of historical information that is as critically keen as it is factually supported.

This is a foundational reference text for not only those who study the history of education in Canada, but also for those with a general interest in the subject.

Pirate Therapy and Other Cures
By Mark A. Rayner
Monkeyjoy Press, 2012. 157 pp.

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Rayner has obviously not tired of monkeying around. With his last offering, the primate-pungent Marvellous Hairy: A Novel in Five Fractals, Rayner established himself as a premium humourist, but perhaps it is his newest book that can be considered the official coronation of his satirical esprit. This collection of ‘squibs’ (defined in a motley of ways, including a short satirical lampoon) are certainly nothing to ‘squibble’ over: anyone who can use anthropophagy and coulrophobia in a sentence and make it funny deserves the literary equivalent of an Oscar.

Rayner’s satirical landscape is broad-ranging, including a love advice column from an intergalactic warlord, why myrrh is totally underrated as a perfect gift for the baby Jesus, a history of unicorns, the heartbreak of a colossal city-smashing robot, and how Anne of Green Gables touched off World War III.

Pirate Therapy is certainly a “Vonnegutbuster” ideally suited for those of us who were raised on a steady diet of rubbery monster B-flicks and cartoons drenched in sarcasm. Rayner retires razor wit for an all-out flogging, and this volume of short pieces has certainly earned him the appellation of being Western’s top humourist. To quote from the book’s leading squib, “Disquieting Postcards I’ve Recently Received from My Future Self,” “P.S. This is a picture of Our Glorious Leader. Yes, that’s an accordion. All the aliens play them.”

This is the kind of book that if one were to describe it as LOL, it would actually be sincere.