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Treating people like dirt suggests they are common and worthless. That saying will have to change. In Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, David R. Montgomery uses history to show that commonplace dirt is an increasing scarcity, priceless in supporting the world's population.
How are we to feed the world? By first looking at the past. Therein lie the clues into what we are doing wrong today that needs to be changed. This Professor of Earth and Space Sciences reveals the fundamental reason for the demise of past civilizations. Survival of the human society always depended on how people treated their valuable topsoil. Montgomery warns that "modern society risks repeating mistakes." Using cored soil samples, and written records from ancient times to current times, he studied the middle east including ancient Iraq, thought to be the cradle of civilizations; ancient Roman and Greek farmers; southern United States; Soviet Union; sub-Saharan Africa; and Brazil's Amazon.
In the past, when topsoil disappeared, people moved onto new unbroken soil. Europeans turned to the colonies. Today the Amazon forest desiccation demonstrates that soil's inadequacies at growing food over the long-term. With no new lands to discover on planet Earth, these solutions are no longer viable.
In the past, when agriculture could no longer feed society, civilization peaked, disease and starvation ravaged the population, social and political conflicts arose, destroying the civilization. Today we see the same problem of hungry people defined as environmental and political refugees.
Montgomery discovered two important factors that occur where the society fails to feed its population: first large farms created for economics, and second absentee landowners. Both of these factors occur in our current agricultural sector.
Large farms based on economics encourage soil mining or degradation. "Large" farms existed 2000 years ago with peasants and/or slaves working the soil. Our small traditional farm with holdings of four quarters, then six, then eight have disappeared replaced by large farms with sections of land, not quarters. The first priority is income. Contrast this short-term goal with the almost non-existent long-term concern for soil health and enrichment.
Absentee landowners existed in ancient Rome with overseers and tenant farmers paying a percentage of their crop to the landowners. Again, the first priority is income with negligible concern for soil building and health. Rental of Saskatchewan private farmland hovers around 30-40% according to Statistics Canada, fairly static but trending upward. Much of the rented land is owned by farming wives who have outlived their husbands. Then we have new landowners who are changing the rental percentage: First Nations who used land claims to buy farmland, investor groups intent on making a profit buy farm land, and nations intent on food security buy farm land in other countries.
Today, absentee landlords are promoted as professional managers. This is an oxymoron. Only people who directly work the soil can be professional managers. Groups investing in farmland looking for returns of 5-6% are soil miners or money managers, not soil builders.
Montgomery points out that professional managers existed in Greece during the fourth century BC. Wealthy landowners employed superintendents to professionally manage the farm labourers. Xenophon advised these owners to know "what crops grow best upon it; and we may even learn from the weeds it produces what it will best support". He advised farmers to use manure and plow in burned crop stubble to enrich the soil.
Montgomery paints history with a different brush. When we understand the condition of the soil, we can see why history moved as it did with the fall of civilizations. At this point, with the two important factors prevalent in agriculture, our civilization is headed for a fall too. What must we do differently?
First off, Montgomery warns that farming as a business cannot work. Focusing on the bottom line is a short-term consideration. Today's tenant farmer and larger farmer do not calculate the economic benefits of soil conservation and soil enrichment. To survive, our society needs long-term soil building to be factored into the bottom line. History shows it is easier to deplete soil than to build it. Given the time it takes to rebuild soil and the lack of a possible alternative to healthy soil makes soil exhaustion and soil erosion an uncalculated economic costs. Montgomery found farming practises where soil conservation worked and fed high number of people per acre.
Secondly, Montgomery says only naivety believes producing cheap foods will eliminate hunger. We already have cheap food. Food distribution, social and political institutions cause as much hunger as food shortages. Environmental refugees exist because new political boundaries and taxes have compelled people to change their relationship to their land.
Thirdly, genetically modified crops will not feed the world. Montgomery believes the threshold to increasing crop yields has already been reached. To focus on single-crops proliferation also creates a shaky foundation for feeding the world. Montgomery warns of limiting the gene pool and the risk of releasing superplants into our environment. Numerous field trials have discovered that higher yields are not guaranteed with genetically modified crops. The USDA also discovered that pesticide use is not reduced with genetically modified crops.
Fourthly, most of the planet has poor soil where humans must adapt farming to the soil. In the past, we have adapted farming to meet political demands. Agricultural policies were forced on developing countries with tropical soils and/or poor soil to grow cash crops for export. These monoculture crops have destroyed the soil and the ability of people to feed themselves. When countries can no longer feed their people with local food, intense political and social conflicts arise as in the Middle East. When will these conflicts spill over into developed countries?
Slight global warming of a 1°C increase in temperature reduces rice yields by 10%. Montgomery says projections are similar for wheat and barley. What will happen with crop yields if there is a 1 to 5° C increase in temperature? But it is not just crop yields. With increased temps will come increased higher intensity rainfall producing additional soil erosion and in some marginal agricultural lands drought.
Soil erosion must not continue to exceed soil production. The difficulty lies in the time it takes to rebuild soil. Soil erosion occurs faster than soil formation especially the way the people manage their gardens, lawns, and conventional crop land. It takes 500 years to produce 1 inch of topsoil. With earthworms 1 inch can be produced in 100 years. History shows us that animals are essential to soil health. Forty cows can re-fertilize one quarter of land. Unfortunately, our good intentions are misdirected. Instead we focus on huge specialized grain farms, and the methane produced by cows rather than the cows' valuable contribution to soil building.
For instance, in the fall, we clean our gardens of the season's past growth, and rake leaves from lawns. Unfortunately, our good intentions are again misdirected. We are depriving the soil and its microbes and microfauna of food. Either leave the plants and leaves on top of the ground or mulch and spread. If you can't mulch, remember in time the garden and lawn does its own mulching. Even for organic farmers, ploughing down peas and clover into the ground is not as good as leaving the plants on top. Mulching and harrowing the peas and clover would better retain moisture.
As gardeners and farmers worldwide, we continue to till, use pesticides which exterminates microbes and microfauna important to soil formation, focus on conventional short-rotation and on single crop farming. Even irrigation is destructive. Irrigation destroys soil by increasing salts. In times before Christ, the Middle East grew crops through irrigation; "by 2000 BC, crop yields were down by half." All these current methods are not good for soil formation, severely restricting the soil's ability to rebuild, and minimize soil erosion.
Montgomery says research proves that huge mechanized farms are not more efficient and profitable than smaller traditional farms. Larger farms spend more per unit of production. Smaller farms are more efficient because these farms account for health, environment and social costs. Small farms can produce more food from the same amount of land. In 1992, US AG Census, discovered small farms grew 2-10 times more per acre than large farms. Even though large farms can produce greater yields for one crop (monoculture), diversified polyculture farms, often small farms, produce more food per acre based on the total output from several crops.
According to Montgomery, capital intensive agriculture will never feed the world. Large mechanized crops don't work because new equipment tills to a deeper depth. The huge specialized grain farms incorporate no terracing, no contour cultivation, no hedge rows, no tree breaks, and no use of livestock.
We cannot ignore how our soil is treated because the cost of soil abuse will be borne by all. In the past, kings with all their gold could not even buy food when food became scarce. Montgomery has solutions for urban people and for farmers all over the world. Increasing inputs will not help increase crop yields as topsoil thins and disappears. Montgomery's well-researched book demonstrates soil as an investment inheritance and farming as the living foundation for material wealth. Our society will grow and prosper only as long as our topsoil deepens and enriches. When we deny our topsoil, degrade it, then we will sacrifice our future ability to feed our global society, and our very existence.
Paula will review this book.
In Leaving Paradise, author Donna Wooton examines the larger themes of emigration and happiness. She compares the lives of three characters: the main character Susan, and two minor characters Tijean and Susan’s love interest Ian. The story takes place on the Turks & Caicos Islands. Susan, a Canadian school teacher, emigrates to this paradise and teaches at the local high school. When Tijean, a troubled student runs away, Susan blames herself and strives to rectify the situation.
Wooton persuasively demonstrates that a person emigrates only when refusing to deal with one’s problems. Fortunately, time and distance often helps a person to manage and develop a solution. Either the core of the problem follows a person, or increasingly severe alternative forms force a person towards learning the necessary lesson. Only Susan has her past follow her in the form of two Canadian tourists, forcing her to deal with her past. Tijean’s emigration provides solutions in a seamless manner that implies that his emigration was the right path. Although Ian’s reason for emigration is questioned, Ian ignores the question. In the end, his past takes him back to where the problem occurred. Enough time has passed that the past is never an issue.
This book also examines happiness through the lives of these three characters. For Susan, happiness is in the present: freedom to teach small classes; no cooking or cleaning for herself or others; a scooter to ride which requires no real exercise, especially on hills; sailboating where someone else does all the work and even provides a picnic lunch; swimming in a pool rather than in the shark-invested ocean; and a perfect male partner who never demands sex, always listens, prods gently at the right time, always understands, comes into a lots of money and willing shares his wealth unquestionably. For Tijean, happiness is an action, doing something he loves to do. For Ian, happiness is home called Nova Scotia and a luxury car.
Wooton drives the plot using Tijean who runs away. But this motivational force appears contrived. When Susan first hears the news of the student’s disappearance, she shows lack of concern with a shrug and a what-ever attitude. Over time the author tries to build Susan’s concern which supposedly influences Susan enough to leave paradise to try to influence the troubled boy to come home. For some reason, Susan feels it her fault the boy has run away. The author points out Susan’s perception that the boy’s mother blames her for her son’s inability, and Susan’s readiness to take the blame. Taking the blame for something outside of one’s control usually demonstrates immaturity and an incorrect perception of control.
Susan’s overwhelming need to influence Tijean’s return to the island implies she has had some impact on Tijean in the past. The parts written from Tijean’s point of view never hint at a relationship with Susan. The actions Susan takes are not credible when compared to her initial reaction to Tijean’s departure, and her past relationship with the student. Susan’s need to find the boy appears lame. In fact, the outcome of the boy’s future could have been dealt with by a phone call from the school’s special needs coordinator. The narrative drive of Leaving Paradise is not believable.
The lack of narrative drive then isolates the descriptive paragraphs, recollections and dialogues. For example, writer Donna Wooton describes in great detail Susan drying off after getting out of the shower. But there is no reason or drive behind this scene. No cancerous mole is found. No criminal charges into the bathroom. No Ian to rush in on her telling her of an emergency phone call from Tijean. Time and time again, I wondered why the author is telling me this.
Recollections were poorly handled with bad transitions. Often it seemed like a memory was inserted only because it was something the writer wanted to include, and the writer concluded that this would be the best spot for it. But often the transitions into and out of a recollection didn’t work. Nor did the recollection have a narrative drive. For example, social analysis of dinner parties, or the alphabetizing of a test papers before marking, or the peak energy consumption hours back home in Canada. These scenes may illustrate character development but drag heavily in the details and length. Susan wondered if memories coming back from childhood are a sign of middle age or coming menopause. In this case I doubt it; I believe these overwhelming and plentiful memories are a sign of too much free time. Living in a paradise with Susan’s conveniences would create a lot of spare time.
Inconsistencies appeared in sequencing and characterizations. For example Susan stops her motor on her scooter and daydreams. Then suddenly she awakes and swerves to avoid potholes, an inconsistency in sequencing. When we first meet Tijean who later runs away, he is described as a boy who loved routine and hated disruption. Suddenly he develops wanderlust in some unknown way, which is also being fed, until he runs away. Contradictory, so much so, I believe this to be a flaw in Tijean’s character development. I also noticed inconsistencies in Susan’s character. At one point the character describes herself as a good listener and counsellor. Then two pages later she insults Tijean’s parents, and reprimands herself for being unable to remain level-headed, and then feels slighted. It’s Tijean’s parents who should feel slighted, at the very least! Susan also asks yes or no questions. All these are definitely not characteristics of a good listener and counsellor. Are these flaws in character development or a middle-age character who is still confused about her abilities?
One minor character nailed the book’s weak point. Sam, the vet, says, “Holy Mother of Joseph, I’ve only just been introduced to you and now you’re lecturing me.” Throughout, Wooton lectures the reader with detailed facts just like a teacher would do in a classroom. I found this tedious. Interesting but tedious with the reoccurring question of why is she telling me this?
Although entitled Leaving Paradise, we never hear the details of those last couple of days of packing, arranging affairs, saying farewells, and the actual departure from the island. Throughout the book, Wooton emphasized the wonders of paradise and Susan’s happiness. If the main character is leaving paradise, we should experience the double-edges of regret and anticipation in the final exit.
Leaving Paradise demonstrates proven ability to describe, educate, and dialogue. But these elements must be threaded with a believable narrative drive that engages the reader and proves credible.
I was nervous before reading this book by Sarah Felix Burns, dreading a book about abuse, domestic violence and control. But I was glad to be introduced to Clemance (Clay-monse), years after her abuse. I felt her hurt, saw her stumbles, and desired her to find peace. The domestic violence hits the pages as historical recall during counselling sessions, about one third through the book. It was hard to read and terrifying. But it wasnâ€™t long, about 10 pages, interspersed with her current non-violent life.
The book has loads of discussion points: violence against women, Christianity, feminism, aboriginal spirituality, family dynamics, alcohol, drugs, inter-racial marriage, racial discrimination, poverty, bad childhood, and childhood guilt. This list is inconclusive. If I listed everything I may give the story away!
Clemance’s pregnancy acted as a catalyst to recall events in three ways. Real life struggles during her pregnancy triggered memories, stimulating more memories. The second method, quite acceptable for a pregnant state, was the powerful and vivid dreams. The third method, Clemance’s counselling sessions, was a good way to relate the abuse. The counsellor’s reaction helps the reader and sanctions that the horror should rest with the counsellor rather than in us. The counsellor helps the reader to distance. Thankfully, this book is not about a woman living day-by-day through domestic violence, stretched into two hundred pages. Instead it is a book about before and after her abuse. Although the book does not dwell on the actual abuse, Clemance lives with the after effects, which threaten her mental health. Some parts of her abuse she had never revealed, kept locked inside herself for an amazing long time.
This story leaps from the character’s current life of managing life as a pregnant woman on her own, and to her all-consuming past. The author handled the numerous time shifts extremely well, seemingly effortless in the movement. At no time, did I have to ask myself, “where am I in the story? The past or the present?”
Those of us who have never experienced physical violence in a domestic situation cannot comprehend the victim’s willingness to stay. How can we answer this unanswerable question: Why does she stay in the abusive relationship? Jackfish, The Vanishing Village attempts to answer this question by telling us Clemance’s story.
Many women would not willingly put themselves into a situation of domestic violence in order to understand. Through Clemance’s recounting, we can understand why Clemance “signed up” for domestic violence, and why her contract lasted so long with her abuser until she terminated the contract. From Clemance’s story, we gleam a theory to why a woman stays with an abuser.
For each woman, it varies to a degree of individuality. Each human being cherishes hopes and dreams for happiness, a desire for love, and a willingness to see the good side in people. Often these women have a lack of confidence. The question is where does this lack of self-confidence start? With Clemance, Burns sources it back to her childhood. Clemance’s first sin was her role in her sister’s missing fingers.
“Guilt, old guilt from early childhood, has a way of festering and compounding over time. When you grow up with the rawness of guilt devouring you from inside you have few defences against the outside world. To fill the void left from the rampaging badness, you take on the retribution, the punishment, and feel that it is rightly deserved.” Life events and the sins of other people can catapult a child into the cesspool of guilt. Counselling children after a tragic event whether experienced individually or collectively is of the utmost importance. By helping a child to work through “it”, and understand what her role was in the tragedy, the guilt can be demolished and replaced with understanding, which evolves into self-confidence. Without an adult to help a child like Clemance to work through the tragedy, Clemance’s guilt created low self-confidence, making her susceptible to domestic violence. Poor self-image is one reason why a woman stays in an abusive relationship.
Friends bolster confidence, sometimes providing confidence for a person. Our social relationships or our social networks are our reality checks and our confidence boosters. The abuser skillfully manipulates the destruction of the woman’s social network. He destroys it bit by bit in an innocuous manner using emotional isolation, and often different degrees of physical isolation and increasing physical violence. Then he replaces her varied relationships in her social network with himself, one source. Once a woman’s social network is gone, the woman is so much more susceptible to staying in the abusive relationship. Her reality checks are gone, blocked by the abuser who promotes his own reality check. The abuser also blocks any alternatives and options advocated by friends and family by isolating her from her friends and family. This is a second reason why a woman stays in an abusive relationship.
Then, there are patterns in everyone’s life. Sometimes, we don’t see a pattern in our own lives for a long time, for whatever reason. Suddenly, all the trials that we have suffered through make sense. A pattern is revealed, making us wonder why we couldn’t see this pattern before. Finally, we understand why we had to go through the bad times in order to get to the good times. Unfortunately for an abused woman, an abuser allows no time or room for introspection and analysis of the past and present. Instead he keeps the abused woman focused on his needs in the present, and her immediate self-preservation. This is the third reason why a woman stays in an abusive relationship.
Clemance called her time with abuser as her “captivity”. This leads to an interesting question. Do we take the worst from the domestic violent situation, the techniques used by the abuser, and turn it around to reform prisoners? For people who are in solitary confinement in jails, should we move towards rehabilitation by constantly transmitting “good values” through sound and video, showing alternatives, options, and possibilities for a better life? Should we have motivational speakers piped in over television sets, a type of brainwashing? Should satellite training courses on development and improvement of oral and written skills be piped in? Should we send in preachers and missionaries to speak of the Christian values? Who should choose the good values? And how would we teach these values? These questions would fire up any bookclub discussion!
Clemance moved around quite a bit in her life, within Canada and also within the United States. An important question for Clemance when meeting new people is to discover where they are from. “I believe that where a person is from is a big part of who they are.” As Clemance says, we get a deeper understanding of the person because that place has shaped their past and their identity. We know the truth in this when we assign values to a person raised in Canada or raised in the US.
When we understand where we are from, that knowledge should help to heal and move forward. Not so with Clemance, she knows her past but doesn’t know how to use it to heal. I would have liked some inner analysis and comparison between her parentâ€™s relationship and her own abusive relationship. It is there for the reader. But Clemance never consciously connects the dots. Even her first romantic relationship was with a man who was strange, threatening and intimidating at times. Her alcoholic father was strange, threatening and intimidating. In turn, she drank and took drugs after escaping her abuser. She exchanged one abuse for another. Maybe Clemance did compare, but Burns bypasses the analysis, making the reader wonder if Clemance ever saw the parallelism.
Is this character’s lack of analysis of her past familial and romantic relationships a weakness in the book? Or is it a deliberate attempt by Burns to show that some people are not long-term thinkers, and deep analyzers, and cannot connect the dots as they move through life. Is Burns saying short-term thinking is a weakness in all women who are victims of domestic violence? And that is why intervention and counselling are so important?
My criticism of the book surrounds the handling of lithium. Clemance stops taking lithium once she discovers she is pregnant. During her pregnancy, she revealed all of her hidden past to a counsellor. Subsequently, after breastfeeding is completed, Clemance seemingly no longer needs lithium. How can we interpret this? Most obviously, Burns may be implying that most users of lithium are not properly treated. That when confession comes from the soul, and true rehabilitation results, that lithium is a bandage to be ripped off. Is this realistic? Are there only two kinds of depression, one with chemical alterations in the brain, which requires some drug, and the other from life experiences, which requires true confession and counselling?
Even though Clemance hasn’t practised her catholic religion since childhood, Catholicism is still very much a part of her life. Clemance seeks redemption. I would say that Clemance is seeking forgiveness or healing. Those three words have very different connotations: redemption, forgiveness and healing. Her focus on redemption proves that where a person is from influences identity, the present, and the future. But not just origin influences, past experiences can mark for life as Clemance’ captivity marked her. It can be an hour like the Twin Towers, or it can be years as in the internment camps for Japanese Canadians during World War II.
One of my favourite parts involves a kidless person giving advice. Clemance’s sister who never had kids considers herself an expert on children. Part of her assumed expertise comes from being a teacher. She phones Clemance and gives a speech on what a mixed race child will face in the future. Clemance’s rebuttal is priceless. The effortless way Clemance voices her thoughts reveals the depth of her analysis of racial discrimination. To release the gnawing doubts that take hold after the conversation, Clemance remembers a situation that contrasts and quells the doubts instilled by her sister. This process teaches the reader how to deal with those doubts.
Burns places high value on worldly experiences. When Clemance moves to Vancouver after her abuse, she discovers a whole new world. “With empowerment and knowledge came the realization that there were different classes of people. It became clear to me where I fit in.” Then during the latter stages of her pregnancy while off work, Clemance receives a traditional Christmas newsletter from a social services ex-coworker. The coworker expresses religious happiness with her small town life. “I wonder if she will look back one day when she is eighty years old (for surely she will live that long), and regret that she never left this small American town. She was born here, raised here, and will die here with all her people.” Perhaps that is what is wrong with religion, religious values segregate and make people fearful of differences, just like Clemance’s sister. When a person experiences different cultures, towns, or cities, far away from one’s origins, come understanding, empathy and acceptance to the breadth and diversity of human existence.
Not all of us can travel extensively. With books, we can travel anywhere and experience many different lives. Just as we should travel outside of our home zone, so we should reach out to books that are outside of our comfort zone. The summary of Jackfish, The Vanishing Village was very much outside of my comfort zone. In reading this book, I travelled in a world that I have never experienced. Some of it was difficult but not prolonged as I had anticipated. In the end, I gained understanding, empathy and acceptance of women who had experienced domestic violence, widening my travels in the breadth and diversity of human existence.
Entopia is ripe for bookclub discussion. After a traumatic accident, Gazer our heroine ant loses her way during her food gather routine and discovers the royal, luxurious chambers of a princess ant. Hiding in the shadows, Gazer learns that the princess ant will fly off with fertilized eggs to start a new colony. Part of royalty, the princess ant benefits from the masses engaged in anthill routine with plenty of rent and mountainous food on which to gorge. Ignorance breeds complacency. This unveiling of how royalty lives moves Gazer out of ignorance and into trouble.
Rad Zdero’s dialogues waft Shakespearean. I found the lyrical cadences refreshing to my eye and brain.
“Although she was unafraid to die by being inhaled by an Outside Beast, her grandest hope, rather, was to meet her end in the same heroic manner as did one of the first ants of ancient times not forgotten. And so, the mythical tale of a large multitude of ants died for a new colony to be borne. Based on this old tale of sacrifice, the ant colony was built on sacrifice for the communal good. Individuality matter not. Everything was on a need to know basis, oneâ€™s duties for the day. The ants lived without hope, unaware of hopeâ€™s existence, filled with ignorance and blocked by secrecy.”
Is Gazer a believable character? Not many personal glimpses, although her network of friendships sustains hers. She is a worker, committed to her duties. With new knowledge, Gazer dreams and questions her society. Zdero uses mostly female ants to people his story. The primary characters could have been easily portrayed as male ants. Zdero’s quality as a writer shines with his character development when he refrains from female and male stereotypes.
The coming of the “Pale White Ant” was used to move the plot. I didn’t understand the Pale White Ant which was later dropped in the story. Perhaps that disappearance confused me. It is supposed to be the spirit and the god of the ants. Similar to the religious icons in our world, God, Jesus, and Allah are never explained but developed from faith and stories. Our gods, as the Pale White Ant, must be taken on faith. Through outspoken prayer the Queen shows how the proclaimed religious beliefs guide the ants lives.
War helped to move plot. The ants’ wars occur not because of religious beliefs but because of material goods and slave potential. In the first war, blue grey horde of ants pilfers, kills and captures ants, destroying community order. After living and fighting through the second war, Gazer with others leave.
Entopia uses the slaughter of thousands during war to evolve a society, with a different societal structure. The ants are not motivated until under stress, threat and endangerment. Isnâ€™t that the same with humans? Will we destroy ourselves the larger our cities grow in material abundance? Will we attract attention? Will the “have-nots” uprise against the “haves”?
Entopia: Revolution of the Ants belongs into the same genre of Animal Farm: A Fairy Story by George Orwell. For bookclubs, I would recommend reading Entopia and Animal Farm for comparative study and discussion. Each book is just over hundred pages. When Animal Farm was published in 1945, Orwell wrote during World War II in the fight between capitalism vs. nazism. With Entopia published in 2008, Zdero would have written during the increasing rift between the free world and third worlds, between the rich and poor, and many worldwide conflicts killing thousands.
Animal Farm had a society of different animals that revolted against the human to form a new classless society. Orwellâ€™s animals wanted an easier life with more freedom and unity. In Entopia, the ant society artificially created differences in appearances to develop class structures. Revolution of the ants occurred with knowledge that all ants did not take part in food production, nor did all ants share equally. Knowledge breeds discontent until the needs of freedom and equality are met. Knowledge demands equalization. For the ants who evolved into a new ant hill, the new revolutionary keys were information sharing, communal decision making, and communal food production for all.
Common projects pull people together. In Animal Farm, building the windmill was a value-added project above basic needs. The farm animals did not understand or appreciate this building and then re-building of the windmill. In the new colony of Entopia, all the ants understood and believed in the common purpose of gathering food, working with added benefits of freedom, equality and purpose.
The chronicles or belief system of the new colony should have been explained sooner. In Entopia, I thought the second war had been fought for survival and for the coming of the Pale, White Ant. But later three words of equality, freedom and unity were bandied about once the new colony was established. The reader never fully comprehends the chronicles until Gazer’s big speech just before the third war. These chronicles should have been pulled into the story sooner.
Is Zdero’s new society believable? The new colony maintains discipline and order on a committee level, creating more loyalty. Every female ant can become fertile to produce future generations. How does this new ant colony comment on our societal structures of cities? With cities comes more emphasis on material gains and regulation; smaller rural centers focus on deregulation, freedom, and equality.
Animal Farm was not able to preserve freedom, equality and unity. I believe the reason was that education fell by the wayside. In Entopia, the new society maintained education that in turned sustained the new society, hopefully continuing beyond the end of the novel.
Another major difference in the two books was the historical context placed on the revolutions. Animal Farm dwelt on the past, instilling fear. Entopia portended to the future by focusing on knowledge as society’s driver. Allegorical books simplify societal structures for exploration on social evolution, without all the human baggage. Can this ant allegorical evolution happen with humans? Not en masse. Just one ant at a time.
Zdero questions our society’s regulation and hierarchy, the accumulation of wealth for the very rich, and the deep divide between the rich and poor. This gap continues to deepen. We must think on how our society is structured, and how each religion limits our societal structures.
Are we concerned with the individual well-being? Should we be concerned about community well-being of this generation or the next? How about the individual well-being of future generations? Or does this book comment on profits for the few shareholders while ignoring the outsiders who do not belong to the right company?
From Zdero’s Entopia, I received the message that as a society our emphasis on material acquisition by the very few will lead to war. Someday an army of the needy and discontent will come looking. As a society we must decentralize, and depopulate our cities either moving into smaller towns, or creating communities that are self-supporting through interdependence of individual members. This would also encourage food production by all members of our society. With less emphasis on materials, we are less likely as a society to attract unwanted attention through war and strife. By sharing the work, the wealth and the knowledge, we will dissolve discontent, and breed freedom, equality, and unity.
Food crises in many countries brings to the forefront the problems of ability to pay, and the ability or desire to distribute food. Raj Patel in Stuffed and Starved considers the world's food trading system.
Patel's analysis is backed by work experience with the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and as a consultant with the United Nations. Being in the depths of the elites did not convert Patel. In the end, he has campaigned again his former employers.
Patel's information sheds light on the food crises, and the Canadian debate around the Canadian Wheat Board and North American Free Trade Agreement. Patel states "producers aren't meant to be the winners from trade liberalization." If the market place can intensify competition among producers the marketplace wins with lower input costs. The whole focus of the marketplace is to feed the industrial workers in cities with cheap food bought with their low wages. When producers compete for sales without marketing boards, the gains go to the bottlenecks of the food distribution in the form of higher profits, and to consumers with a continued supply of cheap food.
The marketplace concept assumes a pyramid with the producers at the top, and consumers at the bottom. Unfortunately with global food trade, there are many producers at the top with low income, who can consume very little. Instead of the pyramid, Patel says we have an hourglass with distributors in the middle.
Like all schematic designs, this hourglass assumes stability and orderliness. The idea is to scalp for profits when supply is low and demand is high. Today's headlines show orderliness does not occur with food scarcity.
The US believes in food security and strives to maintain export agriculture started during World War II. The US economy benefits when their foreign food aid is exported with strings attached.
Patel believes technological solutions such as yield boosting crops, hybrid seeds, and genetically modified crops have muffled a political problem, such as unwillingness for land reform on a fair and equitable manner.
I would argue technological solutions have also muffled an economic problem. Worldwide food distribution lines are not conceived and maintained for local economies. Instead, food manufacturers have taken control of our food production and food processing. With little time in our lives and little production space, urban people have lost the ability to make pancakes without pancake mix, macaroni and cheese without the box, taco without the kit, and soup without the can.
Patel says we should ask ourselves the following. What are the questions the food industry fails to ask? What are the interests that they represent? What are the solutions they peddle? What are the strategies? Patel says the answers will demonstrate the forces in the food industry. A question that cuts to the quick is who is or will make money? Will farmers really benefit?
The existing world food system will fail unless it changes to the demands of biology, geography, history and democracy. In recent African history, hunger-related deaths are not triggered by the lack of specific crops. It is due to a number of factors such as armed conflict, resource pillage or shortage, governmental priorities, free trade, and the destruction of social mechanisms.
Biotechnology tells North American farmers that we need biotechnological crops to feed the rest of the world. The rest of the world is in trouble because of our export agriculture, monocultural agriculture and foreign food aid that destroyed agricultures in other countries.
Patel argues that in famines such as the Bengal famine of 1943, there was enough food to feed the population, just not the proper distribution. Today, many are hungry because they cannot afford to buy available food. While people are starving, marketplace speculators stockpile commodities waiting for famine to spike prices.
Obesity in children is the canary singing in the minefield. Patel points to the lack of grocery stores in poor areas. In Saskatchewan, we can point to the provincial government's recent cancellation of Saskatoon's Station 20 West. The centre was to include a food cooperative with 70% funding from the provincial government. In March 2008, the provincial government pulled the guaranteed $8 million. Over 12 years ago, the last grocery store pulled out of the Saskatoon inner core. Lack of grocery stores replicates across poor communities in North America.
My only criticism was Patel's opinion on CO2 from livestock, and the cause of mad cow disease. The emphasis on CO2 from livestock must be juxtaposed against CO2 from humans. Patel should research Mark Purdy's findings for the cause of mad cow disease. Obese children are the canaries in the minefield so to the cows suffering from madcow disease, poultry with H5N1, and contaminated vegetables. No one questions the relationship with factory production to the cause of animal illnesses, and food contamination.
Patel's book follows basic human principles of justice, fairness, and equality of opportunity, not political principles. He highlights different food alternatives in Brazil, Cuba, and poor areas of the United States. He suggests alternatives in the line of the Slow Food Movement, Community Supported Agriculture with other ideas. I would include Sally Fallon's movement in going back to the basics, knowing where your food comes from and how it is produced. We need to know what questions to ask, to identify our relationships to the food system's hourglass, and to act based on our relationships.
Promoted as a biography of a man fulfilling his dream, Jack's Farm is actually an autobiography of a marriage. Jack and his dream inspired the book. But author Joan Levey Earle's central focus is her marriage with Jack. Earle explores what is needed for a marriage to work, mainly communication and perseverance.
In the process of describing her thirty years of marriage, she uses the dream to step the readers through the growth and development of a marriage. The marriage is the main character. The dream of possessing an old farm is the plot. The marriage partners must work to owning the acreage, and then developing the old house to acceptable standards of full-time cohabitation.
Could this be a self-help book on how to make a marriage work? It has all the elements. The first element of self-help comes through when Joan complains to a priest about her difficult husband Jack. In this particular case, Catholicism envelops the self-help. The priest tells Joan to pray for what is best for her husband. Praying for what is best is thinking positive in the latest self-help books. In the earliest self-help books, praying would be daily envisioning and focusing on one's goals.
Daily prayer, positive thinking or a vision instills a burning desire, another self-help element. When a person keeps hammering on a point, hopefully a positive one and not those negative comments running through one's mind, then this point turns into belief or faith.
Joan's constant, daily burning desire for her husband to have what is best for him created a faith. This faith directed her actions, another self-help element. Her faith enabled her reluctantly to agree to owning and managing a bookstore, working on her prayer for her husband.
Joan uses self-help or her Catholic faith to help her through most of her married life. She believed tithing to their church resulted in the family never being without. From an objective point of view, I think Jack's work as a labourer during that time resulted in the family never being without. But it really does not matter what I think. For Joan, her faith that her family would be fine through tithing lead to acts and behaviour on her part and her husband that ensured the family's basics.
The author says it take years to learn how to communicate in a marriage? I disagree. I think it depends on the generation and on the personality types. In a marriage, how do the partners speak? Does one partner speak in a plain tongue with thought and care given? Or does one speak in two tongues, with two meanings? On the other hand, before speaking, does one know what the inside soul wants and how to communicate that desire? Quite how, people do not know what they want, or argue over small issues that mask an unresolved principle.
Joan tells us that we learn to appreciate the differences in a marriage when we mature. This would indicate that Joan got married before she even knew herself. She acknowledged her maturing process. If she had met Jack before her mid-twenties before she matured, she would not even have looked at this handsome "techie" guy, she recounts. In Joan's case, her faith did pull her through the first twenty years of marriage until she felt she had married the right guy.
I found the lack of discussion in Joan and Jack's marriage frustrating, especially with a major change in the relationship. When Jack moved full-time to the acreage, Joan would come for the weekends. Distance can make the heart grow fonder which happened in their marriage. Joan said, "We never discussed this new change in our relationship. It always seemed more mysterious and romantic to Jack not to talk about these things." My first thought was how did Joan know Jack thought it was more mysterious and romantic. I think it was really Joan's desire for mystery and romance. These feelings would be more in character with Joan's artistic and spontaneous nature than with Jack's methodological approach to life.
When Jack moved to the acreage to work full-time on renovations, Joan missed him. "Even the frowns that might come over his face when I said the wrong thing or started to whine about my long day in the store." Why did Jack frown when she said something? I wanted to dig into this more because I think Jack felt some obligation. Joan said Jack considered it wrong. How can it be wrong? What was wrong about it? Moreover, what was wrong about complaining about a long day at the store? Did he frown because he felt guilt, or wondered if the bookstore was the right idea. In one example, she said she had a critical heart for not knowing the importance of re-using water in the home without amenities. In this case, ignorance is an excuse for not understanding the culture of "roughing it". Joan was too hard on herself.
When Joan felt the need to burn negative writings from earlier years, she asked Jack to start a fire to burn some papers. However, she never told him what she was burning. I can just imagine Joan and Jack silently standing around a burning barrel, Jack with a long stick in his hand probing and stirring the papers that Joan had occasionally threw into the barrel. What kind of discussion would have flowed if Joan had told Jack what she was burning? What would Jack have said? Maybe uplifting words for Joan? Most importantly, what would he have shared about himself, about how he had changed too?
These missed opportunities into Jack's thinking made him one-dimensional. I wanted to get to know Jack better but I could not find much depth to his character. Other events that happened in Jack's life I wanted more fully developed. Why did it take Jack four years to renovate an apartment? Why did Jack not insist that Joan get her driver's license. Why did Jack tell his mother-in-law about her son's death? What was his relationship with Joan's brother? Why did Jack avoid eating his favourite food bread during the summer and winter solstice? In the Christian faith, fasting from favourite foods happens usually during Lent in March, not in the fall and early winter.
Another tantalizing line about Jack, "Purchasing the old bookstore had been Jack's idea and I had reluctantly agreed to that decision." Instead of expanding on this major turning point in their life, Joan described the trials of running the store. I still had questions that were never answered like WHY did Jack want to purchase an old bookstore, why a bookstore, and not a sporting goods store, or some other business? I felt Jack's replies would have spoke volumes about his character.
Was it part of the book's mandate to explore Jack's character? At first, this book seemed to be an idolization of Jack. The marriage comes into focus when Jack worked at the stationary store, where they "hung out" together. Joan discovered something about her husband that she had not known for close to thirty years. That story amazed me with its simple ability to portray the marriage.
I find it fascinating that Jack liked many lone occupations: in his youth duck hunting, then later marathon running, cross-country skiing, hunting, working as telephone lineman, and renovating an old farm house on his own. I heard about physical aspects of Jack and the physical changes to the acreage. This acreage symbolized Jack.
The lack of amenities is a definite plus with less cleaning, and no worries about the water and power systems along with all the equipment that should function properly. When Jack informed Joan that the Christmas Day visit with the kids had to be shorten in order to stoke the woodstove every few hours, I was confused. With no plumbing, the house could have "frozed down" without ill effects. Perhaps, Jack used the stoking the heater as an excuse to leave the sometimes-overwhelming family celebrations of a Christmas Day. This would be in keeping with Jack's character.
I wanted to know more about Jack and Joan's birth order, their siblings, and their own children. In recounting the grieving process, Joan answered some of these questions briefly. At the end, I discovered neither Jack nor Joan had travelled far from their birthplace when I had thought the opposite.
Jack's Farm leads me to wonder whether marriage forces us into roles that stunt growth? There were clearly defined roles within the marriage. Joan was the spiritual and emotional personality. Jack was the physical, and practical one. The marriage symbolized Joan with her development and growth throughout the thirty-years of marriage. After Jack's death, Joan's character reached a new level in multi-dimension. Joan's blossoming could only have occurred by living in Jack's renovated farmhouse, a minor character. Joan Levy Earle's autobiography of her marriage details an understandable sequence of events for moving beyond life's hardships into life's blessings.
Farzana Doctor would be happy to participate in book club meetings either in person in the Toronto area, or by speaker phone. To arrange this, please call Doctor at 647-899-8974.
When I picked up Stealing Nasreen, I expected an abundance of lesbian experiences, from the first time exploration to dramatic break-ups. As I started reading it, I thought it was about immigration to Canada and adaptation in Canada. The lesbian theme did occur but more as a tangent, a tease. Then I thought this book was about relationships. After getting to know the characters, I concluded differently on the author's theme and purpose.
The three main characters are very real, very credible, and very moralistic. Throughout the book, the characters grow, often fumbling and telling lies when attempting to avoid pain, grief, and loss. They finally understand that they must confront their fears and lies that created the problems in the first place.
We are first introduced to Shaffiq, an Indian male immigrant. His lie is his continual optimism about being in Canada. He recognizes that he has faked this optimism after the "honeymoon" of being in Canada. Yet, he cannot reveal this lie to his wife, Salma. To spice up his mundane job, he searches for clues about the people around him, creating melodrama in his life. He focuses on Nasreen, a second-generation Indian woman. Nasreen does not represent romantic interest for Shaffiq, but Canadian success for an Indian person.
Salma is the central character. Her lie is her efforts to make life successful in Canada. Starved for social stimulation, she turns to her religion. Dwelling on the past, on good things back in India, Salma returns to an unresolved thread in life and creates melodrama in her lonely life in Canada.
Nasreen, a modern-day Canadian woman, finds herself in the middle of Salma and Shaffiqâ€™s marriage, after unintentionally sparking off a crisis with these immigrants. Having lost her mother to cancer, Nasreen rejects the painful grieving process and her father, along with avoiding the grief from her break-up with her lover. She is the catalyst in the lives of Salma and Shaffiq.
Farzana Doctor slowly introduces us to Salma's and Shaffiq's backgrounds and work histories. This purposeful direction enables us to see Salma and Shaffiq first as individuals, before our stereotyping can occur. In some ways, Shaffiq and Salma are very much like, practical in agreeing to an arranged marriage. Their cultural, ethnical, and economic backgrounds demanded practicality to ensure some individual control over their futures. Nasreen experiences no such restrictions. The demands in her life have been minimal which leaves her character development on a more superficial level than Shaffiq's and Salma's.
Nasreen's life revolves around either or choices on simplistic matters, rather than seeing other alternatives. Doctor illustrates this symbolically. Nasreen goes to the grocery store, and hears her mother and her ex-girlfriend's voices in dispute over which cereal to buy. Rather than seeing other alternatives besides the two boxes of cereal, Nasreen takes both cereal boxes.
Doctor describes believable incidents that help readers to identify and sympathize with her characters, like Nasreen's father. He curses the broken automatic garage door-opener, which he always talks about fixing. After opening the door, he buckles up to drive the last three meters into the garage. I like the details that demonstrate character traits. Nasreen's father seems like so many other urbanites. Doctor describes Nasreen standing before the open fridge door for too long, and about how she hurriedly cleans her whole apartment before a guest imminent arrival.
Doctor uses parallel constructions with skill. As an example, Shaffiq wonders whether his thinking has become more melodramatic. "Carrying on with his cleaning, he imagines love affairs as he scrubs toilets, conflicts and ruined lives while mopping floors, and heartbreaking betrayals when emptying garbage cans."
Is melodrama a condition of a recent immigrant, of a humdrum job, or of a humdrum life? Does melodrama sprout when leisure time is available? Shaffiq wonders at all the Canadian people with such problems. Back home in India, he had never heard of depression, anxieties, shoplifting, and excessive drinking. Salma feels the loneliness from Shaffiq working the night shift. In her loneliness and solitude, Salma reaches out to Nasreen, creating her own melodrama. Nasreen builds her melodrama from her inability to release her former lover, and to deal with the loss of her mother. Do we create our melodrama when we are unsatisfied with our lives, lying to our close intimates and ourselves? Doctor implies that without honesty we will be melodramatic, as happens to the main characters in this book. Once internal dissatisfaction solidifies and peaks in melodramatic reality, then circumstances force the characters to admit and to choose.
We are introduced to the lesbian world with a history of Nasreen's entrance into her own sexual orientation. Exploring Nasreen's lesbian lifestyle reveals the character of a lesbian relationship, the similarity to heterosexual relationships. The author dissolves the unfamiliarity for mainstream readers by showing the familiarity of relationships between two lovers, no matter what the sexual orientation.
I wondered about Salma's lesbian crushes in India. People crave intimacy. With the cultural restrictions around non-familial relationships of the opposite sex, it is no wonder that Salma develops deep feelings for someone of the same sex. In Canada, Salma finds Nasreen who provides intellectual stimulation, sympathy, and a chance to resolve her badly ended lesbian relationship in India. In turn, Nasreen understands what it is like to be the person who is desired, and pursued. This is one example where Doctor contrasts and layers a relationship allowing us to see situations from different viewpoints, using past events and other relationships.
The engagements of a therapist or a psychologist reveal lies or avoidance in the patients' lives. All the characters including the two whom were in therapy resolve their problems outside of the therapist office. However, other people play the therapist role informally, demonstrating the importance of communication. Doctor beautifully writes, "…Salma and Shaffiq sit awake thinking about all the clues that tell them, they need to mind their marriage." They become mindful of other people and their surroundings that supply clues. Both Salma and Shaffiq have wonderful insightful dreams that hint at resolutions to their marriage problem.
Is this book about relationships? Doctor portrays many types, with contrasting viewpoints: inter-racial romance vs. same-race romance, Indian-grown romance vs. Canadian-born romance, mother vs. daughter, father vs. daughter, sister vs. brother, young lovers vs. long-time marriage, lesbian vs. heterosexual, therapist vs. patient. Interestingly, readers can see the similarities and solutions, but the characters seem blinded. For example, Nasreen, a psychologist, goes to see a therapist herself. The therapy sessions demonstrate restricted intercourse with her therapist, and Nasreen avoiding her own grief. She repeats the dialogue with one of her own clients who lost her mother, making Nasreen a questionable psychologist in her current state.
I loved this book for its varied themes, layers, meanings, and symbolism. In the end, I believe Stealing Nasreen is about "life", a fresh look at living life through the eyes of recent immigrants to Canada.
Book Review for Eight Miles High by D. B. Borton
A book is similar to a painting. When painting the artist must lead the viewer through the painting. The artist decides on the purpose of the painting. Then by exaggerating some things and simplify others, the artist shares his vision. The viewer will never perceive this underlying structure. But every successful painting will have it.
This book is labeled a mystery. And so when I picked up the book I expected a story with the elements that would fit into the genre of mystery. A mystery has a plot. A mystery starts with the unknown and unexplained, and ends with the known and explained. Every chapter, character and fact of the mystery is there to move the plot forward. There should be many small climaxes leading to one major climax, followed by a conclusion.
Eight Miles High did not have the elements a mystery. Sure, it started with a lame but real enough unknown. Why were two ladies dead? But then … nothing. For more than half the book, plot was totally and completely forgotten. There were whole chapters where nothing happened. These chapters were stuffed full of facts about WASP and new characters. There were characters upon characters, all of whom seemed to possess two if not three different names. But through it all, not a plot to be found.
In the last quarter of the book, the writer comes back to solving a mystery. But by this point I was so disheartened, confused and disillusioned, it was a chore to be interested. The one thing that would have compensated me for all my hard work of sifting thru reams of words would have been a spectacular climax to it all. Sadly I could not even figure out who exactly the “murderer” was, let alone celebrate his demise.
The author failed to lead her readers thru her work of art. All characters were given equal value. The potential climaxes were not exaggerated. The facts that did not contribute to plot were not simplified. The story therefore was too blurred and distorted to bring enjoyment to a reader and be considered a success.