Book Review: Conflict Is Not Abuse, by Sarah Schulman

I’ve noticed more and more over the last decade that less and less people want to use the phone. I cannot help but draw a correlation between this observation and the ubiquitous rise of digital communication. Email? Sure. Text? Yup. And what’s wrong with this, you might ask? On paper it would objectively appear that text-based communication (particularly including social media) is superior at transferring information without error, if only us pesky humans didn’t make mistakes. And this last part is key: we are not objective, we balance the objective world with our much less easily measurable experiential (or personal) reality; this second reality is informed by our experiences, which are diverse and sometimes punctuated by trauma or loss. When we talk to someone on the phone we are leaving ourselves prone — to fallibility (stammering, going off on a tangent), or having our hesitations read as something we may not otherwise wish to reveal.

I was thinking about these things (and many others) when I began reading Sarah Schulman’s powerful book, Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair. The problem with nearly all forms of digital communication and social media (with the exception of apps like Skype, etc) is that there is no actual dialogue — we aren’t allowed to have the sort of vulnerable conversations that speaking in-person or on the phone forces us into. And, in one of the book’s more important diagnoses, Schulman recognizes this as a key ingredient in the escalation of violence. Instead we are only allowed to trade unidirectional statements, leaving nuance and human connection by the wayside. So, when we have a disagreement with someone via text it becomes easy to pile on them, to vilify them. We can’t see them and there is no way for them to interject. On a social media platform like Twitter, this sort of conflict easily escalates into directing the wrath of groups upon an individual. Continue reading

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Book Review: The Trouble With Physics, by Lee Smolin

I posted about this book earlier, noting that it was surprisingly hard to get into, particularly for someone such as myself who, while not majoring in physics in high school, has always been curious about science and particularly interested (since a young age) in the concepts surrounding quantum physics. Boy, what a difference the last half of a book can make.

Smolin’s approach to the organization of information in his book might make sense to him, and – if I had an undergraduate in physics – it would to me also. He begins by stating five fundamental unsolved problems with our understanding of the universe, not already explained by Einstein’s theory of relativity (governing big stuff) and quantum physics (governing small stuff). He then goes on to discuss the idea of string theory and how it was posited as a candidate for a unifying theory which might possibly go to explain these unresolved problems (along with the effects of gravity). After laying out the details, he then discusses the Continue reading

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The Trouble With The Trouble With Physics

I’m on my second attempt reading Lee Smolin’s 2006 book The Trouble With Physics. I am reminded of a similar situation with another book, Joyce’s Ulysses. And, similarly, my second attempt with The Trouble With Physics is not a reappraisal but a confirmation: this is hard to read.

Smolin’s book is making a case for the fact that string theory is a failure; a spectacular failure that its adherents defend with a most byzantine theoretical web; that, because string theory is de rigueur in so many of the top schools, with so many reputations at stake, no one wants to recognize the fact that string theory — an attempt to harmonize the ideas of quantum theory and relativity so that we might understand the foundation of the universe more clearly — is a dead end.

The problem I’m (still) having with the book is that Smolin is writing to an audience that is willing to take a steep (try 90 degrees upward) climb in order to understand the various concepts and theories which not only formed the foundation of string theory, but the issues that weren’t resolved through the original work of Newton, Einstein, etc. Smolin lays out in the beginning various fundamental aspects of how things work that we simply don’t know — instilling early that scientific inquiry is, if anything, about the need for curiosity. However, given Smolin’s densely described approach to get us ready to understand his arguments, and while I don’t doubt the necessity, I think he would need to double the length of his book to do so effectively for interested readers who are not physicists.

What is more successful, and the reason I continue to read it, is how Continue reading

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Book Review: The Therapy Industry, by Paul Moloney

I don’t have a lot of time or head space for reviews of any kind these days, however I try to make an exception for work which deserves attention, if only for sake of better exposure and discussion.

One of these works is the book The Therapy Industry, The Irresistible Rise of the Talking Cure and Why it Doesn’t Work by author Paul Moloney (Pluto Press). I came across this provocative title through Moloney’s recent curation of new book releases on the site New Left Project. What follows is a necessarily compressed review, certainly more so than what you would normally find for this sort of work, and perhaps more succinct than this book deserves.

Let’s stop the bus and draw your attention to the driver. My interest in this book is complex and certainly not unbiased: I’m a relational psychotherapist – it is a career I chose later in life and one whose practice and philosophy I have a deep, evolving respect for. However, increasingly I have found myself dissatisfied with the level of critical discussion about the array of available therapeutic modalities, the politics non-medical practitioners encounter with respect to recognition in an increasingly medicalized notion of mental health, and not least the pecking orders (particularly reinforced by those practitioners who receive provincial health care coverage, those who receive coverage via corporate health benefits plans, and those who receive neither).

I was drawn to this book not only for its stated critical approach but also, perhaps relievedly, that it was written by someone who is a counselling psychologist and lecturer. This is not, in other words, a journalistic view from the outside. Quite selfishly I thus figured that it must have some sort of a happy ending. And, in short, it does, though you need to swallow some hard medicine first.

The gist of The Therapy Industry is that there is a disconnect between the mainstream approach toward treating those with mental health issues and the realities of (at the very least Western) industrialized society which is becoming more and more demanding upon us, economically, socially, and – as a result – psychologically. The system generally available to the public – from awareness campaigns to the attitudes of medical and non-medical practitioners – goes to lengths to make those seeking help feel that the problems they are experiencing are the product of their genes or their own faulty reasoning about the world around them. Or, if the practitioner does recognize that there is a probable cause that is environmental rather than genetic, the prevailing course of treatment is, in essence, mind over matter. According to the book there is, in short, some denial about the more environmental causes in the marked rise of mental health-related issues over the last century. And worse still, if there is clinical – which is to say institutionalized – denial then that doubly disfavours those seeking help. Continue reading

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Book Review: Therafields, by Grant Goodbrand

It was with considerable surprise when, browsing the shelves of our favourite used bookstore, Balfour Books, I was handed a book by my wife. “Did you see this?” It was purporting to be about a massive psychoanalytic commune which had its roots in downtown Toronto during the 60s and 70s. I was surprised because I’d never heard of it before – the group was called Therafields. I was immediately struck by the communal angle, the era, the emphasis on psychological investigation – it was like being handed a screenplay by David Cronenberg. The fact that I am studying psychotherapy and its theoretical/historic development made it irresistible.

Subtitled The Rise And Fall of Lea Hindley-Smith’s Psychoanalysis Commune, Grant Goodbrand’s Therafields is just that. From the mid-60s till the early-80s, what was eventually coined Therafields, became one of the largest active communes in North America (significant considering both the era and that it happened with virtually no physical or cultural traces left in this city), owning as many as 35 houses within, and 400 acres of farmland just outside Toronto. At its apex it had over 900 members.

Starting out with a modest practice in the Annex, Welsh émigré Lea Hindley-Smith began by seeing people in her home. Her open embrace of students combined with an uncanny ability to get to the bottom of her clients’ problems (not to mention her real estate acumen) conspired along with the socially progressive ideals of the 60s to develop a remarkable experiment in psychotherapy: a live/work environment which operated also as an ongoing group-process for its members, all under the auspices of Hindley-Smith who became their professor, CEO, and den mother. More houses were bought so that more living spaces could be added to accommodate new members, and new groups were developed. The story of Therafields is an account of how this creative hive eventually became an unmanageable empire. It is also an invaluable reflection of the changes happening at the time, guest-starring those stranded by the revoked promises of Vatican II, the back-to-the-farm movement, and the idea that psychotherapy could be about society rather than the individual.

I am a child of the 70s. Nothing could possibly be less meaningful than that statement. However, culturally speaking, I was surrounded by the 70s. The mid-70s to mid-80s were a formative time in Canadian television. In other words, we saw a lot of ourselves. And what we saw was produced and inflected by those who came of age in the 60s and early 70s (that’s the way it always worked until recently, by the way – the older generation helped the younger generation identify with their own generation). In other words, I can imagine Therafields, while reading about it. Goodbrand has done a good job of contextualizing the era in which his book takes place. It also helps that Goodbrand was a key member of Therafields himself, and as such is gifted with a familiarity which an outside author would struggle to develop. The flip-side to that statement is that an outside author might have had a better chance of keeping the rhythm of the book’s story consistent: there is a habit of temporal back-and-forth which does not make for smooth comprehension at times.

Considering Goodbrand’s credentials, Therafields unfortunately suffers from a detached perspective. He is as qualified as anyone to write about Lea Hindley-Smith and those who were key to the group’s skyward development – like esteemed poet bpNicol, for example – yet it seems only an accumulation of actions, the plotline of a biography, which gives us clues to the hearts beating behind the cast of characters. Goodbrand’s book sometimes reads like an account rather than an experience.

And here we come to a marketing dilemma: I’m not sure who the intended audience is. I am thankfully, luckily, well-suited to read, understand, and enjoy Therafields. Yet… With its insistence on differentiating what Hindley-Smith practiced (Kleinian) from classical psychoanalysis, without necessarily providing a debriefer for the reader on what makes Kleinian psychoanalysis different from it, I cannot imagine the “average reader” walking away knowing what that all should mean. Perhaps that won’t matter if they are keen on digging into a prime slice of Toronto history – complete with addresses, one could conceivably operate a motor-tour of where Therafields took place.

It is, nonetheless, an insightful read and an invaluable chronicle of a peculiar social/cultural phenomenon. Therafields, by Grant Goodbrand (ISBN: 978-1-55022-976-9), is available (evidently) from a used bookstore near you, and also online.

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Book Review: The Tiger, by John Vaillant


(I had done a mini-review of this on my end-of-the-year post, but thought it merited its own entry)

I found myself flipping through the Globe and Mail book section one weekend in the fall of 2010, and found myself staring at a review for a non-fiction book called The Tiger, by author John Vaillant. Let me begin by saying that I am a prolific reader, yet not someone fazed by what’s new so much as what interests me. To this extent, given my eclectic tastes, I will switch from Turgenev to Bukowski, from John Ralston Saul to Stanislaw Lem, and so on. I sometimes don’t have a lot of time to read books, period, owing to a fairly full schedule of projects (which includes working on a novel). As a result, I sometimes feel a little out of touch with the contemporary world of books, especially when there are people on Twitter who are aiming to read fifty books this year.

Getting back to me and the review, I glanced at the synopsis and was struck by how meaty it was: the Russian far east, a vengeful killing machine, a dark exploration of our ties to nature. It seemed to be everything I was looking for (especially as a Russophile) and gave me an opportunity to actually read something published in the year that I was reading it.

It is, in short, a fabulous book. Fabulous, above all, because of the depth of Vaillant’s research into his subjects and his skill at balancing this collective learning against the white knuckle tension that is at the heart of the story. The Tiger begins with the stalking and subsequent killing of a tayozhnik – a Siberianism for forest dweller – named Markov and the series of events it sets in motion against the backdrop of the merciless taiga (or “boreal forest”) surrounding the little logging town of Sobolonye.

The tension is established early, not by Markov’s demise so much as the complex relationship between humans and tigers in this paradoxical part of the world, much of the relationship predicated on the aboriginal teaching that a tiger will never attack a human, so long as the former respects the latter’s spiritual and physical superiority. This superiority is laid out in full measure: from a zoological perspective, the tiger is perhaps the most sublime killing machine that exists in the world of mammals and Vaillant spares no time outlining how every inch of the beast exceeds any comparable hunter on the planet – both in physicality and mentality. The tiger thinks. The tiger learns. Most compelling of all, the tiger remembers.

It is this last quality which lends much tension, because, as the tiger is tracked by a team of professional hunters over the course of two weeks, the question is repeatedly asked: did Markov bring this on himself? And how?

The Tiger is a stunning combination of layered storytelling and educational insight into the evolutionary relationship between man and animal. Indeed, given the barren environment of the setting, it feels sometimes as if the conflicts between man and animal are staged in a prehistoric past rather than their modern setting in the late 90s. There are also some sad truths made about the aftereffects of the economic collapse of the former Soviet Union and the perennial designs China has on the taiga’s natural resources – tigers included.

The Tiger, by John Vaillant (ISBN: 978-0307268938) is published by Knopf and is readily available in your local, independent bookstore.

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Book Review: Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Sometimes things just line up in such a way that you can’t help feeling they were put there on purpose. Early this month, as part of a course I’m taking, I went to a weekend retreat, held at a secluded compound by the Credit River. It was a bit eerie, because many of my dreams take place in expansive compounds: wherever I go, even if it seems I’m outside, I just have to look up to see that there is a roof, or some sort of enclosure to remind me that I am not free. So, what book from our library did I take with me at the last minute? Why, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, of course. What I didn’t realize is that much of it takes place on a compound…but I’ll get back to this.

I’ve not read any books by Ishiguro – I haven’t even seen the movie adaptation of Remains of the Day. That said, I did work on Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music In The World, an adaptation of one of his short stories. I’d heard good things about Never Let Me Go, and had always meant to read it. With it being released as a film recently (I don’t think it did that well, despite the critical praise), and since I needed something to read during my time away, I thought it would be a good pick.

Never Let Me Go concerns the story of Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy. It’s told from Kathy’s perspective in the present. She is a carer, who drives from centre to centre, visiting those she looks after. Very soon we are introduced to their beginnings, as children, in a place called Hailsham. It’s an isolated educational enclave, somewhere in England, where the students live, go to school, and grow up. But there’s something a little odd about it all. Perhaps it’s the isolation from the rest of the world. Something in the way some of their guardians regard them. All too soon, their sun-dappled childhood in Hailsham becomes something which haunts them as they grow into young adults. It’s practically all Kathy can use to mark the passing of her time.

Within these reminiscences, we are introduced to Tommy and Ruth, who become the foundational friendships Kathy clings to through adolescence, regardless that Ruth oscillates from friend to enemy – a colourful rather than careful individual who becomes a voice of danger in the fog of their relationship.

The magic of this book is the skill with which Kathy’s perspective is written. There is a purpose for Hailsham, for their being there. There is a reason she is a carer. Never Let Me Go is a capital-H haunting novel, inhabited by people who are slightly cold but reaching out, never quite managing to touch a meaning they hope is there. I can’t say much more without spoiling things, not that it’s a book laden with surprises, so much as layered with subtle, sad observations. A beautiful book for a rainy day.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (ISBN: 978-0-676-97711-0) is available at an independent bookstore near you, or at various online retailers.

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Swirl

I am trying (desperately) to avoid a “boy, it’s been a wacky ride these last few months!” post. It certainly isn’t for lack of things to talk about, news to update you with, opinions to confess/shout.

Thing is, I don’t know who you are. Sure, I know there are some of you who are semi-regular visitors. There are others who happen upon this place by accident (via Blogger or StumbleUpon). There are also those who come here via Google searches, either via my name or – most likely – a book review (which admittedly I haven’t done in, oh, a year or so *). And no, this isn’t going to be a “Matt wittily evading accusations of being a lazy bastard by turning the camera on the reader” post.

I’ve been posting artsy stuff, writerly stuff, industry opinion stuff. I don’t mind the randomness, so long as there’s no fluff. I do mind the lack of output. I wish, for one, that I could post more photographs (which is to say, I wish I had a better selection of photos to post **).

It comes down to the fact that I’ve been working like a dog since May (note: this happens every year that I’m working on a SAW film). When I come out of these periods, I feel like Rip van Winkle: a little dazed, slow on the up-take. Whereas last year this time I started teaching, this time this year I am a student (part-time) †. I have a small (but good) feature and a small (but good and potentially controversial) TV show on my plate from now till February. If funds allow, I also hope to have an editor working with me on my novel, with an eye to approaching a publisher or self-publishing if that doesn’t seem feasible ††. I’m collaborating on a musical.

My plate is full.

– – – 

* which isn’t to say that I’m not reading or that I don’t want to do any more book reviews. I’m reading a lot of non-fiction, thank you. Much of it either out of professional or academic interest. However, if only to improve my Google ranking, here’s a quick book review of Antwerp by Roberto Bolaño: What the fuck was that? (ISBN-13: 978-0811217170)

** another casualty of working so much is my photography. I still have the same roll of film in my camera that I’d loaded in June. I think I’ve only taken 4 exposures since then. Of course, my cellphone camera gets all the fun these days, unfortunately.

† I will be continuing teaching, but for only two terms this year as opposed to three (which was exhausting and… exhausting)

†† It needs a new name, for one thing. And I know this is going to drive me up the wall more than any changes to the actual content of the book.

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Book Review: Night Work, by Thomas Glavinic

One of the nice things about following blogs (certain blogs at least, or at least the few that are still being updated) is the wealth (and depth) of recommendations one can find. In this case, I happened upon Ward Six one day and found a description of an interesting novel, called Night Work. I’d never heard of it before and probably would not have if it weren’t for their recommendation. This is the nice thing about the Internet.

Written by Austrian author Thomas Glavinic, Night Work tells the story of Jonas, a young professional living and working in Vienna, who one day while waiting for the morning bus finds that the bus isn’t coming. It isn’t coming because, as he soon discovers, everyone is gone. Every living soul in Vienna seems to have disappeared and there is no television or radio reception. He calls his girlfriend, Marie, who had just left the day before to visit relatives in England. No answer. Everything is silent.

There is a decided chill to the first half of Night Work, with Jonas dealing with an overwhelming fear that he is not alone, that he is being watched. His unexplained predicament, while extraordinary, is rendered in ways which make it easy to relate to. His fears are human fears: being alone, being permanently separated from those he loves, not knowing what lurks in the dark. There is a pronounced longing for his family; one of the first things Jonas does is move into his father’s townhouse. As the novel progresses, his preoccupation with his childhood and family life becomes an evolving theme, particularly – as he explores the city and the remnants of places he knew – the question of what is left when people leave the earth.

The book’s title takes its form as Jonas suspects that something may be happening around him – perhaps to him – when he sleeps at night. What begins with a single video camera taping his sleeping patterns evolves into an elaborately orchestrated multi-camera obsession: to solve the haunting clues left behind on the videotapes he watches the next day.

No matter how far the book progresses, Glavinic manages to keep taut the suspense surrounding the question of whether Jonas is truly alone. We share his childlike fears as he attempts to methodically explore his surroundings, eventually to make one last attempt to contact Marie. Obviously, it’s a challenge for any writer to keep the reader’s interest given a single character, his reminiscences, and a world filled with abandoned artifacts. Glavinic manages to do this without cheating the reader or over-spicing the soup with unnecessary (or illogical) scares. Indeed, Night Work is about atmosphere and memory: these are, after all, the only things Jonas is left with. And, despite its sci-fi/speculative nature, it evolves into a rather touching literary and philosophical tale.

There are some small quibbles: not knowing Vienna (or Austria for that matter), Glavinic’s reliance on Viennese street names/neighbourhoods to denote where the story is taking place can be a little confusing (Brigittenaur Lände, anyone?). Also, I wish at times there had been a deeper view into Jonas’ emotional realm – that said, not to dwell on Austrian cultural stereotypes, the protagonist is an entirely practical, self-reliant character. This aside, I would recommend this novel for those looking for something different; perhaps for readers who like a little speculative fiction mixed in with their personal journeys.

Night Work, by Thomas Glavinic [ISBN: 978-1847671844] is published in North America through Canongate U.S. and is available at an independent bookseller near you, or readily available online. This edition was translated into (UK) English by John Brownjohn (I mention this in case you don’t know what a lorry is, etc..).

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Book Review: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace

For those of you who didn’t know already, author David Foster Wallace took his life last September. It was an all-too-unfortunate excuse for me to delve into his work, particularly his non-fiction, having enjoyed it years ago when I was a Harper’s subscriber (see here for context).

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is a collection of seven essays he wrote during the 90’s (there are other collections of more recent work available as well, fyi) for such periodicals as Harper’s, Esquire, and Harvard Book Review. On display is everything I recall from my earlier introduction: his wry sense of humour, an idiosyncratic writing style (in particular his prominent affection for footnotes), and his ability to turn the subject matter back onto his own life without self-indulgence.

This is where I make a (hopefully) short (and hopefully respectful, considering the circumstances) tangent: after DFW’s death, along with the dismay of those who were fans, I read just as many comments from people who – without hesitation – admitted to simply not liking the man’s style of writing. This sentiment (though still not what I would call “the prevailing opinion”) was even echoed in Harvard professor/New York Times book critic James Woods’ recent opus How Fiction Works; for him Wallace’s prose evidently did not. I figured this mood extended itself more to his fiction which – truth be told – I have not read. His most recognized piece, Infinite Jest, is over 1,100 post-modernist pages long. Not interested.

Because I had such little exposure to his work, reading ASFTINDA was an interesting experience: I could see what his detractors must have been referring to. While there is no doubt Wallace was an extremely intelligent and talented writer (which I shall get to), there are numerous examples in this volume where he comes across as rather pompous, which wouldn’t be so bad were it not for his habit of typing huge swaths of text which any good editor would have asked him (nay demanded) he remove because of either its redundancy or its convolution of said essay’s point. He also suffers an ailment similar to what I found with Carl Wilson (recently reviewed here) where, for no particular reason, he seems hell-bent on exhuming obscure words which stick out like antlers on a house cat.

Of the seven essays, three are distinctly underwhelming for reasons cited above. In particular, his essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction is a terribly long argument for post-modern fiction (ie. the type he writes) using academic media theory as a course of analogy (via reminiscences of 70’s and 80’s television shows). While the fact that his examples are quite dated is no fault of his (it was written in ’93 after all – hello, St. Elsewhere), it is problematic that after many excruciating paragraphs of explanation/theorizing he never actually gets around to completing his argument in a way that satisfies the effort of having read it.

That all said (he types, rolling his eyes) the remaining four essays are gold and worth the price of the book. In particular and unquestionably his essays Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All (an assignment from Harper’s to cover the Illinois State Fair) and the eponymous A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (another Harper’s assignment – do you see a trend? – this time to take a 7-day ocean liner cruise of the Caribbean). On display in both is the perceptive laugh-out-loud satire of society’s absurdities as well as well-crafted reportage. There is also enjoyment in reading the essays on David Lynch (hanging out on the set of Lost Highway while opining on Lynch’s place in the American cinematic landscape) as well as tennis player Michael Joyce (set at the Canadian Open in Montreal, one of many coincidental Canadian-content inclusions throughout the book).

These four essays provide an opportunity for us to assess Wallace, the writer and person, without the willing academicism or pro-post-modernist chip on his shoulder. There is, for example, a wonderfully personal (yet appropriately witty) gem in the tennis essay where he admits, having previously questioned Michael Joyce’s IQ only to discover that, rather than a lack of intelligence it was an overwhelming physical and mental commitment by the athlete to his sport, and realizes by comparison that he can be a snob and an asshole. I like to come by my revelations honestly and it is in these four essays where Wallace’s gift shines.

So, if you don’t mind wincing a little and skipping a couple of entries, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is rewarding in the end. When he was on his A-game, Wallace had a unique voice and a wonderfully biting sense of humour; it makes the suddenness and nature of his passing all the more sad. I’m sure I will pick up more of his non-fiction in the months to come.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace [ISBN: 978-0316925280] is available at a friendly independent bookseller near you, or online at numerous impersonal sources.

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