Is this what being an adult means?

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I finished A Wrinkle in Time on Sunday night. You wouldn’t expect from my previous post about how Children’s Literature is a secret passion that it would have inspired a brief bout of pseudo-Depression, but it did.

A Wrinkle in Time is great – please don’t get me wrong. It’s a child’s version of (i.e. deals with the same themes as) such science fiction classics as A Brave New World and 1984. It’s a celebration of the values of creativity and autonomy that Western culture, at least ostensibly, seeks to foster in its children. It’s funny. It’s sweet. It’s plot-driven (something Tunku Varadarajan argues in “Generation Hex: A first-time reader of the ‘Potter’ books searches for meaning in the final volume,” Wall Street Journal, July 28, 2007, is the key both the success and greatness of Harry Potter). However, i find myself rolling my eyes into the back of my head and giving a cold shudder whenever “the power of love” saves the day. I had this reaction to Potter too.

Is being adult being so jaded that you can’t even appreciate the warm, fuzziness of children’s narrative even when you appreciate the form and its conventions? Or has my relationship history ruined one of my favourite pastimes?

The therapist would not give me an answer on this one…

Beowulf (the movie): A Review

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We went to see Beowulf last night. Many liberties were taken with the original story – but as i am not a huge fan of the tale, this didn’t bother me much at all. I liked the rewrite of the curse to make it more… humane? I liked the character development which just isn’t there in the poem. I liked the bawdy jokes and the humour.

There were aspects of the movie, however, which i did not like. For one, i don’t think the animation did anything for it at all. In fact, it made the whole “and his name will be known forever” bit less understandable for those of the audience who were unaware that Beowulf, like the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Aeneid, are stories still told today and, for the former two, believed to be based loosely on real people. Heroes are difficult for us to swallow – somehow depicting them in animation turns them into myth rather than legend and i think much of the plot in Beowulf needs to be legend for it to be at all believable.

I missed the sword, even though i found the sword irritating when i read Beowulf. It was all the book seemed to be about… i had been looking forward to this massive, gleaming, phallic symbol… and was disappointed. Sniff.

I also commend the writers for their attempt at integrating the “christianization of the north” narrative into the storyline – but you didn’t make it clear what was going on. Everyone in the theatre appeared to scoff at the lines about Christ because (a) you didn’t make it clear that this story is based on a poem from the middle ages about the period when the North is being christianized and (b) you didn’t develop the theme in your own re-write at all.

I liked the character of the wise Queen. I think she made the movie more palatable to a female audience. Even a contemporary male audience. It’s difficult to empathize with a hero.

We saw it in 3D. I had never seen a movie in 3D before. It wasn’t worth the extra $5.

I would have liked to have seen real actors attacked by CGI dragons. Real blood and gore… a real Angelina Joli bringing sexy back… LOL.

I wouldn’t recommend going to see it on a full-price night, nor if you are particularly devoted to the written version, but as far as adaptations go – it’s an interesting one. And, if you do go, let me know what you think of the rendition of Grendel… i think they could have done better, but i don’t have any brilliant suggestions as to how.

I have fans?!

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okay.. a fan. Her name is Olga and she participates in a book club with our research director here at the Institute. A copy of my review on Heather Pringle’s Master Plan was forwarded to her and she took the trouble to call me up and thank me for writing such a nice piece. Apparently, when she chose it for the book club many of the members were upset with her. She intends on passing my review around to validate her choice among all those who abstained from reading it.

More importantly, a complete stranger called me up at work today and said they liked my work. Wow.

I am leaving Montreal in less than three days. This past week-end was spent crossing items off the list of things that any good Montrealer SHOULD have done years ago: Go to the Casino (but only spend $8 betting) with a boy and play the horsey races; Watch a series of short films at the Foreign Film Festival (meh… they were from a competition dealing with immigration issues and though i have compassion for the problem of integration, stereotypes are a problem everyone faces, not just immigrants. Some were great though… it was just a little too much for one sitting); Gorge on chocolate at Juliette and Chocolat.

I am far from packed, but not so far it will not be done before i leave my home with everything in boxes waiting for the van to arrive.

This has been one of the best summers ever – thanks to great people like my aunt, Eric, Zach, Isabelle, Tim, Bryan and Lisa, Derek, Veronica, Julia and the sunny, warm weather. Why must it end so melodramatically?

An evening of poor viewing

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Spent yesterday evening with Zach and Eric. There was good food. We picked up EXCELLENT sushi at this place on Queen Mary by Snowdon Metro called Queen – i suggest you try their specialty roles. I had made guacamole the evening before and it was consumable.

There was not good entertainment to accompany. We watched The Illusionist – the movie i liked the least of everything i have ever seen with Edward Norton. A red lens when shooting does not constitute art. A long, drawn-out plot does not constitute suspense. A twist that everyone saw coming a mile away does not constitute a good ending. Skip it.

We also caught part of CNN’s God’s Warriors. The segment was the first of three: on the Jews/Israelis. I was flabbergasted. Though much of the facts were correct, i have never seen anything warped to appear so sinister for no apparent reason. I am interested in the backlash from the segment and the two others two follow in Islam and Christianity. I will not be watching however. I couldn’t take the sound bites just to begin with.

In an attempt to get excited about the move – i only have one more week to spend in beautiful, downtown Montreal – i subscribed to the New Yorker and the Toronto Star at my new abode. I love mail.

Raymond and Hannah: A Book Review

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Stephen Marche, Raymond and Hannah. Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2005.

I was recommended (and lent) this book by Dr. Rosemarie Krausz, a Ottawa-region psychoanalyst, who, more importantly for the vast majority of my readers, is Zach’s Mom.

I must admit that her description of the plot didn’t warm my heart to the tale. Two twenty-somethings meet in Toronto for a one-night stand that turns into a week-long frolick. She leaves to find her Jewish roots in Jerusalem. He stays behind to work on his dissertation at the University of Toronto. They keep in contact via email.

The recommendation that it was given, however, encouraged me to take a crack at it. I was VERY pleasantly surprised and will now count Stephen Marche among my favourite Canadian authors (actually, other than Yann Martel, i can’t think of another Canadian author i really love to read…).

There were two VERY appealing aspects of the book which i can share without ruining it for a future reader. Firstly, the typesetting. Raymond and Hannah adopts a Mrs. Dalloway-esque narrative structure. The readers zooms in and out of both characters heads as well as an omniscient narrator reflecting on the weather, the cities, etc. The text of the story is justified to the center of the book and the margins have tiny, editorial descriptions of what each paragraph is about. I like this technique. It makes finding something already read simple, it makes the spasticness of the approach less difficult to manage. It’s fun.

Secondly, Raymond’s dissertation, on Burton, is chunked into the later portions of the story where they are relevant to the budding relationship between the main characters. I have experienced the work i am currently doing in academia running out of its bounds and into “the real world” and thought this was an effective portrayal of a very difficult and disconcerting, though prevalent, phenomenon.

Raymond and Hannah is a love story. I am just not sure how it ended. Reading it at this point in my life was fitting. The text deals with the different settings of Toronto and Jerusalem in an approachable, open way. It made me look forward to my upcoming move for just a second. It also made me smile.

The book is currently on sale at Chapters for $4.99 – if you are looking for a late summer read, i, the hater of mush, love stories and Can. Lit, highly recommend it.

THE MASTER PLAN—WHY FEAR THOSE WE TRUST?

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Written for work – and please remember that i work for a pro-Israel Research Institute. It is my job to be right-wing.

The Master Plan: Himmler’s Scholars and the Holocaust, Heather Pringle.
New York: Hyperion Books (2006); 463 pgs; $33.99

The recent exposure of left-wing academics as anti-American, antisemitic radicals, perhaps best epitomized by David Horowitz’s The Professors, might lead a reader to conclude that “dangerous” intellectuals are a relatively new phenomenon… not so. Heather Pringle’s The Master Plan: Himmler’s Scholars and the Holocaust recounts the chilling tale of the Ahenerbe, a research institute born of Heinrich Himmler’s fascination with the prehistory of Nordic peoples and his desire to educate and indoctrinate the SS in a racialism that could compete with the predominant Christian ideology.

Divided into short, vignette-like chunks, each chapter of Pringle’s latest work provides a snapshot into the work of one academic under the auspices of the Ahenerbe. Prominent archaeologists, linguists and classicists set out across the globe, to Finland, Sweden, Tibet and the Caucasus in the hopes of classifying humanity into races based on readily quantifiable physical characteristics and proving the superiority of the Aryan race. Readers follow as what was once a propaganda-producing research centre delves into the atrocities so nauseatingly characteristic of the Nazi-regime. The researchers of the Ahenerbe pillage Europe’s art collections, aid mobile killing units ravaging the Mountain Jews of the Caucasus, murder concentration camp prisoners to collect their skeletons, and participate in horrifying medical experiments on sterilization and mustard gas.

The Master Plan is written in a dispassionate and relatively uncritical tone considering the subject matter. This approach permits the humour of the far-fetched schemes and theories of the Ahenerbe to shine through. A little humour goes a long way in a book written about the wholesale massacre of peoples in the name of a greater scientific good. It is difficult to stifle a laugh when reading how Hitler and other Nazi leaders turned down plans to develop an atomic weapon because “the idea, noted Speer [the scientist proposing the project], ‘quite obviously strained [their] intellectual capacity’” (283). Himmler hoped to recover Thor’s Hammer instead, which he believed to be an ancient Nordic electrical weapon of incredible power that would win the war for Germany even as the Allies crossed the Rhine. Pringle need not moralize in order to condemn, for the thoughts and actions of the Ahenerbe staff do an excellent job on their own.

In order to adopt this ‘clinical’ tone, Pringle writes a work that some might criticize for sidelining victims, however, as the reader become enraptured in the tale of ridiculous scientific theories and exotic expeditions, he too inevitably suspends the awareness that the victims of these crimes have names, families and dreams. What technique could possibly have more impact than making the reader complicit in the crimes of the Ahenerbe by temporarily forgetting the humanity of the victims? Pringle provides the reader with a stark, painful reminder of this at the opening of chapter nineteen, “The Skeleton Collection”, when she provides a brief biography of Sophie Boroschek. A one-time nurse at the Hospital of the Jewish Community in Berlin, Sophie was thirty-three when she was hand-picked by Bruno Berger to be transported from Auschwitz to the Natzweiler concentration camp where, after her murder, her skeleton was integrated into a museum exhibition on Rassenkunde (racial theory). Her characteristic “Jewishness” and healthy-state sealed her fate. This one and only foray into victim portrayal demonstrates that Pringle could have depicted the victims poignantly, but chooses not to in order to emphasize the perpetrators.

Pringle ends The Master Plan by including a February 2002 interview with the ninety-year-old Berger. The passage of sixty years had not brought about either a renouncement of racial theory nor an apology for his crimes against humanity. She describes how “he was still baffled by his conviction [at the Nuremburg Trials], unable to fathom how anyone could think him a criminal. Indeed he seemed to see himself as the real victim of the tragedy, much wronged by the judicial system and the politics of the day” (323). Pringle leaves no doubts to her reaction: “This hideous self-pity was terrible to witness” (323). She depicts this work as proof that no matter the research and inquiry we devote to the task, it will never be possible to fully comprehend how intelligent, informed men and women, educated before the rise of national socialism, were willing to relinquish their own humanity in the name of racial hatred and pseudo-science. This story, of doctors and academics in whom we place our trust betraying their heritage of tolerance and progress in the name of a ‘greater good,’ rings true after the events in London on July 21, 2007.

The Master Plan is a riveting, well-written, well-researched, well-documented read about a subject near and dear to us—just not before bed.

The nature of op-ed pages

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Continuing in the recent vein of media criticism, the NYT has yet again provided a gem of an article on issues that are pertinent to all who work with the output of the media industry.


Charles Hoyt, “Public-Editor: The Dangers of the One-Sided Debate,” New York Times (NY: June 24, 2007).

The op-ed page of The New York Times is perhaps the nation’s most important forum for airing opinions on the most contentious issues of the day — the war in Iraq, abortion, global warming and more.

”We look for opinions that are provocative,” said Andrew Rosenthal, the editor of the editorial page. ”Opinions that confirm what you already thought aren’t that interesting.”

But some opinions provoke more than others. Two very different columns by guest contributors, one last week and one last month, caused enormous reader outcries and raised important questions. Are there groups or causes so odious they should be ruled off the page? If The Times publishes a controversial opinion, does it owe readers another point of view immediately? And what is the obligation of editors to make sure that op-ed writers are not playing fast and loose with the facts?

The most recent column was by Ahmed Yousef, a spokesman for Hamas, the party elected to lead the Palestinian government and a group dedicated to the destruction of Israel. He wrote Wednesday about ”What Hamas Wants.”

Many readers were outraged, complaining that The Times had provided a platform for a terrorist. One, Jon Pensak of Sherborn, Mass., said that allowing Yousef space in The Times ”isn’t balanced journalism, it is more the dissemination of propaganda in the spirit of advocacy journalism.”

Well, yes. The point of the op-ed page is advocacy. And, Rosenthal said, ”we do not feel the obligation to provide the kind of balance you find in news coverage, because it is opinion.”

David Shipley, one of Rosenthal’s deputies and the man in charge of the op-ed page, said: ”The news of the Hamas takeover of Gaza was one of the most important stories of the week. … This was our opportunity to hear what Hamas had to say.”

I agree that Yousef’s piece should have run, even though his version of reality is at odds with the one I understand from news coverage. He wrote blandly, for example, about creating ”an atmosphere of calm in which we resolve our differences” with Israel without mentioning that Hamas is officially dedicated to raising ”the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine,” which would mean no more Israel.

Op-ed pages should be open especially to controversial ideas, because that’s the way a free society decides what’s right and what’s wrong for itself. Good ideas prosper in the sunshine of healthy debate, and the bad ones wither. Left hidden out of sight and unchallenged, the bad ones can grow like poisonous mushrooms.

Rosenthal and Shipley said that, over time, they try to publish a variety of voices on the most important issues. Regular op-ed readers have seen a wide range of views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have a lot of other information to help judge Yousef’s statements.

This wasn’t the case, however, with a May 21 op-ed by Nina Planck, an author who writes about food and nutrition. Sensationally headlined ”Death by Veganism,” Planck’s piece hit much closer to home than Yousef’s. It said in no uncertain terms that vegans — vegetarians who shun even eggs and dairy products — were endangering the health and even the lives of their children. A former vegan herself, Planck said she had concluded ”a vegan pregnancy was irresponsible. You cannot create and nourish a robust baby merely on foods from plants.”

Her Exhibit A was a trial in Atlanta in which a vegan couple were convicted of murder, involuntary manslaughter and cruelty in the death of their 6-week-old son, who was fed mainly soy milk and apple juice and weighed only 3.5 pounds. The column set off a torrent of reader e-mail that is still coming in — much of it from vegans who send photos of their healthy children or complain bitterly of being harassed by friends and relatives using Planck’s column as proof that their diet is dangerous.

If there was another side, a legitimate argument that veganism isn’t harmful, Planck didn’t tell you — not her obligation, Rosenthal and Shipley say. But unlike the Middle East, The Times has not presented another view, or anything, on veganism on its op-ed pages for 16 years. There has been scant news coverage in the past five years.

There is another side.

Rachelle Leesen, a clinical nutritionist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told me that Planck’s article ”was extremely inflammatory and full of misinformation.” She and her colleague Brenda Waber pointed me to a 2003 paper by the American Dietetic Association, the nation’s largest organization for food and nutrition professionals. After reviewing the current science, the A.D.A., together with the Dietitians of Canada, declared, ”Well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence.”

Planck said she was aware of the A.D.A.’s position but regarded it as ”pandering” to a politically active vegan community.

I won’t rehash the scientific dispute in a case in which Planck has her experts and the A.D.A. paper cited more than 250 studies, but I think The Times owes its readers the other side, published on the op-ed page, not just in five letters to the editor that briefly took issue with her.

I even question Planck’s Exhibit A, poor little Crown Shakur, who was so shriveled at his death that doctors could see the bones in his body. His death, she wrote, ”may be largely due to ignorance. But it should prompt frank discussion about nutrition.”

Maybe, if by nutrition you mean a discussion about whether you feed a baby anything at all.

The prosecutor argued — and the jury believed — that Crown’s parents intentionally starved him to death. News coverage at the time said that the medical examiner, doctors at the hospital to which Crown’s body was taken and an expert nutritionist testified that the baby was not given enough food to survive, regardless of what the food was.

Charles Boring, the Fulton County prosecutor who handled the case, told me it was ”absolutely not” about veganism. Planck and Shipley said they were aware of the prosecutor’s contention. Shipley said, ”We were also aware, though, that the convicted couple continues to insist that they were trying to raise their infant on a vegan diet.”

But the jury didn’t believe them, and leaving that out put Planck’s whole column on a shaky foundation.

Op-ed pages are for debate, but if you get only one side, that’s not debate. And that’s not healthy.