Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Best Laid Plans

The Best Laid Plans
Terry Fallis

This book is the 2011 Canada Reads winner, the book that is recommended to be read by all Canadians in 2011. If all Canadians were to read it, there would be some changes made to the way Canadian politics operate.
The book is comedic, the tone is light, there are lots of funny lines and the plot is full of fortuitous coincidences and happy endings. It’s an easy read, and lots of fun, but it has left me thinking.
It is a satire about politics with people and situations which are all too familiar to all of us. There are brilliant engineering students who have never read a novel, be-ringed and tattooed punks, a greedy but savvy entrepreneur, a swaggering American investor, a power-loving university administrator, enraged donut-throwing voters, and a lot of people who need their grammar corrected by an engineering professor.
The setting is also familiar to me: Ottawa University, the Ottawa River, the Houses of Parliament and a retirement home. The plot is simple: In a solidly Conservative riding east of Ottawa, a bereaved and lonely university professor agrees to let his name stand on the Liberal ticket in return for a favour. The Conservative candidate is unexpectedly disgraced and the professor finds himself elected. A newcomer in parliament with no interest in running again, he follows his conscience and makes enemies in caucus but becomes a hero to the Canadian public.
Terry Fallis is an engineer by training but has sustained an involvement in politics all his life. He served on the staff of the Chretien and Turner governments for two years, was a legislative assistant for three years with the provincial Liberals in Ontario, and a government affairs consultant for seven. He has been a partner in a communications company for more than 20 years, working for corporate and governmental clients. He has seen a lot of Canadian public life, enough to make his satire relevant and informed.
The picture that he paints of the machinations behind closed doors in Ottawa is disheartening. He divides staff into two categories: idealist policy wonks and cynical political operators. There are far too many of the latter.
Angus McLintock, the idiosyncratic Scot who becomes a reluctant Liberal MNA expresses Fallis’ attitude towards political life in Canada: “Every candidate in this country should be thinkin’ first about the national interest, second about their constituents’ interests, and third about their own interests. Everyone is more concerned about their own fortunes than with the nation’s. That’s the problem with the democratic institutions in this country.” (p.56)
Fallis’ description of the muffling and discipline imposed on party caucuses is the unsettling message of this otherwise light hearted book. Once elected and in the Liberal caucus, Angus refuses to toe the party line as dictated by the ‘Leader,’ especially when told to vote against a throne speech which was inspired by Liberal values. He becomes a hero to Canadian voters who feel betrayed by the disempowerment of their local representatives.
Coincident with reading this book, I have been reading an article in MacLean’s magazine, February 28, 2011, The House of Commons is a Sham. I found that Fallis’ descriptions of the functioning of Canadian politics today is distressingly accurate. Aaron Wherry, the author of the article, writes: “… almost all votes of any importance (are) destined to break along party lines. Power has coalesced around the offices of party leaders.”
Wherry quotes Liberal MP Keith Martin who has announced that he will not seek re-election: “I’ve never seen morale so low or Parliament so dysfunctional in more than 17 years of being there…There’s an overwhelming sense of futility, disappointment and sadness among most of the MPs who are there.” Martin laments,” the fairly young, ambitious, rapidly partisan individuals who often treat MPs with utter disdain….Rabid partisanship is rewarded…Overweening and excessive party discipline has disempowered members of Parliament and forced them to pay utter homage to the leaderships of their party, instead of their true bosses, which are the people that sent them there.”
Conservative MP Michael Chong is also quoted:” I think the vast majority of MPs are interested in playing a bigger role… in having greater authority and autonomy to execute their roles.”
This is exactly the situation that Fallis is satirizing, and I’m not laughing anymore. Thank you, Canada Reads Panel, for choosing this book. Maybe it will lead to some reform in the House of Commons.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Stones into Schools

Stones into Schools
Greg Mortenson

After enjoying Three Cups of Tea, I was expecting to be disappointed by the sequel, but I was pleasantly surprised for several reasons. Greg Mortenson’s second book about the schools for girls which he is building in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan is full of new information and continues to be imbued with his enthusiasm for his project. It is about the amount of work needed to keep an NGO functioning, the enthusiasm for learning in Third World Countries, the challenges of society and terrain in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the capacity for Afghanis and Pakistanis to forge ahead with projects if they are only given the right opportunity. It is an adventure story, with wild rides, unlikely heroes and achievements that defy the odds. The story is told with sympathy and admiration and shows what can be achieved with trust and commitment. It is an interesting book.
I learned a lot about the earthquake in Azad Kashmir in 2005, the history of the nomadic tribespeople in Northern Afghanistan, transportation challenges, banking difficulties, and the erosion of skills and education among Afghans who have spent their lives in combat and refugee camps. I also learned about what can be accomplished by one man with a purpose.
I found it interesting that the two project managers of the Central Asia Institute, Sarfraz Khan in Pakistan and Wakil Karimi in Afghanistan are not people with diplomas and pedigree, but honest, zealous men with vision, connections, ingenuity, and knowledge of local communities.
A really key factor in the success of building and maintaining CAI schools is the trust established with the local communities. The CAI never start a project unless invited by the local head men and supported by the community. This is a key approach, and is unfortunately a novel one. In early April there was a story in my local newspaper about the challenges the Canadian armed forces are having as they establish schools in Afghanistan. They find that they are facing opposition from local leaders, a problem the CAI never has.
I enjoyed putting the maps together with the text and understanding the challenges and the beauty of this mountainous area where people survive in the fertile and sheltered valleys, but are separated and isolated by those magnificent ranges: the Pamir, the Karakorum, and the Hindu Kush.
Clearly, the book was put together to heighten awareness of Mortenson’s project among potential supporters. He is now largely entrusting the work in Pakistan and Afghanistan to local organizers and directing his energy to fund-raising. He is courting middle America with his stories of cooperation from the US military and telling us stories that we like to hear.
We are meant to learn about The Central Asia Institute and its objectives and challenges and there are many appendices to guide us. I really appreciated the many maps, the list of Who’s Who, the glossary of terms and the index. The didactic purpose is underlined with the lists at the end: “Investing in Girl’s Education Yields Huge Returns,” “Take Action,” and “Key Ingredients in Successfully Building Girls’ Schools.”
It concerned me that so much of the success of the CAI depends on its founder, Greg Mortenson. The Institute has a board of directors, all women, I notice, but the bulk of the publicity, fundraising and organisation of the overseas projects depends on Mortenson. He pushes himself very hard, and if something should happen to him, I am afraid the whole worthwhile venture would fall apart. He does a tremendous amount of public speaking and traveling, and has already had a few burnouts.
I could not understand how such a busy man would have time to write this book, important as it is to the fundraising efforts of the CAI to keep interest high by keeping the story before the public. I found my answer in the long list of ‘Thanks.’ Mortenson writes: “Two dedicated writers put in literally thousands of hours to help me bring Stones into Schools into the world. Mike Bryan worked nearly every day for an entire year to research and lay the groundwork. Kevin Fedarko helped find the most compelling way to construct this narrative and put in marathon efforts over one hundred consecutive 16-hour days.” Both traveled to the Wakhan and Baltistan. This book was written by a committee who worked well together.
I did not see the recent CBS programme debunking Mortenson and his work, but it makes me very angry. CBS sent reporters to distant places in Central Asia, not to help the local people but to investigate this man and his organization which have done so much to promote literacy and give girls the hope of a future. Who is going to step in and support education in Central Asia when CBS has knocked out Mortenson’s fund-raising campaign? Does CBS have a plan to fund these schools out of the money it makes discrediting Mortenson? At the end of his book, Mortenson apologises to his family for his long and frequent absences from home and regrets that while he has been helping children far away, he has missed seeing his own children grow up. Is the CBS programme his reward for this sacrifice? I think there are enough genuine cases of crime and mismanagement to keep CBS ‘investigators’ busy without having them attack a man who has committed his life to providing marginalized girls with an education!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Bombay Anna

Bombay Anna
By Susan Morgan

This is a thought-provoking, well-researched biography with several interesting themes. It is set in Bombay, Singapore, Siam, Britain, the US and Canada and recounts the life of Anna Leonowens, (1831-1915) the one-time governess of the children of King Mongkut, the king of Siam.
The book opens with Anna’s ancestors in Bombay and paints a startling picture of the harshness of life in India for low-ranking employees of the East India Company. Even more sobering is the revelation that this life was an improvement over conditions in England at the time. We realize that our middle-class comfort is an invention of the twentieth century.
The first two chapters are so full of research and references that I found it hard to become engaged with the thread of the story. Once Anna is born, the story and characters are easier to follow, and later, as we read about Anna’s marvellous accomplishments, knowledge of her background makes her achievements all the more remarkable. But in the first two chapters I had the impression that Morgan was having difficulty marshalling her extensive research.
Anna was born into poverty. Until her father died and her mother remarried a slightly richer stepfather, home was a small curtained-off section in an army barracks. Life in Bombay was tough, but life in England at the time was tougher. Anna received a better education in Bombay than she would have had in England where the strong class structure would have meant she would be a farm labourer. Classism in England leads us to an interesting reflection on the caste system in India which the British disdained.
Morgan has done so much research that she clearly became engrossed and passionate, developing strong opinions as her knowledge grew. She has no respect for British colonialism and snobbery, and the class system that prevented talent from developing. She despised the British opium trade in China. Nor does she respect the American double standard which condemned slavery in Thailand while waging a civil war at home over the same issue. She has no time for missionaries who do not respect the values and traditions of other world religions. She has great admiration for Anna who used her strength of character and formidable intelligence to create a life filled with achievements and adventure. In fact, her bias towards Anna allows her to excuse some questionable behaviour. To achieve what she did, Anna had to have been a tough character, but Morgan never condemns her.
In recounting Anna’s early life, Morgan focuses on its cultural richness rather than its economic poverty. Morgan is looking for the source of Anna’s later achievements and she finds them in the diversity of cultures that made up the population at the lowest stratum of the Indo-European community in Bombay. Anna grew up on an equal basis with Hindus, Moslems and Christians, and learned to speak and read Sanskrit and Marathi as well as English. The lack of racial prejudice that she learned at an early age helped her to adapt to the many places where she lived throughout her life and especially endeared her to the Siamese. It was interesting to read that her great-nephew was also able to turn his background to his advantage. He also assumed a new name: Boris Karloff.
The story of Anna’s five years as governess to the 60 children and the harem of the King of Siam is known by all. But what was not known at the time was that the “British lady” in Singapore who received this posting was actually a mixed- blood army brat from Bombay. After her husband died, Anna moved her young family to Singapore, opened a little school, and completely reinvented herself. She cut off all contact with her family back in India, including her sister, cultivated her relationship with her husband’s family in Britain, and her children and grandchildren grew up believing her to have cultured British origins.
Anna’s reinvention of herself is one of the interesting themes of the book. Yes, she was duplicitous, but in a world where everything except her own intelligence was stacked against her, can she be blamed for making her own way? Anna was a survivor, and Morgan clearly supports her. Anna’s response to her sister seems unnatural, but if she was to maintain her new persona, she had to make a clean break with her past. Morgan is interested in the effect that such a reinvention has on one’s new life and discusses others who have similarly made their own name. It is an interesting question and we see how, once the first break is made, other barriers can also fall away. The idea is compelling: that of taking control of one’s life and completely reinventing it, building on one’s own knowledge and talent and not accepting artificial limitations.
Morgan’s research revealed Anna to her as a real person. I think that the reason Morgan forgives and rationalizes some of Anna’s actions is that she came to like her as a friend. We judge people by their friendships, and Anna evidently made many loyal friends with smart and influential people who found her to be a lively and intelligent conversationalist with exciting experiences and aspirations. Because of her own background, she must have been refreshingly non-judgmental and able to mix with people of many different beliefs and circumstances. Her friends ranged from harem women to her husband’s British relations, her daughter’s British headmistress, the literary set in New England, and a missionary couple in Siam. Her opinions were strong, but she seems to have been able to focus on the positive qualities of those she called friends. In Siam, for instance, she became lifelong friends with an American missionary doctor and his wife, although she disapproved of missionary activity. She says, (p.126) “Many have missed seeing what is true and wise in the doctrine of Buddha because they preferred to observe it from the standpoint and in the attitude of an antagonist rather than an enquirer.” This attitude set her apart from much of the ex-pat community in Siam, yet she was able to overlook differences of opinion when she met people that she connected with on other levels, probably focusing on what was good about them rather than their differences.
Anna seems to have made friends easily, and Morgan does not give the impression that she used them. But the advantages of having influential friends is another interesting theme in this book. From her initial referral to the King of Siam to the publishing of her books and the commencement of her lecture circuit, Anna was helped by the recommendations of well-connected friends. Margaret Langdon, Anna’s first biographer, also benefitted from her connections. And the practice continued: the man who made the costumes for The King and I was a friend of Margaret’s husband, Ken Langdon!
Morgan’s extensive research gave her insight into Anna’s thinking, giving her perceptions based on knowledge and reflection. For instance, she sees that Anna fit into the culture of the Siamese court because she was in the same situation as the palace women: they were all bringing up children without a male partner. Morgan makes interesting reflections on Anna’s personal growth while she was in Siam. She sees that Anna came to respect her own intellect as she saw it being respected there. For the first time, Anna experienced power and this enlarged her horizons. When she left Siam, Anna was ready for a new adventure.
Morgan’s research extended to another theme: slavery. The period of Anna’s service to King Mongkut coincided with the American Civil War. Morgan read contemporary Asian newspapers and discovered that interest was high in this distant war. Morgan knows that Anna and her friends would have been following the news, and judging from Anna’s later published condemnation of slavery, Morgan can imagine the tenor of Anna’s conversations at the time. Many of the American missionaries in Siam came from the South, and there must have been contradictions in their teaching. Slavery was then practised in Siam and many of the palace women owned slaves. Morgan also discovered that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was printed in instalments in the Singapore newspaper in 1852-53. Anna was a lifetime admirer of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Morgan discovered where she must have first read her work. It was interesting for me to read that the US Civil War was followed with such interest as far away as South-East Asia. Another interesting suggestion was the connection between the institution of the harem, and Thailand’s present-day sex trade.
As Morgan herself wrote, “For a biographer there is nothing simple about telling Anna’s life.” The biggest controversy surrounding Anna is the inaccurate and sensational picture she painted of King Mongkut and the Siamese court in her two books: The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870) and The Romance of the Harem.(1873) Her critics say that she slandered the king. The books were banned in Siam, and years later, Mongkut’s successor, whom Anna had taught, asked her why she had written lies about his father. Morgan admits that the accounts are, “embellished and embroidered,” but never lays blame. She writes, (P130) “Leonowens’ two books about what she saw inside the royal harem are without question heavily fictionalized.” She admits, (p133) “The general claim that Leonowens’ accounts ….are slander.” and asks, “Why did Anna so often give us the fabulous, yet use actual historical people and label the whole combination real?’

In defence, Morgan historically contextualizes by pointing out that Anna’s critics were men, and that among Western men at the time, King Mongkut was admired because of his skilful diplomacy that had managed to keep Siam out of the grasp of colonial powers. Morgan says that we have no records of what went on in court, so we shouldn’t be too harsh. We are given Anna’s answer that she was being faithful to the women in the harem who were her close friends, rather than King Mongkut whom she saw as a tyrant and exploiter of women . Anna wanted to present the Siamese harem women to Americans as great heroines and dedicated her first book to them.
Personally, I think that Morgan is too sympathetic to Anna with statements like: ( P.131) “The claim of The Romance of the Harem is that it is offering ‘the truth,’ which is not the same as factual reportage.” I think that Anna’s motivation for her fictionalization lies in the influence of her new literati friends in New England who filled her head with literary trends then in vogue. The popular American genre at the time was called, ‘truthful romance.’ It held that, “the writer could, and often should, transform the mere facts, should ‘mingle the marvellous’ in order to present the truth.” The most famous of these writers was Nathaniel Hawthorne who said, “A romance may present the truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation.” I think that Anna sympathized strongly with the ladies she met in the Siamese harem, and she was influenced by her American literary friends to adopt the new style in order to attract sympathy for her faraway friends. Morgan acknowledges this but does not give it the weight I think it deserves. The Romance of the Harem belongs in the same literary genre as The House of the Seven Gables. (Chap 12, p.177)
Morgan creates a warm character from a figure who has been dismissed as an ungrateful social climber. The many excerpts from Anna’s loving letters to her daughter help to show the caring side of her nature. Although she cut off contact with her Bombay family, she was a loving matriarch to her offspring and spent her declining years living with her daughter and helping to care for her grandchildren, often preferring them to lecture opportunities. Morgan has created a rounded complex character, presented us with an intriguing look at the social climate of the 19th century, and left us admiring the achievements of an extraordinary woman.

Comments about my post: Little Bee

Comment from Joan:

I really enjoyed your blog on this book - really summed up well our discussion of the afternoon and added more insights. I do agree with all that you said with the following exception.
I actually found that Cleave's writing was more elegant, succinct, and sophisticated in the "Questions and Answers with the Author" found on Google. I was much more impressed with him and his book after reading what he had to say by way of explanations, and with how he answered many of the questions. In the book, I often found his writing inconsistent and befuddling.

In the Q & A's, he made 2 very good points - there was a "disproportionate emphasis on the decisions we make in the split second". Also he said "Little Bee is a novel about where our individuality lies - which layers of identity are us, and which are a mere camouflage." Personally, for me, that is one of the main themes of the book (the first one being the exposure, as you mentioned, of the UK immigration policy and its system - definitely incongruous to each other!!)

As I brought up at our meeting, Cleaves used Charlie as a metaphor for his theme of searching for identity. Little Bee suddenly realized when she watched Charlie shed his chosen identity that there was something more important than herself: all of the little children playing with each other. Finally, it no longer really mattered what happened to her, the important thing was the future - for her country- which looked much brighter when she saw these little children playing together.

Response from Esther:

Thanks for your comment, Joan.

As I think about your excellent point, that the theme of searching for identity is such a large part of the book, I still think that Little Bee's acceptance of the fate before her at the end of the book is not consistent with her character as Cleaves developed it. The enormity of the problem of her personal security eclipsed and motivated her only search for identity which was to integrate into British society. Did you think she was searching for identity, apart from her desire to flee from her past? There was so much emphasis on her search for potential ways of killing herself, should harm befall her, that I don't think it was right for her character to accept her fate so philosophically at the end when it was clear that the men were coming to get her.