Monthly Archives: February 2015

When Non-Fiction is Fun Part II: Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?

When you were a kid, do you remember what you wanted to be when you grew up? I remember thinking I wanted to be a lawyer, because I liked to read and someone told me that lawyers do a lot of reading. Later I figured out lawyers don’t spend all day reading gripping novels which dampened my enthusiasm somewhat. Anyway: in my day, people wanted to be doctors, vets (this was a big one), teachers and scientists. I remember one friend aspiring to be either a judge or a prison warden which no doubt betrays some kind of dysfunction that I’m not qualified to diagnose but I’ll do it anyway. Control freak! Megalomaniac! Actually, she was the youngest sibling so I’m guessing it was connected with having older siblings bossing her around all the time.

However, nowadays, according to numerous studies, mostly in the UK, kids aspire to celebrity. It doesn’t seem to matter what field of study will lead to celebrity; the end goal isn’t to be the best singer, actor, etc. but to achieve celebrity by any means possible. Skill and talent are not the point, it’s all about the fame. This is the actual career goal of the majority of kids out there. Of course the commonly perceived main routes to celebrity are sports, music, acting…and nothing (reality TV). Through studies and statistics and interviews, Caulfield shows how tiny the chances of success are in these fields. Not only that, but the definition of “success” is the brand-name, super-rich celebrity kind, not the kind that just makes a living, which in these fields, is difficult enough.

For example, in the music industry, according to industry experts, the chances of a musician making a stable career are .047%. That’s just a making-a-living level of success. There are many musicians and singers working in the industry, but their ability to make a living and their enjoyment of their profession are not the sort of success that people envision when they go this route. American Idol chances of fame? .036%.

Acting? Making-a-steady-living actors only make up about 8% of the acting population. The chances of becoming a “big-name studio movie actor is 1 in 1,505,000.” You have a better chance of being hit by an asteroid (1 in 700,000). This is what kills me. If you said to a fame-seeking teen, What do you think the chances are of you being struck by lightning? he’d say, “Not gonna happen!” but if you said, Your chance of being the next Tom Cruise is 1 in 1.5 million he’d say, “I’ve got a shot!”

Sports? Out of 317,000 high school football players, only 250 are drafted. And “drafted” does not mean having a lasting or successful career. In a 1999 analysis it was estimated that 30,000 kids were playing minor hockey in southern Ontario:

Of that number, 235 were drafted into the Ontario Hockey League (the minor league), but only 110 of those got to play and even fewer, 90, played for more than three years. Of course, the number for those who made it to the NHL – a step necessary in order to have a sports career that would confer “celebrity” status – was even smaller. Fifty of the 30,000 were drafted, but only 25 played a game (as it happens, even this number was unusually high – it was a good year.) If you look at the number of players who had something close to what could be called a “career” – which, in this study, meant players still in the league at age twenty-four – the number drops to just 11. Bottom line: only 11 out of 30,000 ended up with a solid NHL career. And that was in 1999. Because more professional players are now coming from countries other than Canada, it is even more difficult to break in. (p. 217)

I’d heard some of these statistics when I read Selling the Dream by Ken Campbell and Jim Parcels. I didn’t post a review of this book because the many hockey parents around us might issue a fatwa against me. Although I don’t actually think they’re reading much, they’re too tired from driving their kids round to hockey practice at 6am.

Why do people continue in their pursuit of celebrity in the face of such odds? Well, for one, people never seem to believe statistical evidence over anecdotal evidence. That’s a given. I see it all the time! Also, people – and their parents – tend to radically overestimate their own talents. When these talents are questioned, they become even more entrenched in their high rating of themselves. This is apparently an evolutionary thing that is hardwired into us, so that we take risks that will result in benefits, even when the chance of success isn’t optimal. There’s also confirmation bias, which is when you seek out information that confirms opinions you already hold, no matter how nutty they are. This is real easy nowadays with the Internet! And there is the previous investment thing that Ken Campbell mentions in the hockey book. The longer you pursue a particular goal, the more resources you put into the pursuit, the harder it is to stop, even when success isn’t likely. This explains why gamblers can’t seem to stop gambling even when they’re deep in the hole. Hockey- and to be fair, other sports-oriented-for-celebrity-goals parents are similar! Not only is there the previous investment (although it’s not an investment really) but if a parent stops the funnelling of resources into the activity, then there is the fear that the child might think the parent doesn’t believe in them anymore. And if the money stops, then maybe that will be the reason that the child doesn’t succeed. It’s a real trap.

There’s also something called “denominator neglect” in which people will ignore the many trying to break into a certain field – the denominator – and focus on the numerator – the number of people who succeed. So they’re not seeing the 30,000 trying to get into the NHL, they only see the 11 who do. And think those are pretty good odds! A parent quoted in the Winnipeg Free Press said this:

I’ll guarantee you one thing,” the hockey dad said, “If you don’t buy a lottery ticket you can’t win. That’s why if parents can afford it, they will pay. It’s an endless, hour-less [sic] debate but at the end of the day in order to keep up with the competition level, you have to train year-round…Everybody says only one player will make it out of a million. Why can’t it be yours?” (p. 235)

Except that a lottery ticket only costs a few bucks, not the $300,000 that many hockey parents sink into their kids’ training. And it’s not only the money, but all the time, energy and family resources that have gone into this ephemeral dream, and all the activities and education that the children lose out on and that could, ironically, actually furnish them with a successful and happy life. It’s devastating to think about all the kids who are spending nearly every waking moment not in school in pursuit of athletic achievement – at the expense of reading, or learning to play an instrument, or learning some other art form, or any of the immensely rewarding and enriching activities available to kids today. Or even just playing for the sake of playing. After all, these are games, and they’re supposed to be fun, not a hothouse for forcing professional athletes. I shudder to think what will happen to these kids who have been raised to believe that they will undoubtedly have a celebrity-level career in sports when they reach their own ceiling, so to speak. They have nothing else to fall back on, either professionally, because they’ve had no time to develop other marketable skills, or personally, because they also haven’t explored other pursuits that might give them a sense of joyous accomplishment.

There are other components of this phenomenon that Caulfield touches on, such as the social pressure to pursue unrealistic goals: “Never give up!” “Follow your dream!”, the role of media in promoting fame-seeking, and all the industries that exploit people’s willingness to shell out big bucks in their pursuit of celebrity. One of Caulfield’s interviewees points out that if you are have a good career in IT, people don’t say things like, “Keep at it! Don’t give up your dream!” if you’re not Steve Jobs. But they do in these celebrity fields!

Luck is also considered. Caulfield references Tom Brady, but we had an example here recently also. Alex Biega, who was drafted 9 years ago, finally got to play an NHL game with the Canucks last week. He scored the winning goal! Yay Alex. Clearly a talented player. But the reason he got his chance is because four players were injured and he got called up from the farm team to fill in. And even though he performed well, even this may not translate to a good career in the NHL. (Thanks to Justin for providing this relevant anecdote because I didn’t notice myself, not being a hockey fan.)

Success in these fields can’t be predicted. That’s another thesis point. Both the Beatles and Elvis were initially rejected by industry experts and music labels. Malcolm Gladwell and his 10,000 hours theory really has a lot to answer for, because this idea has given people the illusion that they have some control over these endeavours. Paul McCartney points out that many bands were playing at least as much as the Beatles when they were in Hamburg, but they didn’t all become successful. Ten thousand hours is not enough, people!

There’s also a section about the actual value of celebrity. In these chapters, Caulfield considers high divorce rates, higher than average mortality rates, and the high rates of bankruptcy and financial distress amongst celebrities. The suicide rate is higher than that in the general populace as well. There is a lot of stress involved in attaining celebrity and also maintaining it because I guess being a former celebrity kind of sucks. Celebrity also seems to exacerbate psychological issues because of the stress and pressure, also the isolation and lack of privacy. God, it’s depressing.

What is the upshot of all this? Socially it’s a pretty pernicious cycle. Studies have shown an inverse relationship between the happiness levels in countries and the obsession with celebrities in those countries. When you spend a lot of time examining the lives of the rich and famous, your own life doesn’t seem so hot. Not only that but social mobility, one of the key tenets of the American Dream, is also lowest in those countries most obsessed with celebrity (United States, United Kingdom and South Korea). Highest social mobility and also happiness? Denmark! Caulfield posits that barriers to social mobility limit options to the point where people start to see celebrity as the only attainable option. After all, look at all the famous dum-dums! Because it seems like a lot when all you read is People magazine. Can’t be that hard, right? And there just don’t seem like many other options when your worldview is so limited.

So, instead of doing something constructive like get an education, or get involved in politics in an attempt to effect social change, time is given to empty dreaming and resources are squandered in the pursuit of something unattainable. Even if the goal were somehow attained, the rewards are largely extrinsic, because a lust for celebrity is not about intrinsic goals. It’s not the activity itself, it’s the material rewards that count.

I remember watching Chris Rock do standup a few years ago and he made a point about how he is rich and famous and lives in a neighbourhood of nice houses. For him, it said something about race relations in the US that his neighbour was a dentist. But I would observe also that there are too many kids who think that the road to success looks like Rock’s, as opposed to the more attainable and reasonable goal of dentistry. Isn’t it amazing that there are a lot – a LOT – of kids out there who think that they will be celebrities, so they don’t need school? They’d rather pursue these incredibly shallow goals with little to no chance of success, and waste opportunities to do something more meaningful that would provide them greater happiness and more benefits. Whoops, I’m ranting. Last quote!

Filmmaker and comedian Bobcat Goldthwait….provided this advice during a commencement speech he delivered for his daughter’s graduation from college. “I truly believe that success is for creeps. We already reward narcissism way too much in our culture,” he said. “Do what makes you happy, and be nice.” (p. 306)

I lied. One more!

“Hey, I still buy lottery tickets, but I don’t spend the rent,” [Allison] Arngrim* says. “If people gambled with this kind of money in Vegas, everyone would say they had a gambling problem. But when people do it for fame and celebrity, for some bizarre reason our society says it is okay.” (p. 302)

Enough said. These posts have been hard to write because I felt compelled to do more than cheer for the book. I think these are important issues in contemporary culture, so I wanted to convey as much information as I could without actually mailing everybody a copy of the book. Thanks for reading to the end!

* Allison Arngrim played Nellie Oleson in the Little House on the Prairie TV series.

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When Non-Fiction is Fun: Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? by Timothy Caulfield (Part I of II)

The subtitle of this book is When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash. I’m not a big follower of celebrity culture and would generally avoid something with Gwyneth Paltrow’s name on it, but this book by Timothy Caulfield is a critique of the power that celebrity has on our collective psyche. The author, who is a professor in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health and Science Policy Group at the University of Alberta, examines this phenomenon from a number of angles – from auditioning for American Idol (didn’t get far) to visiting Dhru Purohit, the founder of the Clean Cleanse program endorsed by Gwyneth. His conclusions are fairly predictable – it’s all nonsense – but it’s fun to read. He also examines the trend towards believing that the celebrity life is accessible to the average person, if the person only works hard enough and “reaches for the stars.” This belief is countered by the very real statistics of success in such fields as acting, music and sports. (I’ll cover this in Part II.)

I live in Vancouver, Canada, a very expensive city in which to live. The climate is the mildest in Canada – it’s sunny and about 10 degrees here, while it’s -11 in Toronto. It’s February, but it’s been so mild that all the spring flowers are poking their heads up to see if it’s April and they missed something. The climate and the whole you-can-ski-you-can-swim appeal of this coastal city attracts a lot of wealthy people. I have a theory that wealthy people are into every health fad there is because they want to live as long as possible in order to enjoy their money to the full. Why not? Well, the amount of silly nonsense that I’ve heard spouted by people who are in search of ways to be healthier and live longer would roll anybody’s eyeballs up into their heads. At the restaurants, we have a gluten-free menu to cater to people who fancy themselves sensitive to gluten, even though there is no scientific evidence that supports these notions. I know people who are into “juicing,” even though it’s not a logical way to consume fruits and vegetables. You don’t get any fibre, and you consume a large amount of sugar – naturally occurring, but still sugar – and it’s ridiculously expensive. I’ve explained the sugar thing to someone and they were surprised, but it’s true. Think about it: richly nutritious vegetables like kale and broccoli do not contain a lot of water, plus the juice they produce does not taste great (I’m making a massive understatement there). In order to pad out these healthy-sounding but nonprofitable vegetables, juice retailers add large quantities of vegetables and fruits such as celery and cucumber, while adding sweetness with apples, carrots and beets. Each beet or carrot only produces a tiny amount of juice, so you need a lot in order to make up a cup of juice. Beets and apples are high in sugar. And even though they’re relatively cheap, you need a massive amount of produce in order to produce a relatively small amount of juice. It’s an incredibly wasteful process, but the notion of this pure nectar being squeezed from fresh fruits and veggies is very attractive. It’s certainly easier than just eating fruit and vegetables because you don’t even have to chew, but it’s definitely not a good way to go, and not really sustainable either.

A 2013 investigation by the Harvard School of Public Health confirmed the tremendous benefits of eating an adequate amount of fruits and vegetables, but, once again, found juice to be problematic. The research looked at data from almost 190,000 participants and found that individuals who ate whole fruits – especially blueberries, grapes and apples – reduced their risk for type 2 diabetes by 23 percent. But individuals who drank one or two servings of fruit juice actually increased their risk. So, put down that expensive, trendy, kale-infused liquid and pick up a real apple.  (p. 52)

I use the term “notions” about a lot of health fads because that’s what they are – notions. Completely unsupported by scientific evidence, but they are ideas that feel good in some people’s brains. These ideas “make sense” to people. Some ideas, like juicing, are relatively harmless. However, some are not so benign. Take colonic irrigation – which Caulfield touches on, as there are lots of celebrities who subscribe to this silly and disgusting practice. I think people picture their digestive systems as some kind of simple drainage system. They see their bathroom drain clog up and imagine that their digestive system is somehow similar and should be cleaned out, with Drano and a snake. Colonic irrigation is more than disgusting, however; it’s potentially very dangerous. It can cause “nausea, vomiting, infection, and in rare circumstances, perforation of the bowel.” This can kill you. “It can also adversely impact your electrolytes and your gut’s natural bacteria.”

The other celebrity-endorsed and dangerous “health” advice is that which discourages people from vaccinating their kids against disease. This is so incredibly stupid and dangerous that I don’t even want to talk about it here. Plus, I’ve already posted on this topic.

Caulfield examines many celebrity-endorsed fads, such as cleanses, the idea of “toxins”, the imaginary benefits of organic foods, cosmetic acupuncture, coffee as a treatment for cellulite, and others. I was actually kind of surprised myself about the organic thing. I’ve heard so many times about the benefits of organic produce that while I’m not a slavish consumer of organics (I’m skeptical, plus, too expensive!) I’ve accorded this idea some validity. Apparently not! Caulfield says that he’s treading carefully or “the hate mail will flow” and I can understand. However, he quotes several studies that show “no evidence of a health benefit from consuming organic compared to conventionally produced foodstuffs” (UK Food Standards Agency, 2009), “no strong evidence indicates that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods,” (Stanford University, 2012) and “no good studies have directly demonstrated health benefits or disease protection as a result of consuming an organic diet.” (Pediatrics journal, 2012). What about the idea of organic pesticides being less harmful to the environment? Not! “There is little or no evidence that these organic pesticides are less harmful for consumers or the environment. It is just assumed that they are based upon the naturalistic fallacy.” (Steven Novella, Evidence-Based Medicine). Caulfield also quotes another example from a University of Guelph study in 2010: “organic approved insecticides had a similar or even greater negative impact on several natural enemy species in lab studies, were more detrimental to biological control organisms in field experiments, and had higher [environmental impact] at field use rates.” So much for that! Another reason for purchasing organic produce, the “alternativism” of it, the rejection of so-called “Big Food”, the embrace of an anti-corporate choice – we’re all just fooling ourselves. Apparently many organic food brands are now owned by Kellogg’s and PepsiCo!

Want more?

Second, an interesting, and, to be honest, kind of funny study explored the degree to which purchasing organic food impacted moral attitudes and altruistic behaviour. Given the degree to which organic food is marketed with moral overtones – organic brands have names such as Honest Team, Purity Life, Seeds of Change, Living Tree Community – the author was curious about whether organic food had an impact on how people behaved. The study came to the paradoxical conclusion that being exposed to organic food does not make individuals into caring, open-minded hippies. It makes people more self-righteous, judgmental and less altruistic. (pp. 55-56)

Oh my God! We use a lot of organic produce at our restaurants – our chefs like the idea and our clientele certainly do – so that means we’re responsible for people becoming less nice and open-minded! Gah! But I told a few people about organic food not providing health benefits and someone said, “No. I can’t believe that.” I think that is a very telling choice of words. Belief and faith vs. fact and evidence. Even provided with evidence, people will believe what they want!

Caulfield approaches every topic with curiosity and even tries Gwyneth’s cleanse. He concludes that most of the health-oriented activities celebrities practice, whether they claim it’s to purify themselves of toxins (nonsense), or to revitalize their adrenals (also nonsense), what it’s really all about is weight loss, because the pressure to be thin and to look young is unrelenting in their industry. So even while spouting about how healthy (read: thin and young) they strive to be, many celebrities participate in two behaviours that are scientifically proven to be both aging and disease causing: smoking and tanning. An astonishing number of celebrities smoke! Their publicists work hard to keep pictures of their clients smoking out of the media, but they do it, mostly to stay thin. Amazing. So they’re drinking water like crazy (this isn’t necessary), rinsing out their colons, consuming enormous quantities of supplements (actually this is dangerous too), eating organic produce, “juicing”, doing cleansing diets, all of which has no scientific support, but they’re smoking, of which the World Health Organization says, “Tobacco kills up to half its users.” It’s particularly rich that Gwyneth Paltrow, who has established herself as a proponent of and adjudicator of the healthy lifestyle, smokes and admits it. She’s quoted as referring to smoking as “just the right amount of naughty”. Good quality health advice! I love the idea of people who make extravagant claims about “toxins” actively ingesting cigarette smoke.

How about tanning? Caulfield has another Gwyneth quote, almost as silly as the smoking one: “We’re human beings and the sun is the sun – how can it be bad for you? I think we should all get sun and fresh air… I don’t think anything that is natural can be bad for you.” If I didn’t know better, I’d love this, because I love getting a tan. But I know it’s bad for me and I’m trying to avoid the sun and wear sunscreen. And I certainly don’t tell people that it’s a good thing to do! It’s also incredibly silly to opine that anything natural can’t hurt you. Belladonna, arsenic, cyanide – all deadly poisons, all natural! Tsunami are natural too! Want to go hang out and experience one?

Sorry! The Rise of Naturalism really gets me going sometimes. Rousseau and Thoreau and millions of hippies have a lot to answer for. That’s another post.

Something that surprised me was the news that taking vitamins and supplements is futile. Caulfield quotes research that shows that there is no benefit to taking supplements, that Vitamin C doesn’t prevent colds, that supplementing some vitamins such as A and E “may actually increase the risk of certain cancers.” When I feel a cold coming on I start taking Emergen-C and I imagine it helps. But it could be the placebo effect. I do know that too much Vitamin C isn’t good for you as it can cause kidney stones if you overdo it but I thought that a little Emergen-C would help a cold. Maybe not! Not only that, but check this out:

A 2013 study from the University of Guelph, for example, did a blind study of commercially available supplements and found that “most of the herbal products were of low quality, including considerable product substitution, contamination and use of fillers.” Remarkably, they found some product substitution – the use of another, unlabelled herb in place of the main ingredient – in products of 83 percent of the companies tested. In other words, only 17 percent of the companies were providing products that matched what the label said. This is, of course, both dangerous and unethical. It should not be forgotten that the massive supplement and vitamin industry, worth, by some estimates, approximately $60 billion worldwide, is about profits and moving product. Because of the bucks to be made, many pharmaceutical companies have recently acquired companies that produce supplements. Since it is not a tightly regulate industry, this situation should surprise no one. (pp. 48-49)

It surprised me! I totally believed that if you buy a bottle of raspberry ketones, it should contain raspberry ketones. (Yeah, I know they’re useless.)

Another widely held belief that Caulfield blows apart is the notion that it’s healthier to live in the country than the city. Again, no! Rural dwellers have higher rates of cancers, depression, heart disease, and pretty much every other ill humans can suffer, than urban dwellers. Even though we picture cities as smoggy dust holes and envision the country as clean and pristine, there is scientific evidence that shows we’re better off in the smoggy dust holes. This is one of those scientific studies that I can’t refute, but it feels wrong. It doesn’t “make sense” to me. I love going to Vancouver Island because the air does feel cleaner! Maybe if you’re just there on vacation it feels invigorating, but if you live there your health suffers? The studies observe that there are socioeconomic factors as well, but that even urban poor are better off than rural poor. It goes against our notions, but facts are facts.

Caulfield undergoes a Gwyneth cleanse but has various bodily products (blood, feces, etc.) tested both before and after the cleanse. The result? No change! The idea of detoxifying is unscientific and also super silly. Here’s another quote!

The idea of detoxing is faulty in so many levels that it borders on the absurd. First, the human body has organs, including the kidneys, liver, skin and colon, that take care of the detoxification process. When you pee, you are detoxifying. Toxins don’t build up waiting to be cleansed by supplements and special foods…As summarized in a 2005 academic article titled “Detox Diets Provide Empty Promises,” “These approaches are contrary to scientific consensus and medical evidence and are not consistent with the principle that diets should reflect balance, moderation, and variety.” (pp. 25-26)

Caulfield speculates that the appeal of cleanses lies in the masochism of punishing your body in this fashion. “Cleanses are a form of self-flagellation.” (p. 43) Your average Westerner is accustomed to a certain level of self-indulgence on a daily basis (I know I am), so an extreme diet is a form of atonement for this behaviour, and the reduction in calories may actually provide a break from regular overeating. So, possibly not all bad, and my dietician mother says, “A couple of weeks on one of these diets won’t kill you, but it’s not a long-term strategy for weight loss.”

While there were sections that validated things I felt I already knew – juicing is silly, also cleansing and colonic irrigation – there were sections that made me distinctly uncomfortable. For instance, the aforementioned tanning piece. I also squirmed through the section on the beauty industry. Basically, all the claims made for various products are false, especially if they use words like “radiant,” “rejuvenating,” and similar. I have a weakness for beauty products and if a product makes an interesting claim I usually plunk down my money for it. I love new product, especially makeup. It’s fun to play with. Mind you, I also get excited about a new set of pencil crayons. It’s all art, innit?

So here’s the thing: the rise of social media, especially Twitter and Instagram, makes people feel close to celebrities. It also gives celebrities a direct way of promoting their beliefs and opinions. Sometimes they benefit financially from such promotion and sometimes it’s just something to tweet and it feels good to make a pronouncement and have all your loyal following go Yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah. And because people feel close to the celebrities they follow, they are susceptible to following their chosen celebrities’ advice. Caulfield shows that this is not sensible behaviour and that the advice itself is often not helpful and can often be dangerous.

In Part II I’m going to consider Caulfield’s thesis that because of media, both social and traditional, people not only emulate celebrity behaviour, but they also seem to consider a celebrity lifestyle an accessible and realistic goal and direct much of their energy and resources into achieving this goal, despite clear and obvious evidence that the success rate of this kind of endeavour is not high. Less than 1%, in fact! Yes, we will talk about hockey parents…





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Reading for Pure Entertainment Part II: Preston & Child series

After my last post, in which I slobbered all over Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee series, you must be wondering if you’ll need a tissue to read another droolingly uncritical post. Fear not; although I greatly enjoy reading these books they don’t give me quite the same thrill as the Ava Lee set. They are well-researched, well-written and loads of fun – and absolutely lurid –  but for some reason the characters are not quite as compelling. If something bad happened to Ava Lee I’d be up in arms; if one of the characters in this series dies I don’t think I’ll be too traumatized.

There are actually several series out by this writing team of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. One is one that features a plucky archaeologist, Nora Kelly, another features Gideon Crew, thief par extraordinaire, and there is a series starring Aloysius Pendergast, a lone-wolf FBI agent, and Nora Kelly also features in some of these. I haven’t read them all – there are a LOT of them, which is great, but I’m saving them for holidays as I’ve bought quite a few for my Kindle.

The first book I picked up is The Lost Island. This is the third book in the Gideon Crew series, so I quickly realized that I was missing some pieces. However, it was an enjoyable and escapist read even though I quickly realized I was arriving late in the game and I prefer to start at the beginning of series.

The premise is that there is an ancient map to a location that harbours the “lotos” eaten by the Greeks in Homer’s Odyssey. In the Odyssey, the lotos cures the Greeks of their ills and makes them feel mighty fine, to boot, if a bit sleepy and not inclined to continue on their journey. Odysseus is forced to battle drug addiction as well as a cyclops in order to get his crew back on the ship. The map to this island’s location is apparently hidden in the Book of Kells, obviously, so Gideon is commissioned to steal it, and then to go find the island, which is apparently in the Caribbean because we’re meant to believe that Odysseus spent 20 years going right across the Atlantic and back. Murder and mayhem and actual cyclopes ensue. It’s ridiculous but fun.

The key protagonists are of the courage = stupidity type, by which I mean that they freely do the sorts of things that the rest of us, preferring to make the Darwinian cut, avoid. So they can be counted upon to enter the spooky house/explore the spooky cave/go ashore the spooky island, etc. Well, if they didn’t, the plot would grind to a halt, so they may as well, but sometimes it really beggars belief. They’re smart smart people, doing dumb dumb stuff. But they prevail in the end and it’s all good, or mostly, anyway.

Another series features Aloysius Pendergast, who is an independently wealthy FBI agent from a New Orleans old-family background. Also, he’s so pale that people think he’s albino although he’s not. On one hand, he does conform to my hero standard: calm, very capable but not a showboat, witty but not a comedian, etc. But other than that, he breaks the mold; he’s odd and quirky and clearly has a lot of secrets. Also I can’t figure out if he’s meant to be sexy or not. Gideon Crew is definitely meant to be sexy, but Pendergast? Not sure. Anyway, I’m intrigued by this character and I’m quite interested in reading more in this series.

I’m breaking here to insert a paragraph about Pendergast in which it’s clear he’s meant to be extremely attractive. Possibly to a small segment of the population, maybe the segment that finds vampires irresistible? It’s from The Wheel of Darkness which I am reading right now, and this passage popped out at me today. Great timing!

As the man approached, Mayles took a second, longer look. He liked what he saw. The man was refined, aristocratic, and strikingly handsome; he was dressed in a splendid cutaway with an orchid boutonniere on his lapel. His face was shockingly pale, as if he were recovering from a deathly illness, and yet there was a hardness, a vitality, in his lithe frame and gray eyes that showed anything but physical weakness. His face was as finely chiseled as a Praxiteles marble. He moved through the crowd like a car threading its way across a set dining table.

The beholder is a snobbish cruise director, so I’m assuming he would be critical of any imperfection; therefore, Pendergast is meant to be sexy, if in a Twilight-ish fashion.

Marble Faun by Praxiteles

Marble Faun by Praxiteles; I had to look this up

Small digression: I’m actually wondering why it’s important for the protagonist to be attractive. Who cares if Pendergast is a hottie or not? He’s smart and resourceful and shouldn’t be that good enough? I’ve been watching Foyle’s War, a British TV show which stars Michael Kitchen. I’ve been trying to find a picture but can’t find one that is ok to use so you’ll have to Google him. Anyway, he’s a middle-aged man, balding on top, and while nice-looking, fairly unremarkable. He’s definitely no hairy-chested man of action. Whenever there’s a scuffle he generally hops nimbly out of the way. But here’s the thing. His character is so appealing – laconic, sharp, polite, calm, yet very sensitive to others and clearly of the still-waters-run-deep type – that by the end of Season 1 I was finding him very attractive indeed. So it wasn’t necessary to use a stunningly handsome actor – the character is attractive in personality, which affects how he’s perceived physically. In real life this totally applies; it’s interesting to see it happen in film. Mind you, British TV and movies don’t seem to rely on the looks of its actors as much as American ones do.

Back to Preston and Child!

The authors clearly do a lot of research in order to give the ludicrous plots verisimilitude, and they do a good job making the incredible seem, well, credible. Well-researched details go a long way and add a lot of interest; I enjoy this feature of the Preston/Child novels. The plots move along briskly and the characters are sufficiently animated, clever and resourceful. If you have a beach vacation planned – or just need some awesome escapist material – this is very fun reading. If you’re a literary snob, you will scoff. However, if you are a literary snob you probably enjoy scoffing; therefore, these are books for everybody and I can recommend them unhesitatingly.

(I think this calls for a post on literary snobbery…..the film release of 50 Shades of Grey is upon us….)


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Reading for Pure Entertainment, Part I: The Ava Lee series by Ian Hamilton

So, in between reading about World War I and Israel, I discovered a few extremely fun books – series actually, which is even better! – and thought I’d share them, because they are such a joy to read. But I’m going to have to split this into two parts; this one’s going to be fairly long because I love talking about these books! It’s such a relief to read something delightful and relatively easy in between the oh-so-serious nonfiction.

I came across Ian Hamilton’s The Water Rat of Wanchai in the library – the librarians have a “recommended” shelf which they compile themselves, may they live forever – and after digesting my “serious” reading, I treated myself to this. I gulped it down whole and immediately went to the Amazon site to download every single thing I could find authored by Ian Hamilton, including Water Rat as I know I’m going to read it again. The writing is straightforward, easy to read, but there is a quality there that will bring me back to it, many moments that are worth savouring. I have a problem with novels that are essentially screenplays, that once read are good for nothing. (I hope John Grisham’s not reading this.) Anyway, this series is not like that. Beach read, yes; throwaway, no.

51cbFIpiSNL._AA324_PIkin4,BottomRight,-55,22_AA346_SH20_OU15_The Water Rat of Wanchai is the first in a series of books – crime thrillers, really – about Ava Lee, Hamilton’s remarkable heroine. Ava is Chinese-Canadian, an accountant, and a martial arts expert. I know, does she also play the violin? Sorry, no, that would be going over the top. Ava is a forensic accountant who hunts down stolen money and bad debts and generally punishes – and I mean punishes -the nefarious. But only when she needs to. She is also gay – and Catholic – and a determined consumer of good food. Interesting, no? I’m always hungry after reading one of her adventures and have to go for dim sum although Ava likes chicken feet and I do NOT.

Ava is a matter-of-fact girl with a matter-of-fact wardrobe. On her down time she wears Adidas track pants and a black t-shirt – Giordano, a Hong Kong brand. For work, she wears Brooks Brothers Italian-collared, French-cuffed shirts and either a black pencil skirt or black pants, cufflinks, a gold cross necklace, black pointy-toed pumps and sticks an ivory hairpin in her immaculate chignon. She’s good to go, and those pointy toes are going to come in handy. After ten books of the same clothing it can get repetitive, but there is a ritualistic aspect to Ava’s toilette I find appealing. It’s like 007 visiting Q in the basement and gathering up his toys before setting off to deal with some megalomaniac with an eye patch. She doesn’t wear much makeup, just a touch of red lipstick and mascara, a look I’ve never been able to pull off, but then I can’t kick ass and eat chicken feet like Ava can either.

It’s tremendous fun to read the Ava books. I know, I can’t stop saying it. She is the daughter of a second wife – I didn’t know this still happens but apparently it does – and is always dealing with complex family issues. Her business partner is an older man she calls Uncle who is based in Hong Kong – Ava lives in Toronto – and occasionally she hires his goons to help with a project. I say “goons” in the nicest, most complimentary way possible because they are actually very sweet and devoted to Uncle and Ava. Essentially, Ava and Uncle are contacted about by a client about a problem – usually money whisked away in a shady deal – and Ava goes to work looking for the money which means looking for the thief as well. Once found, she politely approaches them, lays out her information, and asks them to pay up and return their ill-gotten gains. Faced with a petite Asian girl in her Brooks Brothers shirt and tidy hairdo, these guys always tell Ava to get lost, only not so politely. Ava shrugs, makes a trip to the hardware store to buy duct tape, and then the fun really begins. Sometimes bad guys only need minor persuasion and a kitchen cleaver suffices, and sometimes Ava is dealing with a major player and engages in a full-on let-slip-the-dogs-of-war situation with heavy artillery and everything. Uncle and Ava have a saying, “People do the right thing for the wrong reason.” Essentially, they won’t return money because it’s the right thing to do, but they will do it when they’re tied to a kitchen chair and Ava is wielding a cattle prod. There is something about hardened criminals and idiots underestimating this pretty accountant that is absolutely hilarious. In one job in which Ava is forced to travel to the Faeroe Islands, she is accosted in her hotel by drunken Russian sailors who remark that they’ve never had Chinese c–t before and then make a grab at her. Ava swiftly ties them into knots, then leans over their semiconscious, bloodied potential-rapist selves and asks politely, “How did you enjoy your Chinese c–t?” I giggled for days over this. Every woman knows she is vulnerable if a man takes an unkind interest in her, so it is vicariously fabulous when one woman in this situation comes out on top, because it happens so rarely, sadly. You go, Ava!

Most of Ava’s adventures take place in Asia, too, which is another reason I enjoyed reading them so much. I used to live in Malaysia and Singapore, and my father lived in Thailand, so I traveled extensively around the region and visited many of the places featured in the books. The descriptions are very accurate and bring it all back to me, and I worry about Ava not wearing sunscreen.

I also lived in London, and at one point Ava goes there for a job. There she meets with someone who should know better who insults her horribly with racist remarks. I’m sorry to say, I also witnessed a lot of racism while there. I’m only half-Asian so people didn’t detect my ethnicity which meant that, well, let’s just say I got to hear some very distressing opinions. Ava’s experiences there didn’t surprise me a bit, although it does make me sad and furious on her behalf. Of course not every English person is a racist but for some reason it seems more widespread than it is here in Canada. Anyway, I hope Ava goes back to properly deal with that racist MP and remembers to pop some duct tape in her Chanel handbag. (Oh my god, I’m so involved.)

The other thing that my ruminating on Ava has brought up is all the similarities in my favourite crime novel characters. Ava Lee, Aud Torvingen, Jack Reacher (Lee Child), Gabriel Allon (Daniel Silva), Raylan Givens (Elmore Leonard), Pendergast (Preston/Child)…they’re all calm, incredibly capable but not show-offy about it, intelligent and well-informed about their field, and while they all have a sense of humour, they’re no comedians. Interesting that these are human qualities that we seem to find universally appealing, no? Anyway, this line of inquiry is only half-baked, I need a few more showers to think about it before I come to any more conclusions.

One shower actually led me into this line of thought: Ava is actually the third gay-detective-martial arts character I’ve read about and I’m wondering about the trend. The first is, of course, the famous Lisbeth Salander who is not, strictly speaking, gay (I believe she’s bisexual). I don’t think she’s trained in martial arts either. At any rate, she’s pretty combat-ready. The second is Aud (rhymes with “shroud”) Torvingen, Nicola Griffith’s 6-foot-tall blonde hard case. I am a big fan of Aud. I find it interesting that when faced with petites like Lisbeth and Ava, men tend to feel that they can roll right over them, and I get that, and then I enjoy the mayhem that the tiny chicks visit on the big men. But Aud is huge! She is essentially Brienne in Game of Thrones. Tall, blonde, and totally intimidating. Yet guys take her on! What are they thinking?  It’s kind of like my response to a big meal of Indian food – it’s a lot of food, and I know it’s going to hurt me later, but I’m going for it! I think I can win.

Anyway; it’s interesting that Nicola Griffith’s books are categorized as “Lesbian fiction” in the Vancouver Public Library website catalogues. I’m wondering if there’s a whole genre there and why it’s important or significant that these three women are gay? Is it connected to independence? Both Aud and Ava build significant relationships, so no. Children aren’t mentioned in either series so I can’t speak to that. I wonder if being gay gives them more of a lone-wolf aspect? I emailed Ian Hamilton about this and he very kindly replied:

Her sexuality? I saw it as a way of keeping her completely independent, and if she did get into a relationship, it would allow her to maintain control without it reflecting badly on her or a partner. As  you know since you’ve read the books, I treat her sexuality as the most natural thing imaginable. There is no drama and no angst – and little or no sex.
I was warned by my editor (a female) that I might be accused of appropriation, but that hasn’t happened. If fact, the lesbian community has been very supportive of the books, and I was even nominated for a Lambda Award for best lesbian crime/mystery/thriller. One thing they particularly like is is the fact her sexuality is treated in the most matter of fact manner, as just a part of a rich, complicated life.

So there you have it – I poked a bit about why being gay would necessarily make someone more independent or why it would give her detachment about relationships, as in my experience gay people are exactly like straight people, but he meant the way she was perceived by other characters in the book. I was actually surprised by the appropriation thing suggested by his editor; I don’t see why any author shouldn’t write about any kind of character they like, regardless of ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, or what have you. The Lambda Award is also interesting. There’s a genre called “lesbian/crime/mystery/thriller?” That’s so specific! I also kind of wonder about fiction involving a gay character being categorized as “gay literature” and would not like to see either Hamilton’s or Griffith’s works being pigeonholed in this respect. Good books are good books. It’s like dismissing George R.R. Martin’s books as simply “fantasy” – yes, but if you like fiction you’ll like Game of Thrones!

I’m glad that Ava is Chinese, Canadian, gay, a martial arts expert, the daughter of a second wife, a Catholic, a foodie – these make her a rounded character and I for one became fond of her very quickly. I’m curious about her taste in books, music, the lot. Did she vote for Harper in the last election? What does she think about Rob Ford? I bet he’s got some stolen money hidden away.

I don’t usually write such gushing reviews, but this series came into my life in the middle of a bad cold, a rainy January, and between two difficult books, so it brightened a few days for me and I’m as excited as I was when I discovered Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series. Part II of Reading for Pure Entertainment is about the other series I discovered this month….


These are what Ava wears to kick bad guys in the ear. I won’t wear mine to a wedding because you have to stand around too much.



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Why Do You Need to Know? Confessions of an Autodidact

This month I read Margaret McMillan’s The War That Ended Peace and Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land. These are well-researched and well-written books on the First World War and the history of Israel, respectively.

Holy crap – that was a lot of work. Even though both are extremely well-written, and I love this kind of thing, this is not reading that just skips along. I wasn’t really ready for the McMillan book. I’ve only just started reading about WWI and this was my first non-fiction book. 500 pages and the war hasn’t even begun, it’s all about the factors that led to the war. Learned a lot about Kaiser Wilhelm, Tsar Nicolas…they’re basically all one family, as it happens, and so it’s probably not surprising that they behaved just like families tend to. Dysfunctionally!

Ari Shavit’s book was a good starting point for learning about Israel, but again the book is quite detailed. I did get an overview of the history of Israel. I’ve been leaning towards Zionism from reading Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon thrillers which is probably not the best foundation for developing one’s political opinions, and Shavit’s book provided information and perspective that I might not have gleaned from reading spy novels. He’s not partisan about Israel and strikes me as very evenhanded. My fiction-inspired Zionism has taken a blow.  I’ll do more reading.

Justin sometimes asks: Why do you read all this? It looks like work! That is something I wonder myself sometimes. But I find that most of what I know comes from reading on my own. I went to university and emerged clutching my largely useless B.A. in English Literature, but I hardly remember anything I studied. I wish I could attend university now; I have so much more context for the material presented. I remember taking a Political Science course in First Year – I had no idea what the professor was talking about. I also took a course on Southeast Asia. Again, no context. In one exam I mixed up two completely different countries. Mind you, the professor didn’t exactly make the course sing. I feel that I could teach a much more coherent and lively course on Southeast Asia, having lived there, traveled there, and read a zillion books about the place.

So I consider myself largely self-taught, although I could give credit to the many authors whose excellent books sparked my hunger for knowledge about the world and human experience. The first travel books I read were by Paul Theroux. The first novelists who gave me a sense of history in literature were Robertson Davies and John Irving. Jung Chang and Nien Cheng’s memoirs made me feverishly curious about China. My mother always gave me books which I found stimulating, inspiring, fun, and always interesting, and they always led me down fascinating roads. She introduced me to such wildly varied writers as John Steinbeck and James Herriot. My girlfriend Rebekah’s father is a voracious reader who inspires her, and I still get a lot of my reading material from them as well. And I’m off, free range, grazing on the rich offerings from Kazuo Ishiguro, Antonia Fraser, A.A. Gill, Jared Diamond, and other blessed writers who I hope are writing busily away in order to furnish the rest of us with more good material. I often read bibliographies of books so that I can read those books, and I’m always searching for a new field of interest.

But why? Why cram my head with all the information I can get my hands on?

I just like to know! So much is happening in the world; in our daily paper there are pages and pages of events. But how can you understand those events if all you read is the paper? Where’s the context? You need more than that, and as soon as I  understood that I felt I had to read as much nonfiction as I could. I often use fiction as a starting point – hence the interest in World War I. I’ve been reading spy novels by Charles Todd and Jacqueline Winspear, which are set just after the Great War. I wanted to know more about the context in which the characters lived and acted, to understand their mindset and the social and cultural events that shaped them. This is one of my bugbears and I’m sure I’ve harped on it before. There is no understanding without context! (I do find that in-depth articles such as those found in The New Yorker and Harper’s are also helpful in this respect.)

So, I want to understand. I want to have information about the world in which we live. For what? I don’t know. Maybe I want to be informed against someone’s ignorant rantings? I remember being told by a date once that “black people outnumber white people in the United States.” That sounded ridiculous to me, but at the same time, did I know the exact population breakdown by race in the United States? No. Not until I got home, anyway, and looked it up.

OK, so reason one: being able to refute ignorant people who say crazy stuff. And it’s better to have facts at your fingertips intend of being forced to wait for such events as the recent measles outbreak that we can link directly to the refusal of some ignorant people to vaccinate their kids. (Is it just me being premenstrually vindictive or should these people be outed for endangering their communities?)

Another reason for information-gathering: so I can answer the endless stream of questions I get from my kids. I can barely keep up with that. The disco song “Rasputin” sparked a conversation and I found myself being asked for a lecture on the Russian Revolution. Yes, they actually ask for lectures on history. While I’m driving! I paused on Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome while channel surfing and then found myself explaining nuclear war to them. That was not fun and I’m not totally up on the Cold War and the nuclear arms race so there’s more research to be done, clearly. Although I can’t wait to explain that Ronald Reagan was an actor before he was president. (Mind you, they live in a world in which Kim Kardashian is a celebrity for no good reason, so it might not be the big reveal I think it is.)

Also I think I like being a bit of a know it all. My 5th grader has started Shakespeare – but a seriously truncated Shakespeare, more like excerpts. It fits on 4 photocopied pages and the introduction has a blurb about the Lancastrians having as their emblem the white rose and the Yorkists the red. Say what?? How lazy is that? You don’t need to read English history for that, you just need 5 seconds on Google.I wrote a note to the teacher to point out this error, which offended me to my core. (I’m including that even though I know it makes me sound a little like those people who edit library books. To those people: Please, keep your smarts to yourself and deface your own books.) I’m actually surprised that this Shakespeare segment they’re doing starts with Richard III – for some reason they’re starting with the historical plays (even though the kids have no context for them), then they’re doing the tragedies and then the comedies. Bit of a deep end, but the plays are so abbreviated I suppose it hardly matters. I have problems with bowdlerized and abridged versions of literature but the kids are 10, after all.

Back to my thesis! Our world presents an endless series of questions. How, what, who? And the big one, Why? I’m endlessly trying to answer those questions to my satisfaction, so I’m reading and reading trying to satisfy my need to know and to therefore understand. I believe that one’s experiences provide opportunities for personal growth, and this leads to the development of wisdom. If I can, by proxy, absorb the experiences of others who have been kind enough to write about them, then I can somehow assimilate those experiences into my own, to increase my own knowledge and understanding, in the hopes that this will lead to some kind of wisdom. Nutshell.

I should also mention that this is my idea of fun. My husband can be rooting noisily for the Canucks while I quietly and happily absorb information such as the fact that though both Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicolas had no real military expertise, they were very enthusiastic about the design of military uniforms, chiefly their own, and they showed great fondness for gold buttons and braid. Because a big waxed mustachio requires bling.  Is that fun or what?


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