WHAT I HAVE BEEN READING LATELY
How To Be A Canadian by Will Ferguson and Ian Ferguson, Douglas & McIntyre, $19.95. First published in 2001, How To Be A Canadian had me – then barely a few years old in Canada – in splits.
I recognized myself in the descriptions of earnest newcomers belting out the national anthem.
Nothing will mark you as an outsider more quickly. Canadians don’t know the words to their national anthem, and neither should you.
I found the Ferguson brothers’ take on all things Canadian hugely funny. But I didn’t really “get it” the way I get it now. Now Canada has been my home for nearly a quarter of a century, I have travelled a fair bit within the country, I follow the politics, I am familiar with Canadian icons, and so I get the subtle digs, the sly humour so much more.
On dressing like a Canadian: Some suggestions include saris, kimonos, Jamaican tie-dyes, Peruvian ponchos, Indonesian sandals, Albanian sweaters and brightly colours fez caps. Anything goes, and the more self-contradictory, the better.
On Prince Edward Island: It was here a moment ago. Check behind the sofa.
The ultimate emblem of citizenship: Eh? Eh? is symptomatic of the national reflex for ducking the question and avoiding the issues. It is a tendency so ingrained it has become second nature, even in statements that cannot possibly be disputed, such as “It’s raining priddy hard, eh?”
On Celine Dion: Once Celine latches onto a note, you can’t shake her off... She will hold that note forever and squeeze it like a lemon, till she wrings out every ounce of overwrought emotion possible. “I neeeeeeeeed you...”
On social values: One of the most popular pastimes in Canada is standing in line.
On the many ways to say sorry: Once you learn how to properly say “I’m sorry” you will no longer be trying to become Canadian, you will have rewired your brain to such a degree that you will actually be Canadian.
So read this anniversary edition and enjoy a good laugh – for there is nothing more Canadian than laughing at ourselves.
The Greek Experience of India by Richard Stoneman, Princeton University Press, US$39.95. When the Greeks and Macedonians in Alexander’s army reached India in 326 BCE, they entered a new and strange world.
Richard Stoneman explores the many fascinating ways in which the two cultures forged strong ties and productive interactions over the next two centuries.
The research and work that has gone into producing this scholarly work is phenomenal, with quotes from Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru (who famously dismissed Alexander’s expedition as “a minor and unsuccessful raid across the border”) Pliny and Manu to Romilla Thapar and modern-day scholars such as Wendy Doniger.
He quotes Megasthenes on Indian morality and reveals that the motto of the present Republic of India, Satyamev jayate (truth alone triumphs) is from the Mundaka Upanishad. He describes the divide between Indian medicine based on the Vedas as practised by Brahmins and “those of the ascetics, which grew into Buddhist medicine or Ayurveda” reliant on herbal remedies. And that what is now called Yunani (Greek) medicine came in with the Muslims in the 11th century CE. He provides ancient references to the practice of Sati, starting with the goddess Sati, the daughter of Daksha.
Stoneman correlates different accounts and fact-checks against known evidence. He finds commonality between “Indra, the storm god and battle leader, who wears a beard, carries a mace and is a lusty consumer of the sacred drink soma” and the Greek Heracles.
Names we learnt in school as part of history lessons – Porus, Chandragupta Maurya and Chanakya – come alive in this book as do fascinating legends about pipal and neem trees and other flora and fauna.
And I learnt the origin of the word meander from the book. It comes from the River Maeander!
This book is packed with so much knowledge, so much information, so many stories, that it will become a valuable resource for anyone interested in all things Indian and all things Greek.
Fatboy Fall Down by Rabindranath Maharaj, ECW Press, $19.95. As Orbits, an old man with a broken heart looks back, he sees a child ridiculed for his weight, a son overshadowed by his brother, a husband who falls short of his wife’s expectations and a father alienated from his daughter.
Fatboy Fall Down is the story of a man intent on pursuing a simple dream while trying to understand his place in the world. It is shot through with sadness and the loneliness he experiences.
As he looks around for others who could take the focus off him, he is also ashamed that he wishes the torment on someone else. ...he began to get a whiff of the sly, conniving cowardice of the weak and the picked- upon. He suspected the other misfits had likely felt the same way about him and held off on any friendship for the same reason: they would just make a bigger target.
And yet, there is wry humour and Rabindranath Maharaj’s deep understanding of the human spirit.
The Sustainable State by Chandran Nair, Berrett-Koehler, $35.95. Chandran Nair is the founder and CEO of Global Institute for Tomorrow, an independent Pan-Asian think tank and was chairman of the Environmental Resources Management in Asia Pacific until 2004.
In The Sustainable State, he posits that the free-market, small-government model has been an ecological and social disaster for the developing world. And that if countries in Asia were to follow the Western lead, the results would be calamitous. He argues that equitable development is possible only through a rethinking of the meaning of concepts like freedom, prosperity and rights.
For Nair, the path towards a sustainable future in which everyone’s basic needs – and thus rights – are met is achievable only if the institutions of the state are strong and not prone to capture by vested interests.
If They Come For Us by Fatimah Asghar, One World, $22.
An aunt teaches me how to tell
an edible flower
from a poisonous one
just in case, I hear her say, just in case
This debut poetry collection captures the experience of being a young Pakistani Muslim woman in contemporary America.
Orphaned as a child, Fatimah Asghar grapples with coming of age and navigating questions of sexuality and race without the guidance of a parent.
When the sadness comes
my sister tells me a story
a man buried in Pakistan
a woman buried in New York city
when we sleep they wake
opposite sides of the world
Referencing Pastor Niemoller’s poem, First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out... in the brutality of the Partition and in the aftermath of 9/11, in the loss and anguish, Asghar searches for and finds humanity.
The Penguin Book of Haiku, Translated and edited by Adam L. Kern, Penguin Classics, $24.
sky cleared up
they share a single hue
moon and snow
The Japanese haiku is known for its minimalism, instantly recognizable structure and natural imagery, yet, as this new anthology shows, it can also be erotic, funny, satirical and mischievous.
gaze I shall!
‘til the very blossoms become
a pain the neck
Adam A. Kern presents classical haiku ranging from the refined and meditative to the ribald and madcap, accompanied by commentaries and illustrations.
Good Night Taj Mahal by Nitya Mohan Khemka; illustrated by Kavita Singh Kale; Good Night Books, $9.95. Facts about the Taj Mahal – whom it was built for and how many men it took, etc.
Illustrations depict people doing what all visitors to the monument do – pose on the bench in front of the gardens. A fun introduction to the wonders of the Taj Mahal.
Hayani Sasikumar’s Teen Review of The Help by Kathryn Stockett, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $19.58. The Help by Kathryn Stockett discusses various key issues such as equal rights, female to female relationships and hope.
It follows the lives of the coloured women who work in Jackson, Mississippi, as domestic help and focuses on the issue that a woman’s duty is not only to cook, clean, and take care of the family but much more.
Aibileen, the protagonist, takes care of Mae Mobley, the white family’s child. Another maid, Minny, helps Miss Celia fit in with other white woman in town. She helps prepare her to be like them. Aibileen and Minny help Miss Skeeter write a book on how it feels to be a coloured woman working as a maid in secrecy. For instance, they reveal how Miss Leefolt builds Aibileen a bathroom outside the main house because white women spread rumours about coloured individuals having bad germs that can spread if the coloured help use their bathrooms.
I really liked how the novel illustrated the society of the time and emphasized empowerment of women. This book isn’t just about the coloured women working for white families but also about civil rights. It also proves that storytelling can be a strong tool for change.
• Hayani Sasikumar is a grade 10 student and a member of Brampton Library’s Teen Library Council.