Thursday, January 24, 2008

Economic Emancipation

Hi folks,

Sorry I've been so remiss with this thing lately, with posting and more so with visiting others. Life has become very busy again, mostly work-related.

Hopefully I'll catch up with my regulars next week. In the meantime, Z Mag's new website is finally live and includes their January issue free. That happens to be the issue with my feature.

See Economic Emancipation: Ghana, Africa, the World.

Or click this image:


Shameless self-quote:

“The most valuable thing we've gained from our outer space explorations is that image of Earth, that beautiful perspective on our collective home. The most important things I learned from my travels through faraway lands are those ideas and perceptions of the place I come from, those other outsider perspectives on what I think I know.”


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Best Movies Seen 2007

I'm not a big movie buff, so it amazes me that I watched 58 movies last year. Below are 26 that I really really enjoyed, with the very best 5 in bold:

1. Tsotsi - brilliant, unflinching profile of a South African thug who strangely finds himself trying to take care of the baby of one of his victims.

2. Chokdee - French feel-good (true) story of an ex-con who becomes a kickboxing champ.

3. Dark Blue - Hard and honest movie about cop life and cop corruption, set during the week leading up to the Rodney King race riots and subsequent Los Angelas race riots.

4. Sixth Sense - I watched this on late night TV in Paris. My wife translated from the dubbed French. I'd never seen it before, but I knew the twist. Still, it was cool and creepy and sweet and sad.

5. Letters from Iwo Jima - Saw this on a westbound plane across the Atlantic. Not just a war movie. It was more about waiting for imminent death, waiting for it to be over with, knowing that all things good in life, all loved ones, will never be seen again. Tragic and heart-breaking, and so well done. Kudos to Clint Eastwood.

6. Ms. Potter - Loved those books as a child, and according to this movie the author was a great, ahead-of-her-time, yet childlike woman. Zellweger nailed it.

7. Castaway - The first three quarters of this movie are a fascinating psychologal study of isolation. The last bit could have been better if Hanks' character had the kind of melt-down a real person would have after 4 years of hardy survival on a deserted island. Where was the culture shock, the 'this world makes no sense to me anymore' that I myself have had just from regular travel abroad? Still, his time on the island captivated me.

8. The Falcon and the Snowman - Stranger than fiction true spy and crime caper where lefties at least can sympathize with what the criminals did. Great acting by Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton drive a great character study of grey-area men.

9. Girl Fight - Brilliantly crafter story of an 'at-risk' young woman literally fighting her way out of oppression and danger, with several very realistic hiccups along the way, and difficult choices. Hint: it's better than million-dollar baby.

10. Hard Candy - As its title might suggest, it hits hard and takes you by suprise. Starts out as a nauseating sexual predator story, turns upside down, then gets creepier. Leaves you severely shaken with equally mixed emotions, and shows a side too rarely seen.

11. Godfather II - Need I say more?

12. Erin Brockovich - Just a fun and touching movie with themes of environmental and health ethics, expert culture, and workplace gender roles.

13. Coach Carter - I'm kind of a sucker for the Adult-Leader-makes-good-with-troubled-kids genre, especially when based on a true story. I also love basketball, and I love that someone out there worked with black kids and stressed academics over athleticism. Sadly rare.

14. Sicko - Michael Moore's best since Roger and Me. Great story of one of the world's worst medical system in the world's richest country, and its effects on real human beings. Moore is a genius and creating the perfect scenarios to show the worst of American culture, in an ongoing attempt to reinvigorate the best of it. Yeah, he painted an overly rosy picture of the healthcare systems in other countries, but he was making a point, and doing so very well. A nice leftist counter to mainstream rightwing propaganda.

15. Have You Been to Gaza Lately? My friend John Filson strikes again with a short documentary in which he and his friends take a day trip to the Gaza strip and explore a fairly typical day in a place with a rep as the most deadly place in the universe. In this typical day nobody dies and no bombs explode, but John does explore the lingering shadow of ongoing violence. I think you can get this one on Youtube and it's well worth the half hour of your time to learn what Palestineans really go through on a day to day basis, and their typically human resilience and strength in the face of adversity.

16. Naked on the Inside - Brilliant doc about body image, as told mostly by several very strong people with body challenges, such as cancer, deformities, anorexia, and fatness. This movie gets incredibly intimate with its subjects and makes a strong case for loving our own bodies whether mainstream culture does or not.

17. Shake Hands with the Devil - Another movie about the Rwandan genocide, this time from the perspective of the man who failed to stop it, Canadian general Romeo Dallaire, based on his book. Not quite as good a movie as Hotel Rwanda, but still very good, largely because Dallaire has always been so honest about his experience and how it haunts him. There are literally millions of stories that could be told about those events, and I think they would all be riveting and tragic. Many would also be heroic. They are well worth watching.

18. Lenny - Classic portrayal of the troubled and harrassed comic who told satirical dirty jokes that seem tame by today's standards. Great performance from Dustin Hoffman.

19. Poor Boy's Game - Despite a sentimental ending, this film did a great job depicting the poverty and racism that drive the beautiful sport of boxing, and the black/white conflicts that still plague North End Halifax.

20. In the Same Boat - Two short, straightforward companion documentaries of a no longer thriving way of life in Nova Scotia: fishing. The first examines the dying art of line fishing and the men who are going broke doing it while trawlers deplete the fish stalks; the second looks at Bear River First Nation's refusal to sell their treaty rights to fish back to the government, and their outreach to and negotiation with white fishers for fair distribution of the catch.

21. Three Colours: Red - The final film of Kieslowski's famous trilogy. I'm not even sure quite what this film is all about, but it's gorgeous and the characters seem very real.

22. The Namesake - Probably the very best movie I saw last year. This is the story of an Indian couple who immigrate to America and the American children they create and raise. One of the best portrayals of cultural adaptation I've ever seen, it demonstrates the complexity of living between cultures, the value and importance of family and familiarity. And it's just a damn good story.

23. Grizzly Man - This one wins on the basis of unintentional comedy. I felt like I was watching a Christopher Guest documentary with the usual series of misfits taking themselves way too seriously. Except, those misfits were real, and the central figure who shot most of the footage was the craziest of them all. The narrative voice-overs are a mix of absurdly abstract and out of context philosophy, and a fine example of telling instead of showing. Spoiler: the bears win.

24. Hope in Heaven - Horribly sad, depressing documentary about the sex trade to foreign tourists in The Philippines that shakes one's faith in humanity, especially men. Sounds like a good time eh? Well, it's worth seeing because you can't understand the heights of humanity without witnessing some of its depths.

25. Borat - So, so funny. With all the hooplah about making fun of Kazakhs, it's American culture that is left standing embarrasingly naked in this flick, and I can't help but laugh at it. Yeah, it's crass and offensive, but Cohen is a genius at bringing out the worst in people and letting them make fools of themselves in the process.

26. Last King of Scotland - I watched several movies set in African this year and only two made this list because most of them used African characters solely to make a point either about corruption in Africa or corruption in America. Last King of Scotland features a great portrayal of Idi Amin, has several other important African characters, and shows how the ignorant arrogance of foreign do-gooders can backfire. It's a fictional story of extremes but it is convincing and it works.

27. The Journals of Knud Rasmussen - One clueless critic slammed it as 'glacially paced'. That's kind of the point, or part of it anyway. It's a beautiful follow-up to Atanarjuat from Zacharius Kunut. Finally we get a movie that shows the Euro-aboriginal culture clash from the aboriginal, in this case Innuit, perspective. It's a sad story of change and loss, brought on not by violent conflict but by gentle manipulation by dim-witted do-gooders.

28. The Trap - Great 3-hour doc tying academic science, economics, sociology, and philosophy of the past many decades and linking them with current politics. Fascinating stuff.

29. Cinderella Man - Another great boxing flick, this one set in the great depression, shows the true nature of the sport, the desperation of it, the poverty that breeds fighters. "Now I know what I'm fight for." "What's that?" "Milk."

"I recalled with a twinge of sadness how Japhy was always so dead serious about food, and I wished the whole world was dead serious about food instead of silly rockets and machines and explosives using everybody's food money to blow their heads off anyway."--Jack Kerouac in Dharma Bums, 1956


Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Best Books Read 2007

In 2007 I read 47 books, the best and most memorable of which included (with the best of the best in bold):

1. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. Surrealist adventures of a runaway, "the toughest 15-year-old in the world." Murakami crams Texas-sized philosophy into tight prose that had me reading when I was supposed to be working even though I loved my job.

2. The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi by Arthur Japin. Shows the deep pain of culture clash, displacement, and misguided 'development' plans as far back as the 1800s, it's the story of Ashanti princes forced abroad, which captures its three settings (Gold Coast, Holland, and Dutch East Indies) beautifully. I reviewed this book here.

3. Age Ain't Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife, edited by Carleen Brice. I am not and never will be a middle-aged black woman, so I didn't expect to love this book, but there wasn't much else around to read at the time. I did love it. The true stories within were beautifully rendered by masterful storytellers, and it was a rare non-fiction in that rather than expose a problem it celebrated life and the diversity of experiences it offers us if we live long enough.

4. Food Aid: A Trojan Horse? by Akrofi Dzietror. A very short, succinct attack on United States and European foreign aid policy, and how it is used exclusively to forward Western interests by manipulating recipients in the name of generosity. Enlightening.

5. Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. Gorgeous lament for the South African black family, pre-apparteid.

6. Leopold's Ghost: A story of greed, terror and heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild. The picture I had of colonialism in Africa was never rosy, but this book showed the true source of 'darkness' on that continent to be Europeans, and their complete inability to see humanity through the rubber trees. A must read for anyone who wants to understand why there is injustice in the world.

7. May Contain Nuts by John O'Farrell. A hilarious send up of the British upper-middles and their obsession with the academic stardom of their children.

8. African Politics in Comparative Perspective by Goran Hyden. Very academic, very dry, and very much a foreign 'expert' writing about Africa, yet meticulously well researched and shed a lot of light on my own observations of Ghanaian culture and politics.

9. Soil & Soul: People v. Corporate Power by Alistair McIntosh. Impactful and inspirational alternative theological and ecological history of Scotland, detailing two activist victories of recent decades: the purchase of the Isle of Eigg by its residents from their Laird, and the saving of a mountain from total destruction by a megaquarry project, thanks to the help of a Mi'kmaq Warrier Chief and Peace Pipe Carrier.

10. The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories by Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy takes me so deep into the heads of his characters that I almost become them and join them in the agony of their existence. No other writer I've read can do it quite like he did.

11. The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi. Another great story of crossing cultures, and a creepy Nigerian ghost story to boot. A big-time page turner, written by Oyeyemi when she was 19 if you can believe it.

12. Age of Iron by J.M. Coetzee. Fantastic exploration of white guilt and apathy in South Africa near the end of apparteid, narrated by a woman facing the end of her own life and reckoning with her failures and that of her country.

13. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the rise of raunch culture by Ariel Levy. A bang on look at what has happened since the split of feminist between the 'pro sex' and 'anti exploitation' camps, and how this division has made many women into accomplices in their own sexual repression and exploitation.

14. Best Canadian Short Stories edited by John Stevens. Great little collection of some of Canada's old-school writers.

15. Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill. A real feat to have a 13 year old prostitute narrate her own demise of hard luck and bad choices and still come of as immensely loveable and sympathetic. A totally engrossing story with immense social value.

16. Kynship by Daniel Heath Justice. An atypical fantasy story in that it's told from the aboriginal perspective, i.e. from the perspective of the ones that are usually portrayed as ogrish neanderthals in the hero's path to glory, in need of trampling. It's well told and engaging as a story and is almost a spiritual experience to read.

17. Embracing Complexity: A journal of my discoveries and reflections in the Holy Land by John Filson. This is a journal written by a friend of mine. His brother published it as a gift. It's a simple and constant medidation on questions of peace and conflict, an attempt to better understand the sources of the latter, and an intentional effort to understand varied perspectives. It is unique in that it makes no argument, it is a balanced and gentle reflection, and I found it shed a lot of light on a confusing faraway conflict with a long history.

18. Island: the complete stories of Alistair MacLeod. If only I could write like he does. The flow of his prose is forceful, meandering, and absolutely natural. This book made me cry. It touched my mind, but it hit me harder on the heart.

19. When They Give You Lined Paper, Write Sideways by Daniel Quinn. I don't agree with everything Quinn says, but he always makes me think about things in new ways. This book is about his method to being a 'Martian Anthropologist', i.e. how he always comes up with unusual, yet usable, analyses of our fucked up culture.

20. Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King. He says so much with so little, is so subtle, is the master of the old adage 'show don't tell.' I read his books and for a while I feel like I know what life is about.

21. You Still Have Chaos in You: My story of madness, and how I learned to live it (with a section on d.i.y. mental healing) by Maryse. This was actually a zine but it was so good I had to include it. Maryse is not an accredited mental health expert but she lays out some of what she has learned as a political radical with mental health issues, and in the process offeres a great analysis of 'normal' and 'abnormal' and what health is really all about in an unhealthy society.

22. Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai. This isn't the best written book I've ever read but it's a great story about growing up 'funny' in Sri Lanka during a time when it was hard enough to be the wrong ethnicity in the wrong place without any other 'abnormalities'. It's also about childhood and loss of innocence, a theme that never seems to get old.

23. The Road to Hell: the ravaging effects of foreign aid and international charity by Michael Maren. A completely cynical, bitter view of foreign aid and charity by someone who has spent 20 years watching Americans, Canadians, Aussies and Europeans make things worse for Africans, sometimes because of incompetence, sometimes corruption, often out of pure cultural ignorance. He knows what he's talking about and again echoed many of my own observations writ large. Unfortunately he didn't bother offering any alternatives, not even just to say stop messing around with things we don't understand, which left a bleak sense of hopelessness about the state of the world that I don't generally share. Given all the evidence he presents of the failure of 'development' (he focuses on charity but really government and business are at least as much at fault) I suppose it's hard to find much cause for hope, but personally I think if we cancelled all Third World debt and stopped telling other nations how to run themselves it would be a good start.

"In the end I couldn't care less about the response, because that's not why I write. I write because it's there in me and I have the ability and I'd likely go mental if I did anything else. I'm not writing a sentence hoping some conservative, petty dickhead sub-contracted by the Globe and Mail is going to get what I'm talking about."

--Joel Thomas Hynes, 31-year-old Newfy writer who just published his second book, 'Right Away Monday'


Friday, January 04, 2008

Z Magazine

Hi folks,

Back to my best of lists shortly, but first, some exciting news. A 6,000 word feature I wrote called Economic Emancipation: Ghana, Africa, the World; Debt "forgiveness" and the financial assault on Third World countries has been publised by Z Magazine, a fantastic "independent magazine of critical thinking on political, cultural, social and economic life in the U.S." My article is in the same section as Noam Chomsky's, so it's pretty exciting stuff.

The article will be online eventually, but in the meantime feel free to go out and buy a copy for $4.95, well worth the expenditure.



Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Best Albums Acquired 2007

It's time for my patented year-end retro on the best things I heard, read, and watched. Let's start with heard. This year 15 new albums entered the archives. Here are the six that really stood out for me:

1. Aaron Bebe Sukura & the Local Dimension Palm Wine Band - Accoustic Ghanaian Highlife. This has the sound of northern Ghanaian folk music with a twist, and it is the best music I heard in Ghana, which is saying a lot.

2. Wyclef Jean - Welcome to Haiti Creole 101. Wyclef is a musical genius and this album takes him back to his musical and cultural roots.

3. Jill Scott - Beautifully Human. This is a truly special album and I've never heard lyrics quite like this before, really expressing a deep appreciation for everyday life. Here's a sample: We at the family reunion, tellin' jokes and playin' spades, Uncle Dave is on the barbeque grill Grandma braggin 'bout the blanket she made For the new baby on her way Even though the daddy ain't really ready This child is coming...anyway, yeah Neicey made her famous potatoe salad, somehow it turns out green Maybe its all the scalyums, could be the celery But oh, Uncle Jerome loves it, here comes my favorite cousin He says he doing fine, takin' it one step a day but in my heart I know it ain't that way What can you say...its family Aunt Juicy been drinkin' again...ooh its only 1:30 in the afternoon Everybody tip-toeing 'round her, we all know she gonna be toe up soon Saying all the things we like to say, hope she gets around to Cousin Lonnie Cause We all know he got a little extra somebody on the side Oh shit, Damn Micky and Steven are fighten again Move out the way, somebody might get hurt Aw Look at that what happen is worst They knocked over HElenora's Lemon Cake You know the one she barely ever makes I'm gettin rilled up, I want them to go But Somebody turn Frankly Beverly on the stereo Cousin Ruby starts rockin', shakin her good hip and bottom So we all fall into place, smiling and laughing

4. Justin Rutledge - Devil on the Bench in Stanley Park. He's a true urban country poet, the best in Canada, and what a beautiful voice. Buy this album.

5. Ryan Adams - Easy Tiger. This guy has released 9 great albums in 7 short years, spanning country, rock n roll, folk, bluegrass. His range and talent is just crazy. This one isn't his very best, but it's up there.

6. Gossip - Standing in the Way of Control. Political pop-punk at its groovy best.

“to hell with poetry, and to death’s aristocracy, because the things you do to me, you do just fine.” –Justin Rutledge


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