September 2014
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Little Bastards in Springtime by Katja Rudolph

When the leaders speak of peace,
The common folk know
That war is coming.
When the leaders curse war
The mobilization order is already written out.      -Bertolt Brecht, War Primer

Little Bastards inThe duty of youth is to challenge corruption.
-Kurt Cobain                                                                     

“The children will all be ruined by war, that’s the truth of it,” the commissar announces, not to her but to the table in general. “Yet some will rise arduously from the ruin to change the world for the better.” No one is listening to him. “And when the next war breaks out, the same will happen,” he continues. “When this cycle has occurred enough times, the ruined children of war will have changed the world sufficiently to eradicate the benefit of war to any man, venture, nation, or empire and there will be no more wars. You see, progress!” -Katja Rudolph’s character, the commissar

In the words of the book jacket, this is “the unflinching story of a boy who survives the siege of Sarajevo and immigrates to Toronto bearing the scars of war.”

That boy is Jevrem (pronounced Yevrem) Andric and when the story opens he is eleven years old. His mother is a concert pianist and teaches at the conservatory; his brother Dušan is “sixteen and goes wherever he wants”; his eight year old twin sisters Aisha and Berina are inseparable, Aisha being the stronger, more confident of the two; his father, Lazar, is a journalist.

In the first scene of the story (not the Prologue which takes place in 1941 and which involves Jevrem’s grandmother whom he calls Baka), the family is walking down a street alongside a protest in the spring of 1992 and Lazar tells his family: “This is the real Yugoslavia, the true Sarajevo. Artists, writers, professors, journalists mixed in with everyone else. All nationalities, no nationalities. Demos triumphing over ethos.” Lazar puts Jevrem on his shoulders and asks him to read out some of the signs he sees: “Our-nation-is-Yugoslavia. We-are-one-people…Resist fascism.”

At their apartment Jevrem’s Baka, a partisan under Tito’s leadership, declares that in her time “It was death to fascism, freedom to the people!”  His uncle, Ujak Luka, “mimics Baka behind her back”and talks to Jevrem about his dreams and tells him “Everyone should dream” and that he dreams of getting away, “far from this nightmare”. Ujak Luka’s voice is the voice of sanity but Jevrem is too young to know this: he has been told often that Luka is “wild”.

The situation in Sarajevo changes quickly. As Lazar puts it: “The war’s started…fifty-one years to the month since the Nazis invaded, forty-seven years to the month since we kicked them out, sacrificing  whole generation in the process. And for what?”

Jevrem has conversations with his grandmother about Ujak Luka’s departure from Sarajevo and she expresses her disapproval: “What if every able-bodied man picked up and left?”

“I (Jevrem) think about this for a minute. “There’d be no war,” I say.

“But one has to defend against the enemy,” Baka says.

“I mean if no man wanted to fight, even the enemy men.”

“But you have to be prepared to fight in case the enemy wants to fight.”

“But, let’s say no man on the whole planet ever stayed around to fight when the politicians told them to.” To me it’s just a matter of logic.

“That’s not how the world works, Jevrem,” Baka says. “There are always men who want to fight. They think they can conquer the world. They get frustrated and angry about their little lives and need to create mayhem, jut to feel like men. This happens when things aren’t going well in the economy — that’s the most dangerous time for any society.”

The discussion continues and Jevrem begins his journey towards adulthood and finding his place in the world. He will leave Sarajevo and go to Toronto (his school experience there I found particularly interesting – what does anyone really know about the effects of wartime violence upon children) and then even farther. It will be a long journey and the story is a powerful one. It would be an excellent companion read with The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway.

Other quotations of interest:

“We call ourselves The Bastards of Yugoslavia, as a joke. We like the word bastard. It’s got a ring to it, and has a lot of different meanings. It’s what the nationalists who took over our country called us, the offspring of women in mixed marriages. They meant it as an insult, but we feel proud.  …They didn’t want us back home, not really, in all their new separate little cleaned-up countries, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, Macedonia. And Bosnia, split completely in half, Croats and Muslims on one side, Serbs on the other. Where were we beautiful mongrels meant to fit?”

“I see how the whole world works, this circle of violence and pain and violence, on and on, down through the generations, that old saying, you reap what you sow.”

“War is a criminal failure of fathering, plain and simple, if you ask me, all the fathers, the presidents, generals, foreign ministers, peace negotiators, men mostly, who make decisions that put their and other people’s children in the line of fire, because there’s always another way, you know that, no matter what anyone tells you. ”

“Twentieth-century war is waged against civilians, all of it, siege or no siege. There is no ethical and unethical war anymore, it’s all a massacre.”

This is a solid, compelling read!  The irresistible combination of entertainment and thought-provoking information.


The Dogs Are Eating Them Now by Graeme Smith

The subtitle of this book is Our War in Afghanistan and it is revealing and very sad and, of course, difficult to read. It will, however, increase your awareness of what has happened in Afghanistan. The jacket of the book explains that Graeme “Smith devoted more time to southern Afghanistan than any other Western journalist between 2005 and 2011, and his book offers a candid and critical look at the Taliban’s rising influence and the West’s continued miscalculations.”

Dogs are Eating Them NowAlso from the jacket: “The Dogs Are Eating Them Now” is a raw, uncensored account of the war in Afghanistan from a brilliant young reporter with unmatched compassion and a rare ability to cut through the noise and se the broader reality.”

In his introduction Smith does not claim qualifications to speak about the entire country and explains that the southern region “does serve as a useful case study. It’s where the war became most intense; it’s where policymakers focused much of their attention; it’s where the policy most obviously went wrong. The world needs to understand what happened and draw lessons from this debacle – and the only way of reaching those conclusions is by visceral immersion.” The latter is what Graeme Smith did.

The title is taken from something Smith experienced and, in his words, “that still bothers me”. It was a story “passed along from a reconnaissance unit prowling ahead of the front lines at night. The soldiers usually found no trace of their enemies except blood trails disappearing into the undergrowth, because the insurgents were efficient at removing their dead and observing the Muslim custom of a quick burial. But in the chaos of Operation Medusa, some of the bodies were left behind. One night a Canadian reconnaissance platoon decided to use Taliban corpses as bait, dragging them out from the leafy cover of the farmland and marking them with infrared glow sticks. The soldiers hid themselves and waited for the insurgents to collect heir dead. Hours ticked by, with the troops poised to fire – but nobody fell for the trap. The stench of death attracted wild dogs, which spent the night ripping  chunks off the bodies while the Canadians watched through their gun scopes.”

There is much in Smith’s book that refers to the AIHRC (Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission) and it can be researched on the internet starting here.

Smith writes: “I keep a souvenir that reminds me of my worst days in Afghanistan. It’s a ballpoint pen, decorated with copper wire threaded into a pattern of beads. Somebody spent many hours making the cheap writing instrument into a work of art, and there’s something pathetic about the scuffed plastic and its glittering enclosure. You cannot touch this object without feeling the poverty of the craftsman. A prisoner gave me this pen during our investigation of conditions in Afghan detention facilities in the spring of 2007. That was the season when I began to seriously doubt the nobility of the war.”

In the above investigations of conditions, Smith had a breakthrough when he got inside Sarpoza prison in Kandahar. He had interviewed former detainees but many had been afraid to speak. He paid the warden three Mag-Lights  to get into the national-security wing to which he made several visits over a period of weeks. Prisoners there made souvenirs such as the pen described above. A majority of the men interviewed had been captured by Canadian troops and some were taken by US special forces or Afghan security forces. Smith was particularly interested in the nationality of detainees since he was working for a Canadian newspaper. After awhile he began to hear the stories of “beatings, whippings, starvation, choking and electrocution”. Smith was confident that when NATO countries learned that their Afghan allies were torturing prisoners they would not be pleased. His translator thought he was being naive.

On April 23rd, 2007 when Smith`s report was published, the Canadian defence minister, Gordon O’Connor, “stood up in parliament and declared that the AIHRC monitoring was enough. Smith wrote another story to inform the public that the reassurances were empty because “the AIHRC was not allowed into the Kandahar intelligence prison.”

“On April 25, Canada’s prime minister responded to questions about whether AIHRC monitoring was sufficient.  Part of his reply was as follows: “military leaders in Afghanistan are constantly in contact with their counterparts and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. So far, they have not indicated to us that they have encountered these problems.”

Check out this award winning journalist’s book if you are serious about knowing some of what’s happening and/or has happened.  Smith won an Emmy in 2009 for  video that recorded the opinions of Taliban fighters. Read more about Graeme Smith here.

You might also want to check out Melissa Fung’s Under an Afghan Sky: A Memoir of Captivity.

One in Every Crowd by Ivan E. Coyote

This collection is from Arsenal Pulp Press and is the sixth story collection from Ivan E. Coyote and her first written specifically for queer youth. For those readers not familiar with Ivan E. Coyote, I quote from the back cover of this book: “…is one of North America’s best-loved storytellers; her honest, wry, plain-spoken tales about gender, identity, and family have attracted readers and live audiences around the world. For many years, Ivan has performed in high schools, where her talks have inspired and galvanized many young people to embrace their own sense of self and to be proud of who they are.”

One in Every Crowd“Included are stories about Ivan’s own tomboy past in Canada’s north, where playing hockey and wearing pants were the norm; and about her life in the big city, where she encounters both cruelty and kindness in unexpected places. Then there are the heartfelt tales of young people like Francis, the curly-haired little boy who likes to wear dresses, and Ruby, a teenager who tells Ivan, “You remind me of me. And nobody ever reminds me of me.”

Here is Ivan’s dedication: “This book is dedicated to Francis, Frances, Felice, and Zrena, for making me make myself into a better human, and a better writer, and for making my world a more honest and beautiful place to live in. You are my teachers, my friends, my family, and my future, and this makes me feel lucky and blessed.”

By way of an introduction, Ivan writes a letter to herself and addresses it “Dear Kid I Was”. Here are some excerpts from that letter:

“Hey there. It’s me. I mean you. It is you/me, writing to me/you, from the future. We are almost forty-three, and I sure do wish there was a way for me to get this message from future me to past you, but so far, humankind hasn’t invented anything like that yet, not that I know of anyway, so all I can do is write this letter and put it in the front of this book, and just maybe it might help out some other poor kid who feels all alone, just like you and I did, way back when.”

“I want to tell you a couple of really important things. First, school is more important than youOne in Every Crowd even thought it was. And I don’t mean this in a boring i know it all and I am here to tell you kind of adult way, I am talking in the just between you and me as equals kind of way. Educating yourself right now is your ticket to options, my friend. And I know you. You like options. …I am here to tell you that every single thing you will ever manage to learn, every skill, every course, every bit of school or college or university you attend is going to help you on your way to becoming exactly who we always dreamed of being.”

“One sure fire way to figure out who you are is to never listen to anyone else tell you who or what you can be. Never let someone else decide for you what you are capable of being….I only wish that we hadn’t listened to the guy who told us when we were thirteen that girls couldn’t play drums, because then I would have started playing them thirty years ago.”

“Remember when everyone in school called boys who liked drama class or played the flute or who wanted to be cheerleaders fags? You know that guy Corey from home economics class, and Michael, and that blonde kid, his name started with a D, I forget his name? Remember how that blonde kid did that dance number for a talent show that one time in grade nine, and he could really dance, remember him, his name started with a D, and you don;t know this yet because it hasn’t happened, and you might wanna sit down because I know you, you are sensitive and this next little bit of news I am bringing you from the future is going to tear your tender heart right out, but I need you to know that he will go on to shoot himself in his father’s basement with a rifle one winter a couple of years after we graduate. And Corey, he will asphyxiate himself in Yellowknife in a car inside a garage in the dark of a long northern winter and see, I don’t think either of these boys had to die, and that is why I am going to ask you a favour. Oh, Michael will make it by the way. In fact, Michael will turn out to be a real nice guy who works with your sister and grows orchids in his spare time. But those other two guys, well, it didn’t have to go down the way it did with them.”

This is a powerful collection and it is to be hoped it reaches as many adults and young people as it possibly can. It needs to be read and read again.


Boston Cream by Howard Shrier

This is the third Jonah Geller novel (follows Buffalo Jump and High Chicago) and takes place Boston Creammostly in Boston. As seen by Harinder Patel, Boston “was an agreeable city by any standard, other than the weather, and with so many excellent universities, he’d had high hopes that his son Sanjay would enter one of the professions. Sadly, he had not. He was studying marketing communications. Harinder had bought a house with a ground-floor business but it was old and drafty and in a very poor location. He was behind in his payments and afraid he would lose the business. One night when he was about to close up two threatening men enter and turn the sign around so it reads CLOSED from the outside. They place an envelope on the counter  with five thousand dollars in it. They offer him fifty thousand to show up when and where they tell him. They press a brass bullet into his hand and tell him that is what he will get if he turns them down. Harinder has no idea what they want.

Anyway, the main setting is Boston but for those readers who like Jonah Geller’s Toronto connections the story starts in Toronto and there are references to Riverdale and the Don River Valley and the Bathurst and Lawrence area in the northwest. Jonah also goes to visit a couple living “at the wrong end of Glengrove Avenue, west of the Allen Road.” The fellow he meets has an optometry shop in a “strip mall on Marlee Street” and his wife was principal of a Jewish day school on Bathurst Street. It is this man who will connect Jonah to Boston because his son, David, has been missing in Boston for two weeks.

David is a transplant fellow at Sinai Hospital in Boston. Jonah suggests that David’s father would be better off to get a Boston investigator. David’s father ,however, had heard something of Jonah’s style of working that impressed him enough to want to get Jonah: “…you don’t give up, Jonah. That you never have since you started out, not even once. No matter what happened to anyone. You break a few dishes, he said, but you keep at it. You don’t care who you piss off, pardon my language…he said you play above your weight. I’m not a big sports fan, but I know what that means.”

Jonah’s response: “You’ll get my best.”

So Jonah and his partner Jenn go to Boston to find out what happened to David Fine and also end up finding out what happened to Harinder Patel who, it turns out, had vanished a week before David Fine.

There are other references to Toronto as well: “Harvard Street around Coolidge Corner was a lot like Eglinton West in Toronto.” About Cambridge: “It reminded me a lot of the Annex at home, the streets lined with bookstores, cafés and indie restaurants.”

If you haven’t tried a Jonah Geller mystery, go out and grab yourself a copy of Buffalo Jump and get started. You won’t regret it.

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

“There is passion here, a piercing accuracy, a rare sensitivity and power…One can only marvel.”

Grass is Singing 2I’ve had this book stashed away on a shelf with several other titles by Doris Lessing for several months now. Then one or two weeks ago, acting on a random impulse I clicked on one of my favourite sites (Heavenali: the link is on the left-hand side of this very page)and found a review there which I read completely and then went and got out my copy. Simple as that!

The first chapter is titled “Murder Mystery” and the heading is followed by this short item from a “Special Correspondent”:

“Mary Turner, wife of Richard Turner, a farmer at Ngesi, was found murdered on the front veranda of their homestead yesterday morning. The houseboy, who has been arrested, has confessed to the crime. It is thought he was in search of valuables.”

It is suggested that most people would have read the short item, “felt a little spurt of anger mingled with what was almost satisfaction, as if some belief had been confirmed, as if something had happened which could only have been expected.”

“And then they turned the page to something else.”

“But the people in “the district” who knew the Turners, either by sight, or from gossiping about them for so many years, did not turn the page so quickly.”

“The Turners were disliked, though few of their neighbors had ever met them, or even seen them in the distance. Yet what was there to dislike? They simply “kept themselves to themselves”; that was all.”

“The more one thinks about it, the more extraordinary the case becomes. Not the murder itself; but the way people felt about it, the way they pitied Dick Turner with a fine fierce indignation against Mary, as if she were something unpleasant and unclean, and it served her right to get murdered. But they did not ask questions?”

This novel was Doris Lessing’s first and was published in 1950. It is set in Southern RhodesiaGrass is Singing 4 which was a British colony (now Zimbabwe) at the time of the story (1940s). It contains much about the racial relations between British settlers and the natives they employed and it caused a stir when it was published according to Wikipedia. The cover of the first UK edition is shown to the right. The book was made into a movie in 1981 and Dick Turner was played by John Thaw (Inspector Morse in television series) and Mary was played by Karen Black. I haven’t  tracked down a copy yet but I think it might be interesting.

Lessing herself  was born in Persia (Iran) October 22, 1919 and grew up in Rhodesia on a farm where her parents grew corn and tobacco. Her parents moved to Rhodesia in 1925. Their farming experience there was apparently not a successful one.They lived in something close to a mud hut but they had many books. Read more here.

Grass is Singing 3Mary Turner’s life is examined in considerable detail in the novel. A young Englishman by the name of Tony Marston had been engaged to run the farm for a few months because Charlie Slatter, the Turners’ neighbor, had made arrangements for Dick and Mary to go away on a vacation. Charlie had witnessed Mary’s deterioration and Dick’s on-going struggle with malaria and firmly believed that neither one of them would survive if things continued as they were. Slatter had made transportation arrangements and the Turners’ were to leave on the day the murder occurred.

Marston had discovered Mary’s body: “…he wondered how all this had begun, where the tragedy had started. For he clung obstinately to the belief, in spite of Slatter and the Sergeant (police), that the causes of the murder must be looked for a long way back, and that it was they which were important. What sort of woman had Mary Turner been, before she came to this farm and had been driven slowly off balance, by heat and loneliness and poverty? And Dick Turner himself – what had he been? And the native – but here his thoughts were stopped by lack of knowledge. He could not even begin to imagine the mind of a native.”

The trial was a mere formality but the answers to Marston’s questions are what Doris Lessing’s novel deals with and the outcome will leave you wondering. An impressive debut novel and a challenging read for anyone who likes to try and understand what actually happened.