Super Books!

Some books carry perhaps the most exciting potential of all: the ability to change things, to inspire and create a movement.

Words, words, words.

Shakespeare tossed out that phrase as Hamlet’s response to Polonius. Facetious in his intent, because in truth, “words, words, words” contain kinetic power. String enough together to make a book, and you can pack a wallop that satisfies a reader, yet leaves them bubbling with a “Huh, didn’t realize that before” feeling.

Some books carry perhaps the most exciting potential of all: the ability to change things, to inspire and create a movement. With enough consistent, accurate information and a moving or convincing narrative, a conversation of change can develop.

Take, for instance, Anne Bishop’s new novel, Under the Bridge, which portrays many pertinent, connected issues of social justice with heart, humour and stark truth. When people burn with injustice they’re often rendered as crazy, unreliable, trouble-makers. Lucy, this novel’s protagonist, is labelled in that way by some. She’s a middle-age woman, fresh out of jail and living on the streets.

Infused throughout the novel—from the opening rant about the origin of roses to the exquisite nature of snowflakes “spinning out of the darkness”—is hope and love. Hope lives and breathes in the friendships and genuine hearts of those giving their all to improve life for the planet, themselves and others. I could picture faces of women I’ve interviewed as a journalist over the years. The streets of Halifax popping to life on the pages.

Bishop shows the immense frustration of those working for equality and justice amidst a machine of globalization.

“Are people guilty of what they don’t know about?”

Bara, a teenager finding her way genuinely asks Lucy this question, in reference to Lucy’s anger toward shoppers in an expensive clothing store.

Lucy replies:

“I know, they don’t intend to harm anyone, but does that make any difference to the woman getting paid pennies to sit at a sewing machine making their clothes? Or starving because their coffee is grown on the land that used to grow her family’s food?”

Throughout the book Lucy talks with Bara about international political actions that have very real local consequences, such as structural violence, fair trade and exploitive mining efforts across the world.

“Once you make me see this stuff, I can’t un-see it, ever. I feel like Humpty Dumpty.”

I can’t un-see it. Powerful words from Bara. It’s hard to fight for justice and equity for the Earth and all living beings when most times you’re swimming upstream. It’s equally hard asking people to see past their immediate gratification to consider the impacts of their decisions and choices.

I think that’s what it comes down to. Our choices: how we spend our money and our time.

Those choices are undoubtedly placed in the pressure cooker of how our lives are structured. Getting the kids to practice, lunches prepared, evening social events scheduled, fundraising events, shows watched, clothes and dishes washed. The go go go of it all.

Fast lunches and fast suppers are most often unhealthy. Obesity. Waste.

Plastic is finally in the hot seat. What if every decision considered the end result of each component involved in that decision?

All that goes to choices—which leads to decisions. Whether we like it or not, political decisions are at the heart of how our society is governed. In his Goose Lane publication, David Moscrop tackles a surprising one: Too Dumb For Democracy? Why we make bad political decisions and how we can make better ones.

Our choices create the environment in which we live,” Moscrop wisely observes. He answers his own titular question with, no, he doesn’t think society is too dumb for democracy:

“We are, however, often stuck in situations that encourage or lead us to make dumb—or what I prefer to call bad—political decisions.”

Slowing Down, Thinking Differently, Making Better Choices

Moscrop outlines issues including the framing of topics and how that framing can distort information, leaving us making decisions on autopilot. He looks at the role our institutions play in upholding particular decisions.

He maintains that good political decisions are possible—and essential. They require slowing down, deciphering information and considering various angles of reasoning.

These actions presuppose people have the time to sift through documents and rhetoric. Which he acknowledges as part of the problem, as so much political discussion is deliberately made convoluted and confusing.

Moscrop’s reasoning goes back to Bishop’s argument of working to get more people out of poverty, so they can spend less time scrimping, saving, working multiple jobs, etc., and more time learning, researching, considering options and making well-informed decisions—being part of shaping the systems that govern all of us.

And another of books’ superpowers also happens to be the ability to help us slow life down. The very act of reading a book forces us to concentrate, take our time. Many books have been written to help us save time, use time efficiently, and most importantly, think about time differently.

PEI’s resident television star and super-chef Michael Smith wrote Real Food, Real Good, his 10th cookbook, which landed on the Globe and Mail bestseller list as soon as it was published in 2016. Smith’s massively influential work guides people to slow it down in the kitchen, making more deliberate, thoughtful choices that impact ourselves, our families and yes, the globe.

Smith’s political urging arrives in reasoned conclusions: be vigilant and informed. His “real food strategies” include using real ingredients, making things in advance, planning meals, getting reliable food information from impartial sources, sharing meals and having fun.

He advises readers to shop local and know where meat and fish originate. A section titled “So-Called Foods” highlights items to avoid, such as bouillon cubes, margarine and bacon bits.

He also says it’s imperative we educate and inform ourselves by taking the time to read labels, know what the label means and to navigate through the buzz/green-washed slogans of “fruit juice” or “no sugar added.” Be cognizant of what certain phrases, like “free range,” are supposed to mean, compared with reality.

“You may believe these are the chickens living in pastoral splendour, roaming a vast farmer’s field out in the country somewhere. Not so fast. This loosely interpreted term usually means there’s a door in a cage leading to a small outside pen overlooking the parking lot.”

His entire food philosophy comes down to the Real Food Pledge — which opens his cookbook:

I pledge to stand firm, to make informed choices and embrace simple home cooking as the best way to eliminate artificiality from my food and add the vibrancy or true health. I promise to share my table and serve as an example to my family and other cooks. I know a healthy food lifestyle is essential, easy, inexpensive and most of all delicious.

His book helped me out with my conundrum of the grocery store. I explained some of it the other day to my sister. If one eats vegan, or even vegetarian, does one cause more harm due to all the trucking of avocados, bananas, tofu, almond, soy and coconut milk? Really, all vegetables in the winter months. (I thankfully still have some garlic left.) What about the transportation costs of nuts, lentils, rice, quinoa?

Eating imported meat is not a great alternative. We often don’t know where the animal was born. What did it eat? Where did it sleep and run during its life? Where it was slaughtered? How far did it travel before it landed in the grocery store?

However one answers these questions in their own kitchen, Smith’s work has been a game-changing conversation starter in Canada, which is one of books’ greatest superpowers.

Characters Learn to Love Different People, and So Can We

Another is the ability to reflect and, in special cases, amplify certain realities and challenges to a much larger group of people. It’s a way of gathering new allies. Kathleen Winter’s 2010 novel Annabel—which was shortlisted for the Giller, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and a Governor General’s Award—brought to life a set of circumstances seldom openly talked about. When a child is born a hermaphrodite, what should parents do?

“When you are the mother, you take it in stride. You take albino hair in stride, when you are the mother. When you are the mother, not someone watching the mother, you take odd-coloured eyes in stride.”

These are the thoughts of Wayne/Annabel’s mother Jacinta as she considers her child’s reality. She and her husband, Treadway are filled with love for their child, but it’s a love marred by the inexplicable delineation of science:

Whenever she imagined her child, grown up without interference from a judgmental world, she imagined its male and female halves as complementing each other, and as being secretly, almost magically powerful. It was the growing up part she did not want to imagine. The social part, the going to school in Labrador part, the jeering part, the what will we tell everyone part, the part that asks how will we give this child so much love it will know no harm from the cruel reactions of people who do not want to understand.

These last seven words are crucial: “People who do not want to understand.”

A concept that goes back to the question, are we too dumb for democracy? If we don’t want to understand unknown elements of life, then what values and knowledge are guiding our decisions? A pretty narrow view—one I’d wager is rooted in fear of the unknown, of new things, of someone different to what we’re accustomed, or different from our expectations.

Books come in handy here again, showing us how people can change. Take Marilla Cuthbert, from one of our region’s most powerful superbooks, in terms of long-term impacts, Anne of Green Gables (the original manuscript of which, with marginalia, is now available from Nimbus Publishing). A timeless movement started 111 years ago when Lucy Maud Montgomery introduced Anne Shirley to the world.

Anne’s natural wonder continues to inspire people young and old. Montgomery broke convention of the time by giving us this spitfire of a youngster. And a girl at that!

Margaret Atwood contends it’s Marilla Cuthbert who makes the true transformation:

“But to love is to become vulnerable. At the beginning of the book, Marilla is all-powerful, but by the end, the structure has been reversed, and Anne has much more to offer Marilla than the other way around.”

Marilla’s rigidity is melted by Anne’s genuine love and gratitude for all life offers.

Heroes like Anne Shirley, with their indomitable joi de vivre, show us the best possible versions of ourselves, giving us something to aspire to. The reverse of that power is to give us empathy for those who are not living their best possible lives, posing difficult but essential questions.

About Face: Essays on Recovery, Therapy and Controversies of Addictions in Canada, new from Breakwater Books in St. John’s, asks, what do we do when faced with irresistible, potentially destructive urges, whether it’s the urge to be right, to be rich, to be drunk, stoned, winning money, having sex? Immediate satisfaction contrasted with long-term planning—for ourselves and for the planet.

“Addiction is not a phenomenon of the ‘other’ but affects us all,” editor Douglas Gosse writes, thus universalizing the struggles within, demanding empathy. This book is a collection of essays of firsthand experience concerning a wide variety of addictions. From substance-abuse disorder to shopping and eating addictions. It also includes perspectives from people seeking to help those living with addictions.

While it may not always be possible (or advisable) to walk a mile in another’s shoes, we can be allies, even to those we don’t know, who are living lives so opposite to us, yet struggling just as much to think positively about themselves, attempting to achieve their level of happiness amidst struggles of identity, grief, illness, feeling shunned and wanting to shine.

Books can illuminate those stories, show us the value of their lives.

The Power to Unite For a Better World

Books also have the power to tie all these things together! The interconnectivity needed in Ann Brennan’s The Faery Chronicles between humans, faeries, water nymphs, gnomes and druids shows readers, in a parallel fantasy world, what true cooperation looks like. Exquisite illustrations by Leland Wong-Daugherty bring these notions to life with vibrant depictions of the characters and their plights.

Brennan’s parable reminds us we must all work together and use our differences for the better. Not push certain people, or species, aside out of fear.

These publications are united in their end goals. Or end results: asking people—urging them—to slow down, get informed and then make better choices for themselves, for the world. From the preparation of food, the judgment of versus empathy for others, and our often fixed rigidity to our own “normal.”

Years ago, fresh out of journalism school, I was fuelled with the confidence, vim and vigour to tackle all issues of injustice. My bookshelves brimmed with books of change, highlighting the many inequalities around the globe. Titles such as Jeffery Sachs’ The End of Poverty, William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden and Bitter Chocolate by Carol Off.

One day while at my apartment, my friend’s eight-year old daughter observed, “Wow, you have a lot of serious books.”

She was correct. They were serious books, important to read but also difficult to read without an element of hope. Those topics can make you want to run the other way, helpless to the enormity of it all.

But change is possible.

Margaret Mead’s timeless words continue to motivate those meetings in coffee shops, classrooms and parks. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”

The solution has and always will be community. Seeking people who support our intentions and propel us forward. Leading by example, yet also leaning into each other when it’s difficult. Placing faith in our own purpose and potential, while acknowledging the strength of diversity. Recognizing the power, influence and impact of our decisions. Each and everyone of them.

In the words of Anne Bishop’s character Lucy:

“We have to organize, change our culture into something that will let the rest of the world live.”


Written By

Norma Jean MacPhee is a freelance journalist in Cape Breton.

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