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Debt and redemption

A review of Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by  Margaret Atwood. Toronto: Anansi. 2008.

payback

Given the current worldwide economic malaise, it appears rather prescient that the 2008 Massey Lectures address the subject of debt. In these lectures, Margaret Atwood examines of the concept of debt as a motif in human society, particularly through an examination of metaphors of debt in western literature. As such, this book only obliquely deals with personal monetary debts. Rather, the focus is on the more general idea of debt in relation to justice, sin, redemption, balance, and revenge, among other topics.

Atwood begins with the idea of debt and its relationship to fairness, which is ingrained in the psyche of the human race (and other intelligent creatures). In early societies, notions of debt are aligned with justice, which is typically represented by a supernatural female figure. It is the emergence of Greece, and the induction of the court system described in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, that the idea of a female arbiter of fairness/justice (and thus of debt) is replaced, although the feminine image remains.

Next, Atwood describes the links between debt and sin. In heaven, debts are forgiven; in hell, debts are eternally paid back. The character of Satan is often portrayed as a collector of debts, and often described as wielding a ledger. With these notions of debt and sin, the creditor is often seen to be as sinful as the debtor, particularly in pre-industrial literature. Moreover, motifs of debt are always twinned with motifs of credit, one symbiotic with the other.

In the lecture on “Debt as plot”, Atwood examines the characters of Faust (as particularly exemplified by Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus) and Scrooge (of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol). In a fascinating passage, she wonders if Dickens wrote Scrooge as a reverse characterization of Faust:

Was Dickens consciously writing Scrooge as a reverse Faustus? … There are so many correspondences it is hard to avoid the thought: Faustus longs to fly through the air and visit distant times and places, Scrooge dreads it, both do it. Both have clerks – Wagner and Bob Cratchit – the one treated well by Faustus, the other treated badly by Scrooge. Marley is Scrooge’s Mephistopheles figure who carries his own Hell around with him… Everything Faustus does, Scrooge does backwards.

As someone who has been studying variations of the Faust legend for over a decade, I found this digression fascinating. The characters of Scrooge and Faust will loom large over the subsequent lectures in this book.

An examination of the shadow side of debt described in the title focuses on the ideas of punishment, resentment, and revenge, among others. The endless cycles of revenge and counter-revenge exemplified in the myth of the house of Atreus are shown as analogous to cycles of debt and credit: one is a moral debt, the other a financial one. The solutions to both are laws (as exemplified in the Oresteia) or forgiveness (as exemplified by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission). The shadow side of the debtor is the creditor: hence we have Faust/Mephistopheles, Scrooge/Cratchit, and Antonio/Shylock. It was inevitable that a treatment of the motif of debt would include mention of The Merchant of Venice, and Atwood succeeds with a detailed and trenchant analysis of the relationship between Antonio and Shylock with regards to the debtor/creditor roles.

Payback is associated with redemption, and requires recognition on the debtor’s part of the debt incurred. In the concluding lecture, Atwood returns to Scrooge. Recognizing two archetypes in the Dickens tale (Scrooge Original, before his redemption, and Scrooge Lite, after his redemption), she introduces a third archetype for a new variation: Scrooge Nouveaux. This twenty-first century Scrooge is annoyingly narcissistic, at once astoundingly rich and astoundingly ignorant. He is visited not by the spirits of Christmas past, present, and future, but by the spirits of Earth Day past, present, and future. At this point, the narrative moves into a strong focus ecological ethics and the role of debt. The debtor, Scrooge Nouveaux, is a stand-in for all of us and our negligent razing of the planet, effectively racking up an enormous ecological debt from our creditor. We can either start to pay back through sustainable and ethical practices and receive the forgiveness of Gaia, or proceed with business as usual and face her revenge. As Scrooge Nouveaux begins the new day after the nocturnal visit of the three spirits, he thinks:

I don’t really own anything… Not even my body. Everything I have is only borrowed. I’m not really rich at all, I’m heavily in debt. How do I even begin to pay back what I owe? Where should I start?

 Scrooge Nouveaux’s thoughts apply to all of us. Where shall we begin?

paybuck_cdnsmall2

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Memory and loss

A review of The Boys in the Trees by Mary Swan (2008).

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There has been a recent trend among some journalists in Canada to reflexively dismiss what has been termed, often derisively, as “Canadian gothic.” Although the term is vague and not precisely defined, it is essentially accepted as dark, tragic, nineteenth-century rural Canadian narrative (for example, think Wuthering Heights transported to the Bruce Peninsula). Given this provisional definition, The Boys in the Trees by Mary Swan falls into this category, but it would be a mistake to overlook this fine novel simply based on this categorization.

The Boys in the Trees is a heartbreaking tale of a terrible tragedy and how it transforms (and informs) a community, offset with notions of how memory, responsibility, forgiveness, and knowledge shape lives. The story asks the reader how memories of the past affects the life one lives now, how responsibility is to be determined when actions cannot be predicted, how forgiveness is essential to a contented life, and how knowledge about one another, and memory of the past, is necessarily incomplete.

The novel begins and ends (as its title suggests) with vignettes of boys in trees. The trees at the beginning of the novel offer refuge, a safe haven from abuse and despair for a young boy named William Heath, one determined to escape his miserable existence and determined that one day people will know his name. The trees at the end of the novel provide a vantage point another group of boys to witness the final results of a tragic choice.

After the brief vignette in the trees, we next see William as a young man with a family living in England. He is beset by a first brutal onslaught of tragedy that causes the family to flee to Canada – first Toronto, then the fictional town of Emden, Ontario. However, William is unable to escape his feelings of anxiety, despair, and failure that have accompanied him since childhood, setting the stage for a second and even more brutal tragedy. It is this tragedy that is dealt with in the remainder of the novel, with the citizens of Emden reflecting and acting upon their impressions of what happened. Swan is masterful here at describing the ripple effects of a tragic singularity on the lives and memory of those involved with the Heath family.

Swan writes in a resolutely non-linear format that suits her examinations of knowledge and identity. In particular, the second and third chapters are composed in fascinating contrapuntal narratives that slowly converge into their respective tragic conclusions. The remainder of the novel consists of individual non-linear narratives (recollections of the citizens of Emden at various points in time) that slowly offer the reader additional insight into the characters and events of the first three chapters yet leave many questions unanswered, signifying that the causes and motivations behind many events are ultimately unknowable, even by those closest to them.

One narrative follows a young boy named Eaton, a neighbour and friend to the Heath daughters. The tragedy provides a defining point in Eaton’s life, and assigns an infinite value to a secret gift that he will carry with him for the remainder of his life. Questions of guilt and responsibility continue to haunt Eaton even as his memory fades in old age.

Another narrative follows the Robinson family and how the main tragedy relates to and interacts with another within their own family. Again, questions of guilt and responsibility are examined, with a possible answer provided in the notion of forgiveness. Hints at guilt possibly lying elsewhere are suggested throughout the Robinson family narrative, and additional facets of the Heath family are provided by the Robinson women.

These narratives ask us: what can we really know of a person from their external appearance and outward actions? Swan shows that we can only glean facets, glimpses of knowledge that no matter how numerous will never coalesce into a whole, or even a reasonable representation of a whole. And moreover, this imperfect knowledge is ultimately doomed to fade away with the people holding it. Nevertheless, these accumulated facets can provide a rich description of characters and motives, even with many questions remaining unanswered.

This is remarkable debut by Mary Swan. It has been nominated for the 2008 Giller Prize, and in my opinion is the best of the four nominees I have read (having yet to read the Joseph Boyden entry, and not likely to finish it before the award is presented).  I strongly urge anyone interested in the future of Canadian literature to read this book. I certainly look forward to reading more of her work.

A review of Through a reporter’s eyes: The life of Stefan Banach by Roman Kaluza. Translated and edited by Ann Kostant and Wojbor Woyczynski. Boston: Birkhaüser, 1996.

In the preface to this book, Roman Kaluza states that “this book contains little of mathematical character,” and hence this is not a work on the important mathematical developments of Stefan Banach during his productive life. Nevertheless, it offers a detailed and comprehensive look inside the Polish mathematical and educational communities in the time between the wars. Although Banach left no correspondence or memoirs from which to examine his life, Kaluza does an admirable job reconstructing his career through a comprehensive study of university archives, newsletters, interviews with students and acquaintances, and the recollections of Banach’s contemporaries.

Most mathematicians initially become familiar with the name of Stefan Banach through their studies of functional analysis, topology (the Banach space), or through the paradoxical Banach-Tarski theorem, yet they learn nothing about the man himself. This role is well served by Kaluza’s book, which may be roughly divided into two parts. The first half of the book addresses the academic development and mathematical work of Banach. The second half concerns the personal and social aspects of Banach’s life. Joining these two parts is a fascinating chapter on the Scottish Café, which has attained legendary status in Polish mathematical history, where Banach and other mathematicians struggled with a wide range of important mathematical topics over coffee and cognac.

The first four chapters of the book concentrate on the education and subsequent mathematical contributions of Banach during his career. As a child, he attended the Henryk Sienkiewwicz Gymnasium in Cracow, a school concentrating in the humanities. An excellent mathematics student, he tutored from the age of 15 and was largely self-taught in the more advanced aspects of his subject. Upon graduation, we learn that he decided to enter into engineering, believing that “mathematics was so highly developed, it would be impossible to do anything new.” Enrolling in Lvov Polytechnic, Banach soon realised that a future did exist in mathematics. His meeting with Huglo Steinhaus in Lvov represented a turning point in Banach’s life. This meeting is colourfully described by Kaluza using excerpts from the memoirs of Steinhaus. We learn that not only did Banach become acquainted and begin to collaborate with one of Poland’s leading mathematicians, it was through Steinhaus that he meets his wife.

The years from 1919 to 1929 represented Banach’s most prolific period of research. After the publication of his first paper (in collaboration with Steinhaus) in 1918, Banach produced a remarkable string of results. One of his earliest papers remains his most influential. In “Sur l’équation functionelle f(x + y) = f(x) + f(y),” he demonstrates that measureable solutions to this equation are necessarily continuous, and thus linear. Banach followed this paper with four more in a similar vein, providing the necessary background for his developments in the theory of functional analysis. These early papers, published while Banach was still a student, lead to his Ph.D. thesis on complete normed metric spaces, known now as Banach spaces. Despite his emphasis on the non-mathematical nature of Banach’s life, Kaluza does an admirable job in conveying to the reader a sense of the content of Banach’s work. He considers the mathematical content of these early papers individually, albeit briefly. At this point the inclusion of a few simple equations instead of unnecessarily long descriptions would be beneficial.

Banach went on to receive his Ph.D. in 1921, and by 1924 was promoted to the “highest possible rank in the [Polish] scientific community” – Professor Ordinarus of mathematics.

Kaluza moves from this most productive period to consider the rest of Banach’s mathematical work, from his founding (with Hugo Steinhaus) of the Studia Mathematica in 1929 to his death in 1945. The Studia Mathematica was an important journal that conveyed the recent Polish successes in functional analysis and set theory. Kaluza shows that the Studia was the first mathematical journal to specialise in these areas, thus attracting not only Polish but internationally renowned scholars. In 1932 Banach published his influential monograph The Theory of Linear Operations. This treatise consolidated his published results on linear functional analysis along with a substantial amount of new theorems and applications. During the late 1930s, Banach’s output declined sharply, primarily due to the geopolitical situation in Europe. His last (non-posthumous) papers, on non-divergent series of orthogonal functions, appeared in 1940.

To connect the largely intellectual history of the first part of the book to Banach’s personal and social life described in the second half, Kaluza provides a fascinating chapter on the legendary Scottish Café. This café, situated near the Lvov institute, became the centre of Polish mathematics during the 1930s. Frequented by Banach, Steinhaus, Ernst Zermelo, and other prominent mathematicians on a regular basis, Kaluza describes the heated discussions on mathematics, politics, and just about anything else occurred between patrons of the café. A major product of these discussions was what became known as The Scottish Book, a large notebook kept at the café where mathematicians could enter problems and offer solutions. This famous notebook, contained entries by Banach and the Polish community, as well as luminaries such as Henri Lebesgue, John von Neumannm, and René Fréchet, was eventually published by Birkhäuser in 1981.

The final half of Through a reporter’s eyes concerns the personal and social life of Banach. Kaluza draws heavily upon interviews with Banach’s former students and the recollections of his contemporaries. We learn that he was a rather unconventional academic, prone to cancelling large blocks of classes at a time, and spending up to twelve hours a day in the cafés of Lvov. However, he was greatly admired by the student body and regarded as highly talented teacher who could convey the most difficult of concepts with great clarity. The ending of the book describes Banach’s life in Lvov under the Nazi and Soviet occupations of World War II. By that time, the thriving Polish academic community of the 1920s and 1930s had disbanded; many sought refuge in England or the United States, and many others were jailed at home. In a chilling description of life under the Nazi occupation, Kaluza details how Banach spent a few months in prison and the remainder of the time working as a “feeder of lice in the Rudolf Weigl Bacteriological Institute,”, the standard work-duty for many former academics. Banach suffered greatly under these conditions, and was described by Jadwiga Hallaunbrenner, a Lvov mathematician, as being “exhausted, starved, and wasted away.” With the end of the war, Banach was offered the position of Minister of Education in the new Soviet-controlled Polish government, but died soon thereafter of cancer on the 31st of August 1945.

Three appendices included in this work warrant mention. The first, entitled “Mathematics in Stefan Banach’s Time,” provides a short description of the emergent and increasingly abstract mathematics of the early twentieth century. It provides some background for the non-mathematician in the areas of mathematical logic and set theory to accompany the exposition of Banach’s results in the first half of the book. The second appendix is a list of selected publications of Banach. This list includes all his major mathematical papers and textbooks, and thus represents an invaluable source for the historian of mathematics. Finally, a selected bibliography provides a list of articles and reminisces about Banach. Unfortunately, for the English reader, almost all of these are in Polish.

In conclusion, Through a reporter’s eyes provides the reader with a short and engaging version of Banach’s life. Although this book is described by the author as having a journalistic rather than scientific character, an honest attempt is made to convey the import of Banach’s most significant results. The method of summarizing the results of Banach’s papers individually is especially useful as anyone with further interest is provided with an exact reference. There are a few minor errors in the first half (some of which may be the result of translation) that mostly concern background material. For example, at one point Kaluza seems to suggest that Cauchy was the creator of the δ-ε definition of a limit (it was Weierstraß), and at another point refers to French as being the lingua franca of early twentieth century mathematics, when it was in fact German. Nevertheless, especially considering the fact that Banach left no correspondence, Kaluza does an excellent job in digging through the archives to reconstruct Banach’s life. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in early twentieth century mathematics and the European scientific education system. It will also prove to be an important companion to any future historical study of Polish mathematics.

Stefan Banach on a Polish postage stamp

Review of Stupid to the Last Drop: How Alberta is Bringing Environmental Armageddon to Canada (And Doesn’t Seem to Care). Knopf Canada: 2007.

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William Marsden is an author and investigative journalist who bravely took on the Hell’s Angels biker gang in a series of books and columns. Now he’s after a bigger, richer, and far more deceptive foe… the Canadian oil industry. Marsden goes to the physical and metaphorical heart of Canada’s oil country to provide an incisive examination of an environmental catastrophe effected by a manipulative oil industry in denial and aided an impotent and incompetent system of governments.

Marsden begins by supplying a great deal of informative historical background of the oil sands project, including a bizarre scheme in the 1950s to extract oil via controlled nuclear explosions. He also provides an inside view of the immense scale oil sands excavations by visiting the projects and talking with the workers. This sets the stage for the critique to come.

 

The two primary targets polemically identified by Marsden (the “stupid” ones of the title) are the oil industry and governments within the province of Alberta.

 

Marsden describes a heavily subsidized industry that flouts the rule of law, uses propaganda and intimidation to achieve its ends, is deliberately deceitful, and remains astonishingly ignorant of the long term effects (environmental, social, and financial) of its activities. He illustrates how time and time again the massive public relations machine of the oil industry obscures facts and keeps citizens in the dark (for example, by stating that the toxic petrochemical-related products suddenly infusing wells and land are naturally occurring).

 

The second side of the problem rests with an impotent and largely incompetent provincial government. This is not a government that serves its citizens; rather, it is a veritable plutocracy under the sway of corporations and addicted to royalties delivered by the ever-increasing prices of crude oil. The politics of ignorance appear to be the central creed of the Alberta government, and there is little or no desire by elected officials to listen to citizens or take their concerns seriously. As such, Marsden takes it upon himself to visit concerned citizens and report their stories, and they are not pretty. He reports of a government bought and paid for by the oil industry and who remain astonishingly oblivious about the effects of the industry on the citizens of Alberta.

 

Marsden concludes that the results the industry and government action/inaction have resulted in boreal forest depletion of a massive scale, a significant and possibly catastrophic depletion of the water table, and destruction of wildlife and rural agriculture. If continued unchecked, the Alberta of the future will be a bleak monument to avarice, and yes, stupidity.

Review of The Greenpeace to Amchitka: An Environmental Odyssey by Robert Hunter. Arsenal Pulp Press: 2004.

According to the butterfly effect, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in China can ultimately result in a tornado in North America. That is, small variations in initial conditions of a given system can have large and unpredictible effects. The Greenpeace to Amchitka: An Environmental Odyssey demonstrates how a small act by a determined group of individuals begat the worldwide environmental organisation known as Greenpeace.

In 1972, a group of intrepid peaceniks from western Canada set sail on a dilapidated forty-year old fishing vessel from Vancouver to Amchitka (a small island in the Aleutians), hoping to force the cancellation of nuclear device test by the U.S. government. The Greenpeace To Amitchka is a first-person account by this journey by the late Bob Hunter.

Hunter was well known to Torontonians as an environmentalist, newspaper columnist, and television reporter. It is not quite as well known that Hunter was a founding member of Greenpeace and was on the ill-fated voyage of the Phyllis McCormack that fall of 1972. That persevering vessel would be renamed en route as the Greenpeace as it continued the desperate and ultimately futile voyage.

The book is written in a late 1960s “gonzo journalism” style reminiscent of writers such as Hunter S. Thompson. As such, the prose comes across as somewhat dated, yet retains a lively and frenetic feel. The tensions between the picaresque participants are captured with unabashed honesty, and Hunter writes with a mixture of humour and pathos. Like Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, the book provides a vivid description of a remote part of the world that few of us have or ever will see. The book also contains many photographs by Robert Keziere, who perfectly captures the bleak landscapes and stoic countenances of the participants.

The voyage was unsuccessful in its initial goal of stopping the nuclear test. Bad weather, frequent delays, harassment by the U.S. Navy, and a rift among the protesters all contributed to the cancellation of the voyage. However, the dejected protesters returned to Vancouver as environmental celebrities, due to the growth of public awareness resulting from media coverage of the voyage. Like the butterfly’s wings, this initial futile and seemingly inconsequential event sowed the seed for a trans-national environmental movement… a movement that became Greenpeace.

Freedom of Expression: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies of Creativity
Kembrew McLeod. Doubleday, 2005.

The subtitle “overzealous copyright bozos and other enemies of creativity“ aptly describes this missive against current trends in intellectual property law that media prankster Kembrew McLeod has launched with this thought-provoking and often humorous book.

A central premise of McLeod’s book is that an erosion of the creative commons by continually expanding copyright and patent legislation, rather than encouraging artistic and scientific innovation, has actually had the opposite effect. Moreover, the encroachment of private interests on the public domain via this expanding legislation has made it prohibitively expensive to perform scientific research and cheapened our culture.

Copyright and patent laws were legislative tools originally conceived to foster creativity. The laws allowed the creators of cultural and technological artifacts to exclusive profits for a fixed period of time. Afterwards, the works would enter the public domain, where they could be built upon by the next generation.

McLeod describes how folk musician and political activist Woody Guthrie freely borrowed melodies and lyrics from existing folk and show tunes for his compositions. Many of these tunes were only a few years old at the time Guthrie incorporated them into his music, yet this was not seen as theft. Artists of his era implicitly recognized the concept of the information commons – that they could build upon existing melodies to create something novel. In fact, this methodology goes back to nineteenth century classical music, where composers like Mahler and Dvorak used folk melodies as a basis for many of their symphonic compositions.

Woody Guthrie has been dead for 40 years, and many of his songs are well over 60 years old. Ironically, the current holders of his copyright have been very litigious in their pursuance of any perceived transgression against their “right” to his music. They fail to recognize how the genesis of these songs relied on a freely available pool of existing melodies, rhythms, and lyrics – a creative commons – that they in turn are slowly eroding. The result is that current copyright legislation no longer encourages creativity, but destroys it.

McLeod looks at the effects this erosion of the public sphere in a wide range of areas: sampling and collage in music, trademarks in biotechnology, the use of lawsuits to curtail fair use, and the copyright of common sayings.

There are long-reaching ramifications, including the curtailing of free speech and democratic institutions. If the Watergate scandal occurred this century, could it have been made public, given that documentation produced by outsourced private entities is not freely available? How could the results of voting machines, produced by and managed by private corporations, be independently verified if they are under private control? These and many other troubling issues are raised in this incisive analysis of unchecked greed.

Reading for 2007

It was a slow year for reading in 2007, perhaps the slowest in more than a decade. However, I did manage to read a number of interesting books and plan ahead for a more intensive reading schedule for 2008.

  1. Kevin Bazzana (2005) – Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould
  2. Kim Stanley Robinson (2004) – Forty Signs of Rain
  3. Kim Stanley Robinson (2005) – Fifty Degrees Below
  4. Kim Stanley Robinson (2007) – Sixty Days and Counting
  5. Lawrence Osborne (2005) – The Accidental Connoisseur: An Irreverent Journey Through the Wine World
  6. Dennis McNally (2002) – A Long Strange Trip: An Inside History of the Grateful Dead
  7. Barney Hoskyns (1993) – Across the Great Divide: The Band and America
  8. Henry David Thoreau (1854) – Walden
  9. Henry David Thoreau (1849) – Civil Disobedience
  10. Ted Schredd (1996) – The Cycling Adventures of Coconut Head: A North American Odyssey
  11. Lester Bangs (2003) – Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader
  12. Lorenzo Valla (1517) – The Falsely-Believed and Forged Donation of Constantine
  13. Lorenzo Valla (1440) – The Profession of the Religious
  14. Charles Wilkins (2004) – Walk to New York
  15. George Plimpton (2005) – Ernest Shackelton
  16. Jon Ronson (2002) – Them: Adventures with Extremists
  17. Robert Hunter and Robert Keziere (2004) – The Greenpeace To Amchitka: An Environmental Odyssey
  18. Daniel Poliquin (2007) – A Secret Between Us
  19. Kembrew McLeod (2005) – Freedom of Expression: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies of Creativity
  20. Shirley Teasdale (2000) – Hiking Ontario’s Heartland
  21. Eric Enno Tamm (2004) – Beyond the Outer Shores
  22. Ian Carr (1999) – Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography
  23. Philip Freeman (2005) – Running the Voodoo Down: The Electric Music of Miles Davis
  24. Bill Bryson (1998) – A Walk in the Woods
  25. Harold Bloom (1995) – The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages
  26. Michael Ondaatje (2007) – Divisadero
  27. Michel Finkielkraut (1995) – The Defeat of the Mind
  28. Homer (c. 700 BC) – The Iliad
  29. Homer (c. 700 BC) – The Odyssey
  30. William Marsden (2007) – Stupid to the Last Drop: How Alberta Is Bringing Environmental Armageddon to Canada (And Doesn’t Seem to Care)
  31. Jimmy McDonough (2003) – Shakey

My favorite read for 2007 was Beyond The Outer Shores, Eric Enno Tamm’s insightful and illuminating biography of ecological pioneer and polymath Ed Ricketts. The book’s tagline mentioned Ricketts as an inspiration for John Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell, and this is what initially caught my attention (being a fan of Campbell). Tamm demonstrates how Rickett’s personal philosophy and humanist outlook inspired them both. In particular, the “Doc” character of Cannery Row was directly modeled on Ricketts.

A biologist with the outlook of a philosopher and the heart of a poet, Ricketts lived a fascinating yet shortened life, never receiving his due recognition as a scientist and thinker until well after his death. His environmental philosophy permeated the works of Steinbeck in the late 1930s. In this way, The Grapes of Wrath can be read as a warning against anthropogenic environmental degradation, and Cannery Row read as a human reflection of the diversity of tidepools. Likewise, his revolutionary work on the western American and Canadian shores remains influential to this day. Tamm’s book is a fantastic read that brings to light the life and spirit of a true Renaissance Man.

A close runner-up for my favourite book in 2007 was Divisadero. Another sublime read by Ondaatje that, as the title implies, examines the divisions (intentional, unintentional, emotional, physical, and geographical, among others) within the interweaving lives of seemingly disparate characters. Ondaatje’s elegant prose is the highlight, providing just enough illumination while leaving room for open-ended interpretations.