Sunday, December 4, 2011

Leslie's Picks for the Cartagena Hay Festival 2012

Cartagena 26-30 January 2012

These are my pre-selections for the Hay literary festival in Cartagena in January 2012. Sally and I booked our flights several weeks ago. I have listed everything that caught my eye. Some I don't feel especially strongly about, and there are also a couple of time conflicts, so decisions will have to be made. I don't actually know many of the authors mentioned. I saw Joumana Haddad last year and enjoyed her conference very much. This year she will have a different focus. Leonor Esguerra is a "must-see." Anyone that Peter Florence is interviewing is guaranteed to be good.


THURSDAY

[4] 15:30 - 16:30. Jueves, 26 de Enero 2012 CFCE - PLAZA DE SANTO DOMINGO (Salón del Rey).
Revoluciones en el mundo árabe
Joumana Haddad, Khaled al-Berry y Alejandro Padrón en conversación con Sergio Dahbar
Alejandro Padrón ha escrito Yo fui embajador de Chávez en Libia, un relato del escritor sobre su experiencia como diplomático en Oriente Medio. La escritora libanesa Joumana Haddad es autora de Yo maté a Sherezade, un ensayo que gira en torno a la pregunta de lo que es ser mujer, árabe y escritora, y dirigir una revista sobre el arte del cuerpo. Khaled al-Berry es egipcio y trabaja como periodista en la BBC; ha publicado varias novelas, de las que destaca Confesiones de un loco de Alá. Hablarán con el periodista y escritor Sergio Dahbar sobre la situación actual del mundo árabe.

[5] 17:30 - 18:20. Jueves, 26 de Enero 2012 TEATRO ADOLFO MEJÍA.
Danza contemporánea: INXILIO, el sendero de lágrimas
INXILIO: El sendero de lágrimas (Versión de cámara)
El coreógrafo Álvaro Restrepo, en asociación con Marie France Delieuvin, presentó en diciembre de 2010 en El Campín de Bogotá una majestuosa ceremonia en homenaje a los más de cuatro millones de personas que han vivido en Colombia el drama del desplazamiento forzado. La obra, comisionada por la Alcaldía de Bogotá, contó con la participación del artista Oswaldo Maciá, en colaboración con Michael Nyman y la Orquesta Filarmónica de Bogotá. En el Hay Festival Cartagena se presenta una versión de cámara para diez bailarines, interactuando con proyecciones y detalles de la obra pictórica de Leopoldo J. Combariza.

[9] 19:30 - 20:30. Jueves, 26 de Enero 2012 SALÓN SANTA CLARA (Hotel Sofitel).
Leonor Esguerra en conversación con Marta Ruiz
Leonor Esguerra pasó de ser monja y directora de uno de los colegios más exclusivos de Bogotá en los años sesenta a guerrillera del ELN. Escrito por Inés Clauz Carriguiry, La búsqueda, testimonio de Leonor Esguerra, tardó veinticinco años en publicarse. En este libro, Leonor Esguerra desgrana los cambios que han vivido la sociedad colombiana y el mundo, además de las experiencias revolucionarias que marcaron su vida. Charlará con la periodista Marta Ruiz.

FRIDAY

[15] 10:30 - 11:30. Viernes, 27 de Enero 2012 CASA MAPFRE.
TALLER: Promotores culturales
Graham Sheffield
Graham Sheffield reflexionará con los participantes de este taller sobre los retos, los desafíos y las oportunidades del sector. Figura clave de la gestión cultural en el Reino Unido, es actualmente Director de Arte del British Council. Doctor en Humanidades por la Universidad de Londres, ha trabajado como jefe de producción en BBC Radio 3 y como director musical en el complejo artístico de Southbank de Londres. Ha sido director artístico del centro de arte Barbican, directivo del complejo cultural West Kowloon de Hong Kong y consultor del Festival Luminato de Toronto.

[18] 12:30 - 13:30. Viernes, 27 de Enero 2012 CFCE - PLAZA DE SANTO DOMINGO (Salón del Rey).
Indignados
Morris Berman, Daniel Alarcón y Francisco Goldman con Jon Gower
The New York Times publicó a finales de 2011 un sondeo que reflejaba el descontento y bajo estado de ánimo de los norteamericanos, que se sienten mejor representados por grupos como el Occupy Wall Street o el Tea Party que por el Congreso. Esta situación se puede extrapolar a otros países como el Reino Unido, donde las tasas universitarias crecen desorbitadamente y los indignados acampan en la Catedral de San Pablo, creando un clima de tensión entre la iglesia, el gobierno y las corporaciones, dueñas del suelo. ¿Son grupos aislados o son la punta del iceberg de un gran descontento social?, ¿estamos ante una gran depresión económica y de valores?, ¿somos cómplices de la situación actual? Los invitados abordaran éstas y otras preguntas.

[24] 17:30 - 18:30. Viernes, 27 de Enero 2012 CFCE - PLAZA DE SANTO DOMINGO (Patio).
David Safier en conversación con Sarah Crompton
Un millón de lectores en Alemania disfrutaron de Maldito Karma, una desternillante novela sobre el secreto de la felicidad que colocó a David Safier en lo más alto de la escena literaria europea. Este autor alemán cuenta además con un Premio Grimme y un Premio TV en Alemania, además de un Emmy en Estados Unidos por su carrera como guionista de series de televisión. También ha publicado Jesús me quiere y Yo, mi, me… contigo, una divertida novela donde el autor vuelve a repartir sonrisas con su particular filosofía del amor. Conversará con Sarah Crompton, Directora de Cultura de The Telegraph.

[25] 17:30 - 18:30. Viernes, 27 de Enero 2012 CASA MAPFRE.
Morris Berman
Morris Berman es un conocido e innovador historiador cultural y crítico social. Ha impartido clases en universidades de Europa y de Estados Unidos, y en el año 2000 su libro El crepúsculo de la cultura americana fue nombrado “Notable Book” por The New York Times Book Review. Otras obras publicadas incluyen Edad oscura americana y una trilogía sobre la evolución de la conciencia humana. Su último libro, Cuestión de valores, es una recopilación de ensayos cuyo hilo conductor es la investigación sobre temas de capital importancia para comprender la crisis estructural del mundo contemporáneo. Hablará sobre la situación actual en Estados Unidos.

[26] 19:30 - 20:30. Viernes, 27 de Enero 2012 TEATRO ADOLFO MEJÍA.
Concierto: Michael Nyman
El celebrado pianista y compositor británico actúa por primera vez en Cartagena de Indias. Ha colaborado en numerosas películas del cineasta británico Peter Greenaway y compuso la banda sonora de El piano, de Jane Campion. En 2011 terminó de grabar la ópera Facing Goya. En esta cita, Michael Nyman nos deleitará con un concierto de piano.

[27] 19:30 - 20:30. Viernes, 27 de Enero 2012 SALÓN SANTA CLARA (Hotel Sofitel).
La comedia política
Daniel Samper Ospina en conversación con Rodrigo Pardo
Existe una vertiente del humor que se nutre de los sucesos políticos para reflejar la verdad a través del absurdo. De esta forma, Daniel Samper Ospina se acerca a la realidad colombiana con altas dosis de humor y sarcasmo en su columna de Semana. Conversará sobre la sátira política en sus diferentes contextos con el periodista Rodrigo Pardo.

[28] 19:30 - 20:30. Viernes, 27 de Enero 2012 CFCE - PLAZA DE SANTO DOMINGO (Patio).
Janne Teller en conversación con Jon Gower
Encuentro con Janne Teller, escritora danesa y autora de la novela Nada, obra en la que plantea el sentido de la vida y los límites de la tolerancia y que ha suscitado encendidos debates en diversos países europeos en torno a las cuestiones existenciales que aborda. El relato comienza cuando el joven Pierre Anthon deja la escuela al descubrir que no merece la pena hacer nada, puesto que la vida no tiene sentido. Janne Teller, que pasó varios años de su vida trabajando en la resolución de conflictos en las Naciones Unidas y que en la actualidad se dedica plenamente a la literatura, estará en conversación con el escritor Jon Gower.

SATURDAY

[32] 10:30 - 11:30. Sábado, 28 de Enero 2012 CASA MAPFRE.
El poder del personaje
Con Xavier Velasco
Galardonado con el Premio Alfaguara 2003 por su novela Diablo guardián, en 2010 publicó Puedo explicarlo todo, una novela cargada de amor y desamor. Nos presentará en esta cita un espectáculo divertido e inusual. El propio autor tendrá que batallar con extraños entrañables, caprichosos y antojadizos que cualquier día se adueñan de la historia y hacen con ella lo que se les antoja. Conversará con el dudoso doctor Enedino Godínez

[35] 12:30 - 13:30. Sábado, 28 de Enero 2012 SALÓN SANTA CLARA (Hotel Sofitel).
200 años del nacimiento de Charles Dickens
Andrew Davies en conversación con Peter Florence
Andrew Davies es considerado como uno de los mejores guionistas de cine y TV del Reino Unido. A lo largo de su carrera ha adaptado obras de los máximos exponentes de la literatura inglesa, como Jane Austen (con su brillante versión en 1995 de Orgullo y Prejuicio), Charles Dickens y Shakespeare. Además, fue uno de los guionistas de la película El diario de Bridget Jones. Gran conocedor de la obra de Dickens, conversará con Peter Florence.

[39] 15:30 - 16:30. Sábado, 28 de Enero 2012 TEATRO ADOLFO MEJÍA.
Ideas para un mundo en transición
Invitaremos a personalidades del mundo de la cultura y de la política que nos presentarán una gran idea para el futuro. Les damos carta blanca, por lo que podrán hablar de cualquier ámbito, ya sea filosofía, física, religión, medio ambiente o literatura, entre otros.

[42] 17:30 - 18:30. Sábado, 28 de Enero 2012 SALÓN SANTA CLARA (Hotel Sofitel).
Revistas, hombres y rock&roll
Daniel Samper Ospina y Dylan Jones con Rosie Boycott
Daniel Samper Ospina es periodista y director de la revista colombiana Soho. Dylan Jones fue editor de i-D, The Face y actualmente de GQ en el Reino Unido. Estos dos periodistas, cazadores de tendencias y grandes conocedores del universo masculino, estarán en conversación con Rosie Boycott, periodista británica que ha trabajado en medios como Esquire, Daily Mail y The Sunday Telegraph.

[48] 19:30 - 20:30. Sábado, 28 de Enero 2012 CFCE - PLAZA DE SANTO DOMINGO (Patio).
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, uno de los grupos favoritos de Obama, es una banda de Chicago integrada por ocho hermanos provenientes de una familia con una extensa tradición musical. Este grupo ha redefinido el estilo de la música brass fusionando con gran acierto distintos estilos musicales. Mezclan el jazz, el funk y el hip hop al estilo de una big band de Nueva Orleans. Han tocado con The B-52’s, Talib Kweli y Maceo Parker, y han estado de gira por los principales escenarios norteamericanos y europeos. Un grupo imprescindible, con una energía desbordante sobre el escenario, que no dejará indiferente a nadie.

SUNDAY

[54] 10:30 - 11:30. Domingo, 29 de Enero 2012 CFCE - PLAZA DE SANTO DOMINGO (Salón del Rey).
Jon Gower y Tiffany Murray en conversación con Peter Florence
Dos interesantes autores galeses conversan con el director del festival sobre su trabajo. Jon Gower estudió Filología Inglesa en la Universidad de Cambridge y es uno de los mayores talentos literarios de Gales; escritor, presentador y productor de radio y televisión, ha trabajado para medios como BBC o Boomerang, y publicado una decena de libros en inglés, destacando An Island Called Smith, con el que ganó el John Morgan Travel Award. Tiffany Murray es escritora y profesora de escritura creativa galesa, sus novelas Diamond Star Halo (2010) y Happy Accidents (2005) han sido finalistas del Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize; ha publicado en The Times, The Telegraph, The Independent y The Guardian.

[59] 15:30 - 16:30. Domingo, 29 de Enero 2012 SALÓN SANTA CLARA (Hotel Sofitel).
¿Sobrevivirá el planeta a los humanos?
Mark Lynas
Mark Lynas ganó el prestigioso premio de la Royal Society por sus libros de ciencia en 2008 y es colaborador asociado de la Universidad de Oxford en los departamentos de Geografía y Medio Ambiente. En su último libro, The God Species, explica cómo hay “fronteras” en el planeta que los humanos no debemos cruzar si queremos que nuestra civilización perdure. Hablará de temas como el cambio climático, la pérdida de la biodiversidad, pero también de energía nuclear e ingeniería genética. Mark Lynas es autor del libro Marea alta: noticias de un mundo que se calienta.

[64] 18:00 - 19:00. Domingo, 29 de Enero 2012 CFCE - PLAZA DE SANTO DOMINGO (Patio).
Frente Cumbiero & Quantic
Frente Cumbiero lleva desde 2007 trabajando con grupos británicos, mezclando la cumbia con estilos más vanguardistas. La más sonada de estas uniones ha sido con Mad Professor (legendario productor de dub). Para 2012, Mario Galeano, líder de Frente Cumbiero, ha invitado al productor inglés Will Holland, de Quantic, a sumar fuerzas para producir un disco en Medellín que luego se presentará en concierto en el marco del River of Music, el espacio cultural de los Juegos Olímpicos de Londres 2012. La idea: una mezcla de sonido tropical-nacional, con un combo de músicos de primera línea que represente la vieja y la nueva guardia de la música nacional. Los lugares: Hay Festival Cartagena y a orillas del Támesis en julio de este año.

For more information, visit the Hay Festival website:
http://www.hayfestival.com/cartagena/

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Surmising Information is Much More Convenient Than Actually Knowing It


The Last Dickens
By Matthew Pearl


The best thing I can say about this book is that Matthew Pearl has done a lot of research and has included many accurate historical details about book publishing in the 1870s, the opium trade, London's opium dens, historical buildings in Boston, and anecdotes from Charles Dickens's speaking tour in the United States. And some of these are even relevant to the plot.

The plot of The Last Dickens suggests that Charles Dickens wrote the missing chapters (the last six chapters of the book) for The Mystery of Edwin Drood while he was on his second US speaking tour… and then hid these chapters in a medical college in Boston because of an overwhelming fear of trains and ships, before going back to England and writing the first six chapters (huh?). Not only are cutthroat and honest publishers falling over each other to find the missing chapters, but so is an evil opium dealer (the long lost son of a jovial inn keeper who prances around dressed like Falstaff) who is convinced that Dickens's unpublished book is about him, and that the book's publication might be bad for his opium business. Seriously?

Pearl writes his book apparently in an ode to Dickens: "Dickens alone, among all the writers of popular fiction of the day, could employ wit and discernment, excitement and sympathy, in equal parts in each one of his books. The characters were no mere paper dolls, nor were they thinly veiled extensions of Charles Dickens's own persona. No, the characters were utterly themselves. In a Dickens story, readers were not asked to aspire to a higher class or to hate other classes than their own but to find the humanity and the humane in all." Well, Pearl ain't no Dickens, and his attempt falls flat.

The range of characterization in the novel runs from flat and uninteresting character portrayals (Dickens, Field), namby-pamby boring (Osgood, Rebecca Sand), evil delusional (Wakefield/Edward Trood), evil inexplicable (Herman), to evil capitalist (Harper publishers of New York). Plus an extensive number of incidental characters, some of whom show up at magnificently convenient moments who help extract the "heroes" from tight places, like Tom Branagan and Jack Rogers (aka Dick Datchery, aka 'George Washington' scalper), who repents for working for the publishing competition Harper; plus the cartoonish Bookaneers, such as "Molasses" who happens to be in the empty building that Osgood runs into while escaping from the evil Herman (although Bookaneers is a clever term that Pearl has coined).

The plot was convoluted and breathtakingly contrived. Are we seriously supposed to believe that a drug trafficker is afraid that the publication of a novel might harm his business? The man supplies opium addicts, not literary critics. Maybe if we were introduced to the character Edward Trood earlier in the novel, we might sympathize with his dilemma, and his reason for living under an assumed identity; but he is not developed as a character, so we don't really care about him, and it isn't interesting. The history has some merits but the labored word choices, unnatural syntax, and hackneyed phrasing make ploughing through this novel no fun at all. For the writing alone, this one of the worst books I have read in a very long time.

The character Dick Datchery very neatly explains Pearl's method of writing and resolving a mystery: “How did you possibly know about that?” “Oh, I didn't! I merely surmised it as well, which is a rather more convenient way of obtaining information than actually knowing it.” (Loc. 2819-20)

Some gems from the novel:

- Loc. 88-89 At the top of the stick was an exotic and ugly golden idol, the head of a beast, a horn rising from the top, terrible mouth agape, sparks of fire shooting from its outstretched tongue. [The walking stick appears many times in the novel; no more flames however.]
- Loc. 604-6 Not long after Dickens's death, Officer Carlton had delivered the shocking news about Daniel. Osgood had sent him to the docks to retrieve those three latest installments sent from England in response to Osgood's cable. It was yet another test to prevent emotion from becoming paralyzing.
- Loc. 607-8 Daniel Sand's senseless accident caused Osgood to feel a sadness of heart more intimate and stranger than that brought on by Dickens's death.
- Loc. 610 How much more real this seemed, in a way, than Dickens's apotheosis. [For some reason Osgood seems surprised that he is more affected by the death of his office boy, with whom he works every day, than the death of an author.]
- Loc. 806-7 a hoarse whisper as suits a man fading from the mortal state of life—‘It is God's,’ said he. It was much like a sentimental novel.”
- Loc. 1076-77 Rebecca went upstairs, her hands clenched in fists on her desk. [Can anyone make sense of this sentence?]
- Loc. 1086 The walk home seemed to be both instantaneous and cruelly tedious.
- Loc. 1241-43 Rebecca, turning to look at Herman. As she met the accused's eyes and innocent smile, a sudden, almost magnetic repulsion forced her to take a step back. The dark, malicious eyes gave her a rush of inexplicable fear and hatred.
- Loc. 1330-31 Those burning orbs of the thief had remained seared in Osgood's mind.
- Loc. 2144-45 “In truth, Mr. Osgood, we only wish there were more guests who were not dreadful auctioneers or house seekers tramping up and down the stairs.” Aunt Georgy had a ready smile [Because we all wish we had more houseguests after a death in the family.]
- Loc. 2322-23 The room displayed some expensive books but a greater number of dead, stuffed animals: a rabbit, a fox, a deer. The frightful artifacts emitted a stale, bleak odor [Let's see: that means there were two expensive books and three taxidermy animals.]
- Loc. 2346-47 He leaned in toward Rebecca—not exactly unfriendly to Osgood's predicament but entirely lacking in interest relative to the pretty bookkeeper sitting across. [He lacks interest in the pretty bookkeeper? Sitting across what?]
- Loc. 2819-20 How did you possibly know about that?” “Oh, I didn't! I merely surmised it as well, which is a rather more convenient way of obtaining information than actually knowing it.”
- Loc. 5159-62 This spot [the Medical College in Boston], this dingy lonely place, may have been the only safe place on earth for these pages. They would reside here undisturbed until he was ready to call for them to be retrieved—which he would do when he finished the first half. But when he died suddenly, it was too late for him to communicate it.”
- Loc. 5514-15 “I am, Osgood. You love her.” “Yes,” Osgood said, unhesitating. Rebecca for a moment lost all her terror. [She has just witnessed a murder and is being held with a gun to her head, but she is no longer afraid now that Osgood has said he loves her. Barf!!]

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Are we the sum of our experiences, or the shadow?


Fire in the Blood
By Irène Némirovsky


This book sent me into a bit of a crisis. I read it with fascination and despair. It called up the memory of times I had loved, lost love, sought love, and doubted whether I would find love.

Fire in the Blood looks at the all-consuming passion of young lovers, the love of a middle-aged couple, parents' love of a child, and the love between old friends. It questions the lengths that we are willing to go to live our love and what we would be willing to sacrifice. Would we sacrifice passion for security? Would we give up a child to be with a lover? Would we sacrifice a loving partner if we felt more passionate about someone else?

In the book, the choices made at different times in a character's life reflect the values and drives of those moments. The inability of one generation to comprehend the experiences of the other is another of the book's themes. "The greatest favour we can do for our children is to keep our own experiences secret." After all, love can't be lived vicariously, and no one else's cautionary tale can substitute for feeling and experience. Youth denies that it could ever be reduced to a middle-aged or elderly half-life existence. Youth denies that parents could have once lived the same sort of intense, passionate experiences. Youth cannot believe because passion has to be lived; it cannot be taught.

Are we the sum of our experiences, or the shadow? Which is our real identity? Are we the careless, burning, passionate 20-year-old, who acts on impulse, blinded to consequences in this extreme, even leading to the death of others? Or are we the responsible mother, whose existence consists of the quiet embers of love that warm the heart and sustain the family? Or the older man, living in bitter, impoverished, loneliness, eschewing company and barely remembering the shadow of his younger passionate self?

Fire in the Blood is part of Némirovsky's lost oeuvre: some of the pages were among the papers entrusted to her husband and the rest were in the suitcase left with her daughter Denise, when Irène was sent to Auschwitz in 1942, where she died a month later at age 39. A relatively young author, Némirovsky is nonetheless skilled and mature at depicting the human condition.

A few years ago in book club we read Irène Némirovsky Suite Française, which I also enjoyed very much. Suite Française looks at different French social classes under German occupation, coolly appreciating the pragmatism, resistance, and foibles of the French psyche. It is a social study of a cultural under duress. Fire in the Blood is a different sort of book because the experience of love, its triumphs and failures, is a much more universal story. It is impossible to read this book without looking inward and examining about one's own life, and wondering about the choices made in life and love.

Great Quotes

"The flesh is easy to satisfy. It's the heart that is insatiable, the heart that needs to love, to despair, to burn with any kind of fire . . . That was what we wanted. To burn, to be consumed, to devour our days just as fire devours the forest."

"If they could see their own youth resurrected before them, it would horrify them, or else they wouldn't recognise it; they would stare at it and say, "That love, those dreams, that fire are strangers to us." Their own youth . . . So how can they possibly expect to understand anyone else's?"

"The life you live ends up transforming you: a calm, happy existence gives the face a gentleness and dignity, a warm, soft look that is almost a kind of sheen, like the varnish on a painting. But now the smoothness and decorum of their features had vanished and you could see their sad, anxious souls peering through the surface. Those poor people! In nature, there is a moment of perfection when every hope is realised, when the luscious fruits finally fall, a crowning moment towards the end of summer. But it quickly passes and the autumn rains begin. It's the same for people."

"I once possessed what is now dead and gone, I possessed her youth."

***

Can we compromise on passion? Is it possible to once again feel that same intense desire and longing without the attendant selfishness? Is there a different sort of passion for the no-longer-young? The ability to feel keeps us alive. Passion may be dangerous, but it is the lack of passion that leads to death.

This book made me want to live that sweet, heady, intoxicating, blinding all-consuming passion… but what would I be willing to sacrifice?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Solar by Ian McEwan – Book Club Facilitating Notes



Can a despicable character make a good protagonist?

Jaded, bloated, resting on his laurels, consuming alcohol, food and women in excess, former Nobel Prize winning physicist Michael Beard now makes a living by plying the conference circuit and lending his name for the boards of different scientific organizations, even though he hasn't done any significant work in years.

That all changes when, in typical McEwan style, a circumstantial incident sets into motion an intricate chain of events that transforms our antihero into a champion for the cause of global warming… not that he becomes any more sympathetic on the way.

The narrative barrels along with wry observation, evocative description, yuk yuk humor, and a stern warning for humanity about what we have become and how we are treating our planet (and each other). If the main character had been more likeable, the book would have been preachy and lame. But since we can distance ourselves from the appalling Michael Beard, he serves as a marvellous vehicle to take us through this examination of bloated consumer society in denial about the consequences of its actions: Michael Beard represents the worst of humanity and he is pointing the finger right back at us.

Book Club Facilitating Notes:
1. My review
2. Ian McEwan biography
3. Solar Plot summary
4. A couple of other reviews.
5. Discussion Questions
6. The book's ending and the change McEwan made following the Copenhagen conference.
7. Reading Guide discussion questions

2. Biography

Ian McEwan was born on 21 June 1948 in Aldershot, England. He studied at the University of Sussex, where he received a BA degree in English Literature in 1970. He received his MA degree in English Literature at the University of East Anglia.

McEwan's works have earned him worldwide critical acclaim. He won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1976 for his first collection of short stories First Love, Last Rites; the Whitbread Novel Award (1987) and the Prix Fémina Etranger (1993) for The Child in Time; and Germany's Shakespeare Prize in 1999. He has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction numerous times, winning the award for Amsterdam in 1998. His novel Atonement received the WH Smith Literary Award (2002), National Book Critics' Circle Fiction Award (2003), Los Angeles Times Prize for Fiction (2003), and the Santiago Prize for the European Novel (2004). He was awarded a CBE in 2000. In 2006, he won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his novel Saturday, and his novel On Chesil Beach was named Galaxy Book of the Year at the 2008 British Book Awards. McEwan has been named the Reader's Digest Author of the Year for 2008, the 2010 Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award, and in 2011 was awarded the Jerusalem Prize.

McEwan lives in London. His most recent novel is Solar.
From Ian McEwan's website: http://www.ianmcewan.com/
The website contains considerable information by and about Ian McEwan, who has apparently been the subjects of an impressive number of articles, reviews, and studies.

Mr. McEwan spent his childhood on army bases, mostly in Libya, where his father, a career officer, was posted. He began writing fiction while getting a masters' degree in English literature at England's University of East Anglia, and published his first collection of short stories in 1975. He became known internationally for his 1998 novel "Amsterdam," about a composer and a newspaper editor, which won the Man Booker Prize. He lives in a town house in London's Fitzroy Square with his second wife, journalist Annalena McAfee (the pair met when she interviewed him for the Financial Times), and has two sons from his previous marriage who are in their 20s.

Mr. McEwan belongs to a literary cadre that includes his close friends Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Christopher Hitchens. Members of the group convene for occasional dinners (they've graduated from a kebab house where they gathered in the 1970s and '80s to a French restaurant). "He's a tremendously funny man, but apart from in 'Amsterdam,' he's kept it out of his fiction as a whole," Mr. Amis says. "In 'Solar' he lets it free."
From: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704117304575137993028761062.html

3. Plot summary

Solar approaches the largest and most important of themes—global warming—through the very particular lens of Michael Beard, a disheveled physicist floundering in the aftermath of a career that had brought him the Nobel Prize many years before.

As the novel begins, Beard's fifth marriage is unraveling. But this time, in a reversal of roles, it is because his wife is having an affair. Infidelities are Beard's stock-in-trade, but being cuckolded is a new and unsettling experience for him, and it seems part of larger downward trend in his life. He still speaks at conferences, lends his name to scientific institutions, and leads a government program devoted to developing clean energy. But he does all these things in a halfhearted way and is largely indifferent to the problem of global warming. That all changes when Aldous—an earnest postdoc who is passionate about both climate change and Beard's wife—enters the picture. After a freak accident, Beard is left with Aldous's ingenious plans for creating solar energy by imitating the process of photosynthesis. He sees a chance to reestablish his prominence as a physicist and save the world while he's at it.
http://www.bookbrowse.com/reading_guides/detail/index.cfm?book_number=2430


4. A couple of reviews and an interview

"What Climate Scientists Think of Ian McEwan's Solar Book"
Climate scientist (and consultant on McEwan's book) Stefan Rahmstorf writes a plaintively earnest review that addresses the use of humor to address a serious subject, science culture vs. social constructivists, and commends the accuracy of the science that McEwan presents.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/may/05/climate-scientists-ian-mcewan-solar

"Solar by Ian McEwan. Ian McEwan excels at climate science but his one-dimensional protagonist makes you shudder"
Jason Crowley's bitingly funny review reviles Solar's main character Michael Beard, and compares the book a several of McEwan's previous novels.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/mar/14/solar-ian-mcewan

"Can Climate Change Be Funny?"
In Alexandra Alter's 25 March 2010 interview in the Wall Street Journal, McEwan talks about the difficulties in writing a book about global warming that doesn't sound preachy, his personal experience with media controversy, popular and literary fiction, and the art of being a writer. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704117304575137993028761062.html


5. Discussion Questions

What is your understanding of global warming: fact or fallacy?
Review the speech made to pension fund managers. Kindle Location 2107.

Ian McEwan's books often hinge on single, opportunistic moments? What is the moment in this book and why does it work? How much of a stretch of the imagination is it?

How does Beard end up championing the cause of global warming?

Could this novel have worked with a more sympathetic main character?
What are Beard's character flaws?

What does Beard represent in terms of contemporary society?
Does he change over the course of the novel?

What do you suppose climate scientists think about Solar?

Michael Beard sparks controversy with his comments about differences in male and female brains. Kindle Location 1856 and onward.
What do you think about social constructivism?
(McEwan has also been the target of media umbrage for making controversial statements about Islam.)


6. Summary of the book's ending
Beard is still ignoring the melanoma on his hand
Jock Braby from the center is suing over the patents and theft of Aldous's work.
Aldous's father bringing charges of theft and fraud.
(Beard sees Tarpin getting into Lawyer Barnard's car)
While at dinner Beard gets a call from Toby: Tarpin has smashed the panels
Toby Hammer is suing to protect himself from Beard's debts.
Melissa and Darlene arrive.

The Copenhagen Summit
2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference

The Copenhagen Accord was drafted by the US, China, India, Brazil and South Africa on December 18, and judged a "meaningful agreement" by the United States government. It was "taken note of", but not "adopted", in a debate of all the participating countries the next day, and it was not passed unanimously. The document recognised that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of the present day and that actions should be taken to keep any temperature increases to below 2°C. The document is not legally binding and does not contain any legally binding commitments for reducing CO2 emissions.

McEwan told the Guardian he watched the outcome of the Copenhagen summit in December "very closely and with some despair" and then went back to his novel, Solar, to rewrite a section a few pages from the end.

The end of the book is set in summer 2009, and McEwan introduced a scene in which Michael Beard, the chief protaganist and a Nobel-prize winning physicist, receives an email that invites him to address a meeting of foreign ministers at the coming summit. "I just slipped something in to reflect the spirit of sadness," he said. "Everything has collapsed around him [Beard] and he knows that Copenhagen will be just the place for him. It is where he would be heading to add his confusion to everybody else's."

Had the summit produced a successful deal, as McEwan wanted, Beard and his failures would not have fitted in. "I would not have wanted my man anywhere near it," said the author. "I didn't want him there, believe me."

Guardian article
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/mar/05/ian-mcewan-climate-copenhagen-solar


7. Reader's Guide Questions

1. Beard loves physics in part because he believes that it is "free of human taint" (p. 10). In what ways does the novel complicate this belief? In what sense is Beard's own work "tainted" by human entanglements?
2. The narrative structure of Solar is mostly chronological. What effects does McEwan achieve by occasionally departing from a straightforward chronological progression?
3. Beard claims he does not believe in the possibility of "profound inner change" (p. 77). Does he remain unchanged over the course of the novel?
4. How does McEwan manage to make Beard such a sympathetic character despite his many foibles? What are his most salient character flaws?
5. Why is Beard so attached to preserving what he calls his "unshareable core"? (p. 307). Why does he find it impossible to tell Melissa that he loves her? Why do his marriages keep falling apart?
6. In what ways is Solar a satirical novel? What are its main satirical targets? How, for example, do postmodernists come off in the book?
7. What are some of the funniest moments in Solar? How does McEwan create such brilliant comedic effects?
8. Look at the encounters between art and science in the novel, those occasions when Beard squares off with people from the humanities—novelists, folklorists, postmodern feminists, etc. Who gets the better of these confrontations? Is the book as a whole making a point through its depiction of these encounters?
9. What is the significance of the entropy in the boot room on board the ship that is holding the conference on climate change? What does this chaos and carelessness suggest about humanity's ability to stop global warming?
10. Beard has a remarkably clear conscience; he is largely untroubled by his affairs and deceits, his theft of Aldous's ideas, his framing of Tarpin, etc. Why is he so free of the guilt that might afflict most other men?
11. Several times during the course of the novel it appears that public infamy—born of journalists' insatiable desire for controversy and Beard's own willingness to step into it—will doom Beard's career. What enables him to emerge from these disasters relatively unscathed? Will he be as lucky getting out of the mess he's created at the very end of the book?
12. How surprising is the ending of the novel, particularly the final sentence? What is the swelling sensation that Beard feels in his heart as his daughter approaches him? What is likely to happen to Beard next?
13. How does the appendix containing the presentation speech for Beard's Nobel Prize alter the way Beard is finally viewed? Why would McEwan choose to attach this appendix to the body of the novel?
14.Solar is in many ways a picaresque and at times farcical novel, and yet it also engages a theme of major importance—global warming. What is the connection between personal and planetary catastrophe in the novel, between the meltdown of Beard's personal and professional life and the kind of greed, dishonesty, rationalization, and failure to face facts that has resulted in the climate crisis? What is the significance, in this context, of Beard's inability to moderate his eating habits and his sexual pursuits?
15. What does Solar contribute to our understanding of climate change?

http://www.bookbrowse.com/reading_guides/detail/index.cfm?book_number=2430

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Visiting the Art Gallery of Ontario - AGO


© Leslie Carmichael

Abstract Expressionists
At the Art Gallery of Ontario until September 4, 2011

What you see is what you get… get it?

I have to admit that I'm a bit lukewarm on abstract expressionists. I like the idea that the painting is not representational --it is the experience-- but sometimes I feel left out of their experience. I saw this exhibit twice: once with Lori in June and again with my boys in August.

"Drawn entirely from the Museum of Modern Art’s definitive collection, Abstract Expressionist New York features more than 100 key works from Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Robert Motherwell, Lee Krasner and others. The exhibition celebrates the monumental achievements of a generation of artists who catapulted New York to the centre of the international art world in the 1950s and left as their legacy some of the 20th century’s greatest masterpieces

Following the pioneering “drip” paintings of Jackson Pollock, artists like Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman developed their own distinct visual vocabularies. Where Pollock and de Kooning used agitated gestures in paint to convey the urgency of their vision, Rothko and Newman relied upon fields of colour to envelop sight and transport the viewer to new realms of emotion and perception." [Taken from the AGO guide to the exhibit.]

I find that when looking at work by artists like Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner and Mark Rothko, sometimes I get a sense of the emotional feel from the work. But not always.


For Rothko, “a painting is not a picture of an experience, it is an experience.” One viewer’s personal experience of a Rothko painting cannot duplicate that of another. Rothko did not want his pictures appreciated solely for their visual qualities. He said, "If you are only moved by colour relationships, then you miss the point. I'm interested in expressing the big emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom."

This exhibit was the first time I felt that I actually "got" Rothko. Several of his works are featured. One of the descriptions explains that his intention was not to present, represent or interpret anything; it just is and you experience it. The works are displayed in chronological order and there was a mention of how at a certain point in his life, he suddenly stopped painting in vibrant colors and embraced darker, muted tones. Maybe it is because I am entering the autumn of my life, but suddenly I found that Rothko's work was speaking to me in a way that it never had before. It was a "click" moment.

On the other hand, Barnett Newman and his vertical zips leave me cold. The zips are lines of paint down the center of monochromatic backgrounds that "simultaneously divide and unit the canvas." In other words, a single strip of paint on a solid color background. His painting "The Wild" is a framed, single strip of red measuring 243 cm tall and 4.1 cm wide. The guy must be having a laugh at our expense. I mean really. Seriously? Rather than "The Wild," I would title that piece "Self-Portrait by Red Snake." Call me a barbarian, but I fail to see the subtle artistry.


Currently the other headline exhibit at the AGO is "Haute Culture" by General Idea, running until January 1, 2012

"General Idea was founded in Toronto in 1969 by Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal and AA Bronson. The collective interrogated media image culture through now legendary projects like File magazine, as well as paintings, installations, sculptures, mail art, photographs, videos, ephemera, TV programs and even a beauty pageant. The group’s transgressive concepts and provocative imagery challenged social power structures and traditional modes of artistic creation in ever-shifting ways, until Partz and Zontal’s untimely deaths from AIDS-related causes in 1994."

This is subversive art at its best. These three took media marketing techniques and used them as vehicles for social commentary: as a wry commentary on how social values are manipulated and driven by commercial interests. The exhibit features their magazines, their appropriation of advertising campaigns and logos, footage from events like the Miss General Idea Pageant, storyboards for televised events, interviews with the artists. And if you don't like it, you can "Shut the fuck up," to quote GI.

Best Quote: "You don't have to be a great artist to make art, you just need to have a great idea."

Other sections of the AGO

I visited the AGO three times on this trip, and only saw a fraction of the collections. I wasn't familiar with the museum, so everything that we encountered came as a surprise. We visited the Henry Moore sculpture gallery. In the Canadian section we saw some early Inuit art, many Group of Seven pieces, and works by other painters such as Emily Carr, Maurice Cullen, James Wilson Morrice, and David Milne.


Cornelius Krieghoff (1815–1872)
Breaking up of a Country Ball in Canada, Early Morning (The Morning after a Merrymaking in Lower Canada) 1857
Oil on canvas
60.9 x 91.3 cm
The Thomson Collection © Art Gallery of Ontario
[Photo from the AGO website]

I was entranced by the extensive collection of Cornelius Kreighoff paintings. I grew up with a Kreighoff print in the living room. Our neighbors had one too. He is part of the iconography of Canadian settler history (and 1960s suburban upbringing). Kreighoff painted scenes of everyday settler life. I was struck by the similarities to Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the Flemish renaissance painter and printmaker known for his landscapes and peasant scenes. Like Bruegel, Kreighoff celebrates a certain appreciation for disorder and disrespect for authority, such as the drunken revels of a party, or the nose-thumbing defiance of the sleigh drivers who crash through the toll barrier without paying.

I love the way that the AGO displays Kreighoff's paintings. They are arranged in groupings that are clearly present the same location, painted from different angles, or at slightly different times of year. Or else they show scenes of an activity, for example: a series a tableaux shows the men deer hunting: lying in wait for their prey, shooting the animal, and dragging the corpse back on a sledge. Viewing each scene in order, one has the impression of looking at a series of snapshots… which oil paintings obviously are not, plus there are variations in the clothing and identities of the figures in the paintings.

Krieghoff painted a lot of small canvases, test paintings, as it were, as well as larger, more polished paintings. What these paintings underline is the hardy resolution with which the early settlers went about the business of surviving and thriving in this harsh land. I was struck by the fact that most of the paintings depict winter scenes. It occurs to me that he probably only had time to paint in the winter, being too busy with farming in the summer to produce the crops that would allow him and his family to survive the winter.


British Three-decker 100 Gun Warship, Victory, Prisoner of War Model
made in Great Britain, probably by French sailors 1795-1815
wood, paint, copper alloy, linen line, metal foil, mica
45.0 x 18.0 x 55.0 cm
The Thomson Collection © Art Gallery of Ontario
[Photo from the AGO website]

Ships, builders' models and prisoner of war models.

The basement level of the AGO houses Ken Thomson's donation of model ships. Thomson was a serious collector and the collection is outstanding for the variety of ships, their age, rarity, and state of conservation. Mainly of the ships are builders' models, meant to be presented at trade shows. He has steamboats, ocean liners, cruise ships, warships, dredgers, tug boats, sail boats, tall ship… everything! The ships that impressed me the most were those know as "prisoner of war" models: models of ships made in prison by French or British soldiers who were captured during the Napoleonic wars. As experienced sailors with a lot of time on their hands (as prisoners), these models were recreated from memory, and as such they tend to incorporate elements from both British and French ships. They include intricate detail and full rigging, made out of bits of wood, bone from their meals (full ivory hulls) and scraps of cloth or paper. Absolutely amazing.

My experiment in abstract expressionist photography:


"Barbecue fish by moonlight," taken on Jenny and Marshall's deck, London, Ontario, July 2011.
© Leslie Carmichael

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Angela's Ashes Meets Lullabies for Little Criminals


Swinging on a Star: Growing Up in Montreal's East End
By Patricia Bissonnette


This is the story of a time when Montreal existed in black and white: The Catholic Church reigned supreme in Quebec, low income housing consisted of cold-water flats despite the harsh Canadian winters, poverty forced families to place their children in orphanages, horses plied the streets of Montreal, and grandfather made a comfortable living as a blacksmith.

The book is populated with extraordinary characters: The strict paternal grandfather who took in his daughter-in-law and her children repeatedly when his son failed to support his family. Aunt Martha, a devout and judgemental Catholic, a stingy housekeeper yet one who was free with the money of others and loved fine things, and who despite her apparently traditional morals, carried on with men in a way that was very liberated and even scandalous for the time. Duke, the deadbeat Dad, a man "not cut out to work" or be responsible for the children he fathered. Monica, the mother, whose love for her children was what kept the family together, despite repeated separations. Monica's siblings who, except for Aunt Rita, turned their backs on their sister, "expecting the boys to be no good, just like their father."

Above all this is a story of hardship, love and survival. A nod to all of those who helped the family through hard times --and sometimes that help came from unexpected corners-- and a snub for those who turned their backs. Monica, despite repeated hospitalizations for gout (hypothyroidism) is the pillar who holds the family together. Interspersed with the stories about the past, Bissonnette includes reflections written as a dialogue with her mother who is no longer with them. Throughout, the writing is vivid and poignant. Bissonnette captures the moments as they were lived by her younger self.

This book is a self-published biography and I read it as a work in progress. The book contains a wealth of remarkable details that need to be fleshed out, complementing the family story with additional historical information. Brief mention was is made about how her father made a living for a while as a Canadian rum runner during US prohibition, while simultaneously losing all the assets her mother had brought to the marriage, and somehow getting shot in New York under very unclear circumstances. There's a story dying to be told! Other details also beg for further elaboration. Who paid for Patricia's and her mother's hospitalizations for illness? Why did she become disillusioned with her Catholic faith? Why was the father's imprisonment seen as a positive thing?

I would love to see this book picked up by a major publisher to flesh out the stories and include more historical detail. As it stands, the book is not perfect but nonetheless it is a very good read. My criticism of it is that "it leaves you wanting more," which at the same time is the highest praise possible. This is an author who deserves a publisher and widespread distribution.

The Swinging on a Star website is: http://swingingonastar.ca/
and Patricia Bissonnette may be contacted at: patricia@swingingonastar.ca

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Adventure Bus Trip to Mompox, Colombia


Matt and William are on vacation with their father.

They left Bogota, bound for Mompox (Bolivar), by bus. Roads were closed because of landslides and a long detour via Ibagué (Tolima) was necessary. Around midnight the tractor-trailer in front of them braked suddenly and the bus on which they were traveling rear-ended it, breaking the windshield and the headlights. Fortunately no one was injured. The police authorized the bus to continue to the town of Barrancabermeja (Santander). I'd like to think that they had a police escort to accompany them, but more likely the bus was just sent on its way with no headlights, in the pitch black darkness of the rural roads. In Barrancabermeja the bus company (Copetran) was able to provide a replacement bus to continue on their journey which went on for several more hours before they arrived at the place where the river had washed the road away and there was a 10 m gap in the pavement where the river had broken through the road. There they had to disembark from the bus, collect their luggage and be ferried across the river. This service was provided at the cost of 1,000 pesos (about $0.60) per person by "two fat guys" (Matt's description) operating a makeshift raft of boards stretched between two punts. The bus companies are organized about these breaks: On the other side a series of jeeps (Willys, in the Colombian vernacular) were waiting to take the passengers to their final destinations. Before reaching Mompox, their Willys had a flat tire that needed to be changed, and it was necessary to cross the Magdalena River on a larger, more formal ferry boat because otherwise the roads were impassable. It took 20 hours for them to arrive.

From start to finish, there is nothing unusual about this story. The landslides, the damaged roads and detours, the vestiges of rainy season flooding and a couple of guys making a buck with their raft service, even ramming the back of another vehicle and then continuing on in the dark, are all part of what I have come to accept as "normal."


Mompox is a Unesco cultural heritage site and historically it is known for it fine filigree gold and silverwork. The boys report that the town is badly deteriorated. I was sorry to hear that. The town had suffered serious damage during the rainy season earlier this year but apparently it has been neglected for quite some time. There is a Unesco office in the town and a sign announces imminent improvements, but the work doesn't seem to be under way yet.


The boys and their father are now in Barranquilla. Their hotel offers 15 free minutes of long distance calls per day, so they have been calling every night, which is nice. Yesterday they visited the Museo del Caribe, a museum showcasing the cultures, ecosystems, and history of the Caribbean region. They were very impressed with it. http://www.culturacaribe.org/Parque_Cultural_del_Caribe

A todos mis amigos y familiares colombianos, les deseo muchos saludos en su día nacional: el 20 de julio.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Winter's Tale / Twelfth Night


The Winter's Tale

I saw the third night's performance of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale on June 30 in Toronto's High Park (Dream in the Park). Director Estelle Shook hit the comedic notes but the drama fell flat.

The Winter's Tale is one of Shakespeare's "problematic plays" in the sense that it neither fits well with the tragedies nor the comedies. The first part of the play relies heavily on psychological drama like the tragedies, uses a narrated bridge to explain that 16 years have gone by, and resumes as a romance about how thwarted love prevails. As far as theatrical devices go, this is classic Shakespeare, but the text is more disjointed than most. The Winter's Tale is one of Shakespeare's less frequently performed plays and it is apparent why.

Despite difficulties, there were some high notes. David Jansen as King Leontes gave a subtle and intimate performance. Nicole Robert playing Paulina is a powerful presence on the stage. She has some whopping long speeches, but she gets a handle on them and carries them off competently if not compellingly. Kelly McIntosh as Hermione was wonderful as the statue, which is probably not the highest praise that an actor could hope to receive for a performance. She looked awfully reminiscent of a Virgin Mary, in her body posture and draping white cloth, which was, no doubt, a directorial choice and not entirely her fault. Sean Dixon and George Masswohl as the shepherd son and father had great comedic rapport. It is too bad that the father and son appear to be the same age. The love story between Thomas Olajide (Florizel) and Perdita (Jasmine Chen) was not compelling; they established no sense of intimacy or connection between them.

The cheap and tatty Victorian costuming added nothing to the ambiance.

Overall, the play lacked dramatic tension and the ability to draw the audience into the story and get the public to care about the characters.

I had hoped for more from this production. Repercussion Theatre of Montreal put on an excellent performance of As You Like It in 2009, with the additional challenge that their shows are itinerant, performing in a different city park each night. That production proved that you don't need a big budget to bring Shakespeare to life with meaning and energy. Toronto's Canadian Stage company has been around for 24 years, performing Shakespeare on the permanent stage in High Park since 1987. The group might be small and low budget, but it is not inexperienced. This production, however, was strictly amateurish.

This Winter's Tale was still frozen and stilted. I am hoping it will have thawed and show some more signs of life by the time I come back and see it again with my boys in August.


Twelfth Night

I saw Twelfth Night at the Stratford (Ontario) main stage during the matinee performance on July 3. The show is in preview performances, with the official opening slated for July 15. This production, however, was far from half-baked.

Director Des McAnuff takes his cue from two themes in the text: music and making sport.

"If music be the food of love, play on!"
Music is the theme that holds this production together. With a nod to the vibrant Canadian folk rock scene, music is used to underscore the action, becoming a character in its own right in the way that Feste the fool serves as chorus or commentator on the action. Twelfth Night has a number of musical interludes written into the text. This production stays true to the spirit of the original, and pumps it up a notch –well, several notches– with no modification needed to the text with the exception of renaming the lute the Fender. The production is slick and sharp, with a light show, amped up sound, and glam costumes. The key question when you apply an off the wall interpretation to Shakespeare is: Does it work? It does. The cast and musicians pull it off beautifully. They rocked it!

Making sport was the other approach. Twelfth Night has a significant subplot in which Sir Toby, Maria, and Fabian make sport of Malvolio. Director McAnuff taken the metaphor of making sport and made it literal. He incorporates golf (Osorio's calculating finesse and willingness to pick up the ball and walk with it if actually play seems too challenging), baseball (Osorio's strength and Viola's aim), tennis (Olivia find herself facing off against a Malviolio in his "madness," channelling McEnroe perhaps?), fencing (an unwilling Viola as Cesario is forced to duel with the equally terrified Sir Andrew Aguecheek), and Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Fabian plotting as they lounge in the sauna, the classic old boys' network. The metaphor works beautifully.

This production uses a mix of costuming styles. The costumes are predominantly lushly Victorian, but when Malvolio is instructed to appear in yellow stockings and cross gartered before his lady Olivia, he comes out in full Elizabethan regalia. Viola disguised as Cesario is in modern dress, specifically a white suit, looking the spitting image of Ellen. Her twin brother Sebastian was effeminately milquetoast in the exact same costume. The musicians, who also serve as the members of Duke Osorio's court, were bedecked in outfits that were both modern rock star, and reminiscent of court finery. The mix of styles defies expectations but it is harmonious rather than discordant.

Outstanding performances
The two characters to watch in this play are Sir Toby Belch (Brian Dennehy) and Feste the fool/jester (Ben Carlson). Each serve as commentators: Sir Toby representing the clash between the social classes and Feste commenting constantly on the ironies of human relations and what constitutes sensible/foolish behaviour, deception, and madness. Both delivered superb performances, with Feste appropriately also being the lead singer in the production.

As to the rest: sit back and enjoy.
Understudy Suzy Jane Hunt played the role of Viola/Cesario competently, although she could have used a bit more energy.
Stephen Ouimette as Sir Andrew Aguecheek was sweetly and poignantly pathetic. His timing was brilliant. He has raised the art of the pregnant pause to its highest form!
Tom Rooney as Malvolio was delightfully duped, but not as strong a portrayal as I have scene in other productions.
Mike Shara as Osorio was single-mindedly shallow in his rock star glitter and gold lame, dogged pursuit of Olivia, and indomitable conviction of the inferiority of the fairer sex.
Sara Topham as Olivia provided as suitable counterpart, proving his point as the woman sworn to mourning who fends off Osorio's advances, but who immediately embraces Cesario.

Director Des McAnuff nailed the characterizations, and has drawn very dynamic performances from the actors.

Was there any evidence of the fact that this show is still is dress rehearsals? We did have on onstage incident: Stephen Ouimette's towel slipped during the sauna scene, giving the audience a flash of Aguecheek's aged butt cheek.

Twelfth Night is a comedy: Comedy, music and sport all depend on timing, and this show didn't miss a beat. This is a production not to be missed.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Canada Day and the Invisible Immigrant



Although I have come back to Canada for a visit every year, this year I am looking at the country with new eyes, as I consider what it would be like to live here when I return next year after having lived outside the country for 22 years.

The first thing that strikes me is just how multicultural the face of Canada has become. When I left it was still pretty white bread, at least it was in suburban Montreal. Now I go to the local YMCA and it is like working out at the United Nations. The local grocery store that I have been frequenting for years has gone from having half an aisle of ethnic food to having two whole aisles that cater to the new consumer base. I have become accustomed to cooking Colombian-style so I went looking for the beans I like to prepare. They were in the ethnic aisle. Apparently I'm an "ethnic immigrant" too

Colombians like to pride themselves on the diversity of their culture. They have very rich native cultural heritage. It is not a multicultural country in the sense of housing large communities of diverse national and ethnic origin. This means that I have been living in an insular and homogenous cultural environment. The contrast with Canada's social variety is shocking.


It amazes me is to watch the television news here. The newscasters span all the hues of the human race, but when you shut your eyes and just listen to them they all sound Canadian. Language and accent have become the great levellers.

All this diversity can be a bit intimidating. My sister works at a high school in Ottawa. The other day we were discussing the phenomenon of gangsta youth: teens from different ethnic backgrounds have adopted the clothing and attitudes, and embraced the angry music, of ghetto youth. Most of these kids haven't come from underprivileged environments and they have the opportunity to get a good education and decent jobs. So why would they want to marginalise themselves, is the question that begs to be asked.

Not all the youths who immigrate to Canada aspire to adopt a disenfranchised persona. I have a friend who moved back to Canada from Colombia almost two years ago. Her daughter has found the process of adapting to life in Canada to be challenging. Although she speaks fluent English and had visited every year, she felt a bit lost in the strange new environment. She phrased it best in saying, "Mom, I'm an immigrant here and nobody knows it."

My boys are going to have that experience too. They have expressed some concerns about their accents and somewhat halting English, but they will probably be no worse off than anyone else they encounter. Actually more of a concern for them is the fact that they don’t know how to skate. In fact I expect that their transition to life in Canada might be easier than mine because they don't have the same sort of notions about what to expect.

I may have been born here but I haven't lived here for a ling time. Even though I am clear about my reasons for wanting to come back, there are a lot of things that worry me: the relevance of my job skills, finding fulfilling work, being able to retire with some degree of security some day, how my children will adapt, making new friends, coping with the climate, finding a new relationship. There is a lot of uncertainty.

I am the invisible immigrant, learning to make her way in a world that is strange and unknown to me.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Summer Styling Secrets

I have had a number of compliments on my hair recently, so I thought I'd share my styling secrets with you:

1. Go to the gym and work out. Sweating primes the hair for its treatment.
2. Wash hair with the allover body wash that comes in the soap dispenser in the shower at the gym.
3. Comb.
4. Put bike helmet on wet hair and ride home.
5. Once home remove helmet and run a bit of curling mousse through damp hair, scrunching the end to encourage curl.
6. Brush lightly in about an hour's time.

A humid climate will do wonders for maintaining this look.

I know what you are thinking: That this is way too labor intensive and high maintenance, especially the part about going to the gym every day.

Plus I suppose that the kind of body wash that your gym provides in the shower soap dispenser might make a critical difference; I can't guarantee that your gym provides the same high quality product as the YMCA, but you'll just have to try it and see.

Invest a little effort girls, and I assure you that the results will be well worth it.

I am just about to hit the road for Toronto where I will be visiting with Cuchi Barbie to share tips on ladies' grooming and male maintenance and management.

We'll keep you posted.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Barney's Version, Black Swan

Summer Cellar Cine Club


Barney's Version

I had read the book by Mordecai Richler a few years ago and hadn't really cared for it. On the written page Barney's character comes across as exceedingly curmudgeonly and jaded, and the whole pretext of finding the real love of his life on the day of his wedding to someone else was too forced. In the movie, however, Barney may be abrasive but he is also sincere and bumbling in a vulnerable way, which compensates for the fact that he could also be a real idiot. Paul Giamatti did a great job with his portrayal of the character. And Dustin Hoffman as his father was an absolute delight. I really enjoyed the film. It was very funny until the ending, which was quite sad. This is one of those rare cases where I would say that I enjoyed the movie more than the book.


Black Swan

This film is a very disturbing story about Nina (Natalie Portman) a young dancer who pushes herself to extremes in order to dance the role of the Queen Swan in Swan Lake. Nina and the director Thomas both know that she dances the part of the White Swan beautifully and with technical perfection, but she cannot step outside the self-restraint that keeps her from exploring the driven sensuality and passion of the Black Swan. Thomas challenges her sexually; not because he actually desires her but more as a "hands-on" technique aimed at teaching her to feel and experience her own passion. Nina finds the embodiment of her passion in Lily (Mila Kunis) a rival dancer and through fantasizing both about having sex with Lily and about murdering her, Nina is able to connect with the intense passion that she had previously not been able to feel. But the process of distancing herself from her own comfort zone causes stress. Other stresses include rehearsing to the point of physical exhaustion and the constant pressure to remain underweight. Jealousy and guilt are also constant factors in the life of the dancer. Nina admires the older dancer Beth, and even steals things from her dressing room as talismans, but she also wants to succeed her. The other girls in the corps du ballet are also always waiting for their chance to be in the spotlight. Nina's mother had given up the ballet after becoming pregnant. The mother both wants the daughter to succeed in order to enjoy her success vicariously, and also –perhaps-- wants her to fail so as not to acknowledge that she has been surpassed (for example, when Nina oversleeps on the day of the opening, her mother does not wake her, and instead calls the theatre to say that Nina will not make it) The end result of all this physical and emotion tension: Nina experiences hallucinations.

In one scene in the movie, Nina and Lily are explaining the ballet Swan Lake to a couple of guys in a bar: The ballet is about a girl who is trapped in a white swan's body and only her true love can release her from the spell. However, her evil twin the black swan seduces the prince, compromising his love for her. The white swan, knowing that she is lost, kills herself. The boys in the bar find the premise kind of lame. Nina finds it unbearably romantic.

On opening night she finds her passion and dances the role of the black swan to perfection… and then proceeds to take the role to its perfect artistic conclusion. I guess that is why we need the ballet: To portray the kind of passion can only be experienced in high art, because that kind of intensity could kill a person.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Bad Science

Bad ScienceBad Science by Ben Goldacre

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The aim of this book is that the reader shall be future-proofed against new variants of bullshit (p.88). With sardonic wit, Goldacre takes aim at the pseudoscience touted in the media that backs up all sorts of farcical claims. From "detox" systems that have no effect on the body but assuage the guilty mind, to the breathtaking lack of substantiation for homeopathic medicine and complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) in general, to high-end cosmetics that imply miracles and contain all sort of impressive sounding ingredients (but that don't truly claim to do anything, because legally these claims would be indefensible), to nutritionism, another field that is big on claims and short on evidence

He makes a rigorous defense of the scientific method because the method demands accountability and control of variables, in order to test what it purports to test. This is where most popular science and layman's science falls short. Quite frankly, we mere members of the public have little interest is carefully assessing testing methods, we want to know the results. It is precisely our lack of interest in the nuts and bolts and how the testing was put together that makes us vulnerable to false claims.

Goldacre wryly notes the religious overtones that accompany to many health claims. Some "detox" programs are basically purification "rituals" (with the emphasis on ritual, rather than purification). "In what we call the Developed Western World, we seek redemption and purification from the more extreme forms of our material indulgence: we fill our faces with drugs, drink, bad food, and other indulgences, we know it's wrong, and we crave ritualistic protection from the consequences…Like so much of the nonsense in bad science, "detox" pseudoscience isn't something done to us, by venal and exploitative outsiders; it is a cultural product, a recurring theme, and we do it to ourselves" (p.14).

Other cures are simply based on faith: "I believe that homeopathic medicine works, therefore it cures me." As with all instances of faith, "true believers" often become incensed when the grounds for their faith is challenged. Their objections are not limited to moral outrage, vitamin magnate Matthias Rath sued Goldacre for libel for challenging Rath's claims that vitamins can cue cancer, and that AIDS does not exist and that "Antiretroviral drugs were poisonous and a conspiracy to kill patients and make money" (p.133). Goldacre laments that this campaign of misinformation has cost so many lives.

This is not to say that the medical and pharmaceutical establishment does not make mistakes. In fact, he recounts in detail how pharmaceutical producers have gone to great lengths to play up the benefits of their products while withholding or distorting evidence about adverse outcomes (p.149). It is telling that drug companies spend 14% of their budget on R&D, and 31% on marketing and administration (p.150).

The final section on the book deals with "The Media's MMR Hoax" that arose based on a now-debunked 1998 study by Andrew Wakefield. Goldacre concludes that studies that have looked at the MMR vaccine and incidence of autism have not found any causal link. The scandal, however, was hugely successful because it used emotional engagement through first person testimonials. By suggesting that there might be a link between autism and the vaccine, it preyed on people's fear and guilt about potentially doing unintentional harm to their child.

One key piece of information that I will take away from this book is that the Cochrane Collaboration produces systematic summaries of the research literature on health care research (p. 57). Meaning that whenever the purveyor of some miracle cure is claiming that "no research has been done," Cochrane just might have compiled that research.

http://www.cochrane.org/

The site, however, is not exhaustive. For example, a friend recently sent me an email about DCA (dichloroacetate) as a cure for cancer. Cochrane does not address it.

These kinds of stories pop up in the media all the time and people get worked up about them. Often times the headlines are misleading when journalists go for impact over accuracy (by stating figures in terms of relative risk instead of giving natural frequencies, p. 187). Goldacre notes that science stories printed in the mainstream media are often not written by science journalists, thus increasing the risk of getting the information wrong.

Last week, for example, the media were all over the story about how cell phones increase risk for brain cancer. The fact that brain cancer rates have remained stable while cell phone use has increased exponentially, is somewhat of a mystery. Not being able to separate the fact from the fiction can be dangerous for your health.



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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides


Today I saw Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides. Having just watched the prior three films again, my sons and I had reviewed the dynamics of who had betrayed who, and we were ready for whatever twists and turns the director might throw at us. At the end of film III, William Turner (Orlando Bloom) had just been made captain of the Flying Dutchman (having had his heart carved out of his chest and placed in a box), relieving Davy Jones of this duty. Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightly) was the pirate King, and was somewhat at a loss, what with her father the governor dead, and her newly wedded husband dispatched to ferry the souls of the dead. Not much of a prospect for a new bride. I was interested in seeing how their stories would continue. We were sorely disappointed. They do not even appear in film IV (Hollywood contracting difficulties?).

Instead we have Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush), Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), Edward Teach – Blackbeard (Ian McShane) and his "daughter" Angelica (Penelope Cruz), and the Spaniards, competing to get to the Fountain of Youth. The film has action but it lacks the emotion and conviction of the earlier entries in the series. Not even the Fountain of Youth provides much incentive as an adventure goal: to gain years, you have to sacrifice a victim, thereby gaining whatever remaining years that person would have had. Plus the spell requires a mermaid's tear to make it work. Harvesting mermaids' tears is easier said than done, let me tell you. But then maybe that is the point: To illustrate that the desire for eternal youth is illusory. The cost exacted in terms of struggle and sacrifice is not compensated by what finally amounts to very little gain. That's not bad as a message, but it is a bit disappointing as the pretext for an action flick. The Pirates franchise might be on its last (wooden) legs.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A sobering look at the city

A friend of mine from Ottawa was visiting the city last week. I said that I would be happy to show him some of the sights. Having lived in this city for 22 years, I have witnessed a lot of changes. The city has gone from being a rough and dangerous place with practically no tourism infrastructure, to something of a cultural and gastronomic mecca in Latin America. There is a lot to see and do in Bogota, and I am proud to show off my adopted city.

My friend decided on this trip to Bogota as a last minute decision and didn't have much of an idea what to expect. A week before he arrived, I sent him my list of Things To Do, See, and Eat in Bogota, to give him some ideas. I explained how to take a registered taxi at the airport. I also mentioned that there have been some excellent airfares to Cartagena, and a weekend getaway to the Caribbean would make a nice complement to the Bogota visit, or perhaps a few days in Villa de Leyva. He is a writer and Villa de Leyva strikes me as the ideal place to go for some peace and quiet, to simply soak in the lovely colonial atmosphere, and maybe get some writing done.

I don't think he read anything I sent. From the airport he took an unmarked black taxi on the street. The driver charged him 40,000 pesos to his hotel near Bulevar Niza, and claimed that he did not have change for the 50,000-peso bill.

One of the first things that quickly became apparent to him is that traffic in Bogota is Hell. We know that. We live here. But for someone coming from outside, it was a bit of a shock. I tried to explain how to use the Transmilenio system, because his hotel was near a station, but he never really got it figured out.

He did make it downtown on Transmilenio one day in an attempt to go to the Gold Museum. He got off at the Museo del Oro stop, but from the station you can't actually see the museum, which is right there. He started walking, straight down Jimenez Avenue. He walked for about an hour and a half, finally calling me on a cell phone rented from a guy selling minutes on the street near the Carrera 43 Transmilenio stop, deep in the industrial zone. He said that he started walking and figured that he would eventually find the museum, but after an hour, and having passed the homeless people huddled around their bonfires in the darkened doorways, he realized that he must have gone the wrong way. In all, during his stay no less than three taxi drivers charged him double the correct fare, but at least he was not taken on an express kidnapping. He found traffic in the city to be horrendous, and the people not very helpful. Of course he barely speaks the language, and that was a huge impediment.

The trip was not a complete failure. I took him to the Botero Museum, Plaza Bolivar, the San Agustin Church on Calle 6, walking in the Candelaria, the Gold Museum, Andrés Carne de Res, Crepes and Waffles, and the handicraft market in Usaquén. But he never went to Monserrate because the weather was poor, the Botanical Gardens, or out to a salsa club. I had suggested a hike but he suffers from back pain and it quickly become apparent that that would not be a good idea.

I wish he had seen the tropical loveliness Cartagena. I wish he had seen the grace and elegance of Villa de Leyva and the rolling Boyaca countryside. I wish he were taking away a different image of the city of Bogota. But maybe his meandering made for a more authentic trip. We who live here deal learn to deal with devious taxi drivers, the chaos in the city, and the interminable rain (at least this time of year). But we also see the city at its best, during its times of celebration. But for all that it has improved, I wonder, can Bogota be considered an international travel destination?

P.S. Despite his mishaps, my friend says that he really enjoyed his trip, and he wrote some lovely things about the city.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Le Comte Ory, The Help, Wolf Brother


Le Comte Ory
I saw Le Comte Ory in the cinema last weekend: the NY Metropolitan Opera production, in deferred transmission. My friend Julie from book club had seen the live broadcast a few weeks ago and she raved about it. Really, the only opera I know well is Carmen. Otherwise my knowledge and appreciation is limited to "greatest hits" arias. (Apropos, on principle I object to the three tenors singing Christmas carols and operatic muzak versions of pop tunes –there is something perverse about the whole notion.) With opera-loving friends I saw Madame Butterfly and La Traviata a few years ago. Of the two I liked La Traviata better, but both productions were dull and wooden, interspersed with moments of histrionics. I figured that opera just wasn't my thing.

The performance, however, of Rossini's Le Comte Ory, was wonderful. I think that the key to good opera is good direction to bring the performance to life. I confess that I seldom if ever listen to opera. It is the performance and the interaction between the performers that sparks the magic. No doubt people who are more knowledgeable about this art would disagree with me, but my feeling it that this is an art form that needs to be seen, and not just heard. In the same way that reading a script is not the same as seeing a performance. The direction makes a huge difference in bringing the piece to life. Opera I had seen previously tended to be either wooden, or grossly overacted. Maybe there was an awareness that this performance was being choreographed for filmed transmission, because it was both subtle and gloriously comic. Kudos to director Bartlett Sher. Juan Diego Florez was delightfully campy and lecherous as the Comte Ory. Diana Damrau and Joyce DiDonato had beautiful chemistry as the Countess Adele and the page Isolier. The entire production is seen as if through the eyes of a stage director, who is a presence on the stage (this is entirely an invention of the director, and it works beautifully): supervising a production set to look contemporary with Rossini's period (this piece is from 1828), orchestrating as the sets are changed, working the lights, moving props, etc. He is busy working through all of the orchestral moments, keeping this from being dead time. Le Comte Ory is a comedy and comedy depends on timing; this production nailed it. Maybe I like opera after all.


The Help
By Kathryn Stockett

Everyone seems to love this book that tells the stories of black maids working for white families in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. I have to say that, not being especially familiar with the south, it was an eye-opener to read about how thoroughly entrenched racial disparity still was, even in the 1960s. In terms of the sociology, I think that the author is telling a valuable story, in recounting the working conditions and social climate through the eyes of the maids.

That being said, the portrayal of the downtrodden and unbelievably noble maids was superficial and simplistic. Even Minnie's Terrible Awful (did anyone not figure it out through the repeated, heavy-handed foreshadowing?) is thoroughly unrealistic, although good for a chuckle while reading. But seriously folks, these women are portrayed as so noble that not only does their shit not stink, it apparently tastes good too.

The subplot of Skeeter's romance with Stuart Whitworth adds nothing. The mystery of what happened to Constantin is sad but anticlimactic.

Stockett has a great story, and story that needs to be told, but her characters need more complexity and realism. The book does not manage to get beyond superficiality and cliché. I think that this book appeals to people because it is easy to tell the bad guys from the good guys. Too bad life's not so simple.


Wolf Brother
By Michelle Paver

I read Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver is 24 hours. It is a children's book but intricately constructed in terms of the world that Paver has created for her tribes and their cosmovision. I heard her speak at the Hay Festival in Cartagena this January and I had been looking forward to reading this. I literally wolfed it down.

The story follows Torak, 12, who makes a vow to his father who lies dying after being attacked by a bear that he will go to the Mountain of the World Spirit on a quest to destroy the evil spirit that was responsible for his father's death.

Paver researched her book extensively, spending time with Native American tribes, the Inuit, and others, learning about their world view and concept of spirituality, from which she developed her triptych of the name spirit, the clan spirit, and the world spirit. Torak is 12. He has just lost his father. His education and knowledge of his world is incomplete. His journey towards maturity and an understanding of his world parallels our journey as readers venturing into this unknown world.

I highly recommend it as young person's lit, suitable for the 12-15 age group.
For more info see: http://www.michellepaver.com/

Friday, April 8, 2011

Colombia-US Military Relations



On Thursday 7 April, an event was held at the Nogal Club in Bogota to launch the book Relaciones Militares: Colombia – Estados Unidos, jointly authored by former Colombian Defense Minister Marta Lucia Ramirez and Democratic Pole Party Senator Jorge Enrique Robledo. The book is part of the Cara y Sello series (Heads or Tails) by Norma Publishing, which presents opposing views on different issues.

Ramirez and Robledo presented their positions on some of the issues that are addressed in the book, in a debate chaired by Semana Magazine editor Alvaro Sierra.

The defense cooperation agreement (DCA), by which the United States military would be allowed to use seven Colombian bases, polarized the region and sparked considerable debate in Colombia. The following is a running summary of what was said during the debate:

[Alvaro Sierra] Should Colombia cooperate with the United States in the military field?

[Marta Lucia Ramirez] Colombia both needs cooperation from other countries and can offer cooperation to other countries. The subject of drug trafficking is one that transcends national borders and as such it requires international answers. In Colombia drug trafficking has been a problem of such magnitude that it has threatened democracy and the institutions of the state.

[Jorge Enrique Robledo] Colombia should not aim for isolation, but the country should question the way that it handles its relations with the United States. Colombia has not made much effort to change the nature of this relationship.

[Sierra] How would you change the relationship?

[Robledo] I would stress the need for a relationship between equals, with respect for sovereignty and non-intervention.

[Ramirez] I ask what would have happened to Colombia if the country had not been the beneficiary of Plan Colombia. Both Plan Colombia and the DCA were initiatives of the Colombian Government. The proposal to allow the US Military to use Colombian bases was intended to have dissuasive effects.

[Robledo] Plan Colombia did not just address strengthening for Colombia's military, it included a series of other conditions, such as the management of the economy and how peace accords with the guerrillas should be handled. Should the free trade agreement (FTA) that President Santos is discussing with President Obama include other conditions? Colombia should manage its affairs by itself.

[Ramirez] Colombia's military strategy has never depended on outsiders. Plan Colombia strengthened Colombia's military. The Colombian Government is responsible for overseeing the objectives of cooperation and it feels that the benefits of this cooperation have been worthwhile. The US military presence in Colombia under the DCA would be for training, not operations.

[Robledo] The social aspects of Plan Colombia have been a failure. The impact on drug trafficking is dubious too. According to the economic theory, reducing the supply would boost prices and therefore enable fewer people to consume narcotics; the reduced supply, did boost prices, but this kept income steady for drug traffickers.

[Ramirez] As an international problem, drug trafficking should be fought with an international approach. The number of hectares where coca is grown has been reduced by half. From 700 tons of cocaine being processed per year, the amount has fallen to 260 tons, although ideally the amount should be none. Production is declining in Colombia, although it is on the rise in other countries. Plan Colombia was a Colombian Government initiative, with social and development objectives; not just a plan to fight the drug trade. Nonetheless, it has not been as effective as it should have been in promoting and developing industry and production.

[Robledo] Plan Colombia undermined agriculture in Colombia because the policy of economic opening and competition caused Colombian farms to fail.

[Ramirez] The problems in rural Colombia are the result of four decades of neglect, abandonment, and the lack of state presence.

[Sierra] Was the DCA the continuation of the previous military agreement, or was it a new agreement that needed to be approved by the Colombian Congress?

[Robledo] According to the Constitution, the presence of foreign bases on Colombian land would be considered unconstitutional. Under the DCA, the United States would have established FOLs (forward operating locations), which would be autonomous US bases, as part of the "US strategy for the control of Latin America and the world."

[Ramirez] These would not have been US bases; the agreement was to allow US presence on Colombian bases, and under Colombian command.

[Robledo] Any foreign soldier in a country represents the interests of his country, and follows his country's established chain of command. These are not "Vatican bases" that we are talking about. The Constitutional Court ruling that disallowed the DCA made it clear that the US forces would have operated with full autonomy on the bases and without Colombian control.

[Sierra] What would be the price of the DCA in terms of Colombia's diplomatic relations in the region?

[Robledo] The bases would signify a threat to the entire region because they represent the US strategy to exercise control in Latin America and the world.

[Ramirez] The bases were a political strategy for dissuasion. Limits and controls exist on what sort of US actions would be allowed. Surveillance operations should be permitted. Colombia also has military cooperation agreements with several border countries and that allow joint military operations. Colombia needs military strengthening to fight the guerrillas, drug trafficking, and to ensure security for Colombians.

[Robledo] Colombia's relationship to the United States is colored by the fact that the United States is an "empire" with empirical strategies. The challenge for Colombia is to find a different way of relating to the United States, because right now all aid comes with conditions, and the aid that Colombia has received has led to the decline of agricultural and industrial production.

[Ramirez] It is the job of diplomacy to defend the interests of the state, and without warring with the neighbourhood. The state has the responsibility to guarantee the life, freedom, and wellbeing of it citizens, and guaranteeing security is the basis for this. Colombia needs more and better cooperation, with Colombia setting the agenda.

***

My Commentary

Both speakers made some good points. Like Robledo, I agree that it in ingenuous to believe that the US military mission in Colombia would be limited to merely serving Colombia's need, rather than pursuing the intelligence and, more likely than not, the operations inherent to the US agenda. That being said, Ramirez is correct in stating US military cooperation has enabled Colombia to become more effective at fighting the guerrilla movements and the drug trade.

Robledo's criticism that US aid has led to the impoverishment of the Colombian countryside because of conditions concerning economic and trade policy is debatable. The shift toward economic opening began in the early 1990s, predating Plan Colombia, although IMF and World Bank policy at the time were clear in their goals of eliminating trade barriers and fomenting free market competition. Still the transition to competition comes as a rude shock: It takes investment, training, strategy, and infrastructure to make a country competitive, but that's the Colombian Government's responsibility. Furthermore the debate on whether free trade benefits a country overall was not the subject of the debate, which was military cooperation.

Ramirez rightly noted that the countryside cannot thrive and prosper when basic safety and security are not guaranteed. Reinforcing the state military apparatus in Colombia has enabled the government to restore control to areas that were out of its hands, and bring in social programs that it previously could not provide. You cannot serve the population unless you have secured the area.

Diplomacy does not happen in a vacuum. It is tricky is to make nice with the neighbors and stay on the good side of the United States, while being clear about national priorities. But President Santos seems to be on the right track.