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I find it interesting how books come into our lives, and the effect they have on us (or don’t have on us). I recently finished two books. One was a non-fiction title I received from a friend as a Christmas gift; the other was a novel chosen by a woman from my book club last month. The former was Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, while the latter was Matt Haig’s The Humans.

I found that funny. Not funny like COVID-19, China picking on Lithuania (and removing the country’s name from its customs forms), Russia blaming the world for setting up shop on Ukraine’s border, or NHL stars not going to the Olympics. No. I found it funny that I had chosen neither book and yet both ended up being about, well, people like me — Homo sapiens/human beings

Both books opened my eyes, if in different ways. For example, Mr. Harari did an excellent job of documenting what we know about how Homo sapiens helped extinguish the other members of the genus Homo, almost like we were snuffing out a candle, leaving only us sapiens to work on wiping out the remaining 8.7 million species (est.) we share the Earth will. As Yuval Harari opined, it was almost like we were bent on exterminating life from our very inception.

For his part, Matt Haig, when not opening up the proverbial can of Riemann’s hypothesis, does a solid job of confirming that extra-terrestrial life not only exists, but that they also want ultimate control over the entire universe and will kill indiscriminately to maintain the present order of all things organic, even if that means no such things as love and passion and death and tragedy.

For me there were several times I paused and thought about what the authors were saying about me/us as a species. In The Humans, it was this:

“In every life there is a moment. A crisis. One that says: what I believe is wrong. It happens to everyone, the only difference is how that knowledge changes them. In most cases, it is simply a case of burying that knowledge and pretending it isn’t there. That is how humans grow old. That is ultimately what creases their faces and curves their backs and shrinks their mouths and ambitions. The weight of that denial. The stress of it. This is not unique to humans. The single biggest act of bravery or madness anyone can do is the act of change.”

In Sapiens, it was this:

“Seventy thousand years ago, Homo sapiens was still an insignificant animal minding its own business in a corner of Africa. In the following millennia it transformed itself into the master of the entire planet and the terror of the ecosystem. Today it stands on the verge of becoming a god, poised to acquire not only eternal youth, but also the divine abilities of creation and destruction…Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one. We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction. Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”

While I would not recommend The Humans unless you’re a fan of Robert Fulghum (and if you are, then you might just love this work of fiction), I think Sapiens should be mandatory reading for all literate Homo sapiens. It’s that good. More importantly, it’s that important.


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For an old friend…

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”
― Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

100 Haunting eyes ideas | beautiful eyes, beautiful face, beauty
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How Hope Motivates Your Team to Make Real Change, According to a  Psychologist | Inc.com


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Where Did Two Years Go?

“So, your Holiness, now your priests are dead, and I am left alive. But in truth it is I who am dead, and they who live. For as always, your Holiness, the spirit of the dead will survive in the memory of the living.”

The Persistence of Memory - Wikipedia
The Persistence of Memory

It’s been two years since I last posted. A lot has happened in the world over that time, but you already know that. You’ve lived it. You’re living it. You will continue living it until you realize this will always be with us, if only as a memory.

There are some who believe that every generation has a “moment” they live through that defines them, that defines us as a world. And while there were events such as WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII that affected most nations and peoples simultaneously, they were not as indiscriminate as the current epoch we’re still groping our way through as blind as bats. I, for one, would like to know who our one-eyed man is today.

To be fair, we’re still knee-deep in this shitstorm. I can’t reconcile where I’ve been over these two years or what the hell has happened. I’ve stopped writing; this is my first non-work-related writing since the proverbial candles went out in Toronto that fateful day in March. I haven’t seen my book club in person for more than 100 weeks. I’ve lost more than 30 pounds. I’ve spent solid time in two hospitals, seen a lot of wasted bodies, and been witness to cruelty I’ve not seen or heard previously.

4 Effective Ways to Put Out a Candle Without Smoke - wigglywisdom.com
The Guns of August

And yet…I’ve also seen the best of humanity firsthand in our nurses, doctors, and countless other medical professionals and hospital staff. In my family members and friends. In random acts of kindness. In small, meaningful gestures that have not gone unnoticed. I have a new appreciation for art. I cherish the dark of morning and the solace which music brings with it. Texting or chatting online is no longer a lame substitute for calling or seeing someone in the flesh. Two years into this sociological mindfuck I’ll take what I can get when it comes to human “contact.”

Teaching Our Children the Value of Hope - You are Mom

Nonetheless, despite all the negativity we have been inundated with for hundreds upon hundreds of days, I still have hope. I have not given up. Or as someone so wisely once said, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Never before have I had such hope that the Leafs could actually win the Stanley Cup. That Team Canada will qualify for the World Cup of Rugby next summer in France. That everyone I love will make it through this hiccup in time with a few nicks and bruises, but otherwise stronger for the experience.

As Wally Lamb once wrote, “I know this much is true.”


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South Korean Art to Lift the Soul

In the face of a crisis, this is what lifts humanity. Enjoy…


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International Women’s Day 2019

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March 8, 2019 marks the 108th anniversary of International Women’s Day (IWD). Per the official IWD site:

The first International Women’s Day occurred in 1911, supported by over one million people. Today, IWD belongs to all groups collectively everywhere. IWD is not country, group or organization specific.

The future is exciting. Let’s build a gender-balanced world.

Everyone has a part to play – all the time, everywhere.

From grassroots activism to worldwide action, we are entering an exciting period of history where the world expects balance. We notice its absence and celebrate its presence.

Balance drives a better working world. Let’s all help create a #BalanceforBetter.

I’d like to take this opportunity to pay homage to the most influential woman I know, a civic advocacy leader, affordable housing champion, unrivaled proponent of older women’s rights through the Older Women’s Network, and (duh!) best mother in the world: my mom.

She was also the reason I had my first library as a young punk, and taught me that reading was not just cool; it was necessary, like food and water. For that, and so many other reasons, I hope that a day like IWD can inspire us all to push for greater changes in gender equality rights, and to reach out to the women in our lives who have impacted us in such meaningful, positive, and long-lasting ways.

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Advice à la Stylo

Image result for william faulkner

(Hmm…cagey misdirection or evangelistic confidence?

Maybe a good ol’ pipe is all I need)

Emily Temple has an interesting piece in Literary Hub called “20 Pieces of Writing Advice from William Faulkner: “Don’t be ‘a writer’ but instead be writing.

What I love about this is that it can be applied (mostly) to everyday life and the challenges we face as partners, parents, employees…human beings. Here’s a snapshot of some of Mr. Faulkner’s choice thoughts:

On how to approach writing:

Keep it amateur. You’re not writing for money but for pleasure. It should be fun. And it should be exciting.

On technique:

Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error.

On what makes a good novelist

He is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done. . . . Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written.

On character:

The real truths come from human hearts.

On style:

I think anyone that spends too much of his time about his style, developing a style, or following a style, probably hasn’t got much to say and knows it and is afraid of it, and so he writes a style, a marvelous trove.

On writing towards the truth:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

On failure:

All of us failed to match our dream of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible.

On what a writer needs:

[T]he only environment the artist needs is whatever peace, whatever solitude, and whatever pleasure he can get at not too high a cost.

On the writer’s essential toolkit:

A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination—any two of which, at times any one of which—can supply the lack of the others.

On the best training for writing:

Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad; see how they do it.

And maybe the best piece of advice of all.

On also getting a job:

Don’t make writing your work. Get another job so you’ll have money to buy the things you want in life. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you don’t count on money and a deadline for your writing.

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A History of Reading

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If you like reading, you’ll probably like this book. If you love reading, you will love this book. And if you adore reading like it’s a source of oxygen, then you will go cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs when you start this book.

In 1997, Argentine-Canadian Alberto Manguel published an immensely engrossing book called A History of Reading, a love letter, as it were, to readers everywhere throughout the ages. As his publisher puts it:

“At one magical instant in your early childhood, the page of a bookthat string of confused, alien ciphersshivered into meaning. Words spoke to you, gave up their secrets; at that moment, whole universes opened. You became, irrevocably, a reader. Alberto Manguel moves from this essential moment to explore the 6000-year-old conversation between words and that magician without whom the book would be a lifeless object: the reader. Manguel lingers over reading as seduction, as rebellion, as obsession, and goes on to trace the never-before-told story of the reader’s progress from clay tablet to scroll, codex to CD-ROM.”

For those bibliophiles and word nerds out there who can’t get enough book-related stuff, Mr. Manguel also has another interesting nonfiction book called The Library at Night. It’s sexy. It’s mild. It’s a sexy mild read.

Image result for the library at night

In a similarly related piece, Nicholas Cannariato penned a thought-provoking piece for @The_Millions called “Why We Read and Why We Write.” As Mr. Cannariato says:

“Reading then is a moral and subversive act in its own right. It’s a disengagement from the commercial and competitive in pursuit of heightened moral sense coupled with aesthetic and intellectual engagement. Reading doesn’t produce ‘work’ itself as ‘producerist’ ideology would have it, but rather it cultivates the intangibles that go into that work. What we gain by reading is what we often strive for in life when we’re actually thinking about what we want.”

But perhaps the most hilarious quote from this piece (and something which would likely make Stephen King hunt down and “Misery” the male colleague in question here) is the following: “Sheila Liming, in her recent essay “In Praise of Not Not Reading,” recounts a male colleague pursuing an MFA in fiction tell her he literally didn’t believe in reading. ‘I’m a writer, I make things,’ he said, ‘whereas you’re a reader, you consume things.'”

Image result for angry man with a book

Anyone have a candlestick, knife, rope, dumbbell, trophy, poison, lead pipe, revolver, or wrench handy for Professor Douchebag?

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Live from Vegas: Ms. Germanotta & Mr. Cooper

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In case you were buried under a rock in 2018…

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Without You, There Is No Us

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What would a book about North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) be without some kind of controversy tied to it? Certainly not Suki Kim’s seminal 2014 book Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite.

Suki Kim was born in South Korea smack-dab in the middle of the highly authoritarian Park Chung-hee era. She and her family then  immigrated to the United States in the wake of a minor hotel scandal in Washington D.C., when Ms. Kim was five years old.

Without You, There Is No Us (the author borrows the title from a patriotic song celebrating the Great General Kim Jong-il) follows Suki Kim’s journey in and around Pyongyang over a roughly 10-year period, from her first visit to the capital city of the DPRK in February 2002 to the six months she  lived in Pyongyang in 2011, or Juche 100 (of course North Korea has its own calendar, which starts in 1911, the year Kim Il-sung was born according to the Gregorian calendar).

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(The always romantic Pyongyang. Imagine how beautiful it is at night without electricity.)

Ironically, she first went to North Korea for Kim Jong-Il’s 60th birthday, and left upon his death in December 2011.

The book focuses mainly on Ms. Kim’s experience in 2011, when she was an ESL instructor at a school that taught its undergraduates neither science nor technology but was aptly called the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). Further to that, the school was completely funded by the $10 million James Kim, a Korean American, raised from evangelical churches worldwide, yet PUST did not allow for the teaching of any faith, and students were not allowed to be exposed to the Bible.


As she herself put it, there were “[t]hirty missionaries disguised as teachers and 270 male North Korean students and me, the sole writer disguised as a missionary disguised as a teacher.”

It’s tantalizingly titillating. Deception upon deception upon deception. Now, to be fair, how else are we going to learn anything relatively objective about the ultimate Hermit Kingdom if not by deceit, spying, and other duplicitous behaviour? The short answer is that it’s impossible.

So, the first layer to this onion is that most of these Christians were not properly trained as ESL teachers. The second layer is that almost nobody had a Ph.D., yet they were mostly referred to as “professors” and “teaching assistants.” The third layer is that Suki Kim is not Christian, and identifies her family as mostly atheist. The fourth layer is that she had to keep track of her experiences surreptitiously on four separate memory sticks, as her every move, conversation, email correspondence, and phone call was monitored by North Korean officials.

Aside from getting a general background on Korean history (both sides of the border), we also learn about Ms. Kim’s upbringing, her family members, and her career as a writer and journalist (and teacher). Mostly, though, the reader is given as intimate an account of everyday life for North Korean students as you can read about today.

It will come as no surprise that North Koreans have been brainwashed to a point that we would call Jim Jones-like cultism; they  venerate Kim Il-sung, his son, Kim Jong-il, and now Kim Jong-un as something akin to how God-fearing Christians view God and Jesus Christ.

(Those are two tall dudes.)

They’re also hopelessly ignorant (and Kim Suki was reportedly teaching the best and brightest in the country). Apparently kimchi is the most famous food on all continents, Korean is spoken in every country, the world reveres Kim Il-sung, and North Korea is the gold standard by which other nations should aspire to emulate. But ask them about Macs, iPods, Kindles, the Internet, the Great Pyramid of Giza, the dark web, Burger King, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, or the first country to land a man on the moon, and all you will hear is crickets.

As one reviewer, Euny Hong, quipped in her New York Times book review in 2014:

“To call North Korea a banana republic — the term historically used to denote little dictatorships with only one export — would be an insult to bananas. For North Korea produces nothing the world needs, and the regime knows it. Kim recounts many ­examples of how this global uselessness is the regime’s own fault. To cite just one, the government has, until very recently, concealed the existence of the World Wide Web.

Image result for banana republic

(Who knew? North Korea has a clothing and accessories retail chain.)

Finally, there is the last “hot issue” surrounding this book. Depending on which version of the book you buy (i.e. which printing and in which country it’s purchased), the word “memoir” may or may not appear on the cover.

According to an interview with NPR titled “Mislabeled as a Memoirist, Author Asks: Whose Work Gets To Be Journalism,” Kim Suki “argued that her investigative reporting would not have been confused for a personal narrative account were she not Korean or a woman.”

Ms. Kim put it in her own words as follows: “I did not know that this was going to be a memoir until the very last minute, when the book cover arrived and I saw the words. And I immediately said, ‘I don’t under[stand]. I mean this is not a memoir.’ I never thought of it as that. The book has personal perspectives, but all of that was used to explain this foreign world. Now suddenly my reporting was not acknowledged once you call it ‘memoir.'”

Whatever you label it, this is a fantastic book and a one-of-a-kind journey into the heart of the beast. As someone who read the book knowing nothing about the author or her objective, Without You, There Is No Us is successful both as a memoir and investigative journalism to me.

Finally, Suki Kim has done a very good job, partly through her own personal stories, to explain what to outsiders is a complicated situation as seen through a Western lens: from Romanization (there are three systems now in play between the two Koreas) and geography (why the 38th parallel and why in 1945?) to history (the Three Kingdoms of Korea era is different from the three-dynasty period) and cultural traits (why basketball and soccer are acceptable sports in North Korea because they’re group activities, while golf and tennis are alien to North Koreans as individual endeavours).

Long of the short, in a time when Trudeau and Trump are both being blasted by the media and citizenry alike, read this book if for nothing else than to be soberly reminded how much we have to be grateful for in our respective democracies.

UPDATE: In a December 16, 2014 letter to the editor of The New York Times, Suki Kim wrote the following:

“The review of my book Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite (Dec. 14) offers a gross misreading. The reviewer writes: ‘Kim’s narrative suggests that the regime’s stranglehold on information is starting to crack.’

In fact, the book as a whole suggests quite the opposite — that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s stranglehold is even tighter than we assume, and that it extends to the children of the elite. The reviewer cites a passage in which a tiny number of graduate students are taught to use Google as an example of North Korea’s loosening of control, omitting that the dean of the computer department thinks ‘their access must be quite limited.’ She also writes: ‘The books reminds us that evil is not only banal; it is also completely arbitrary.’

But my book is about the exact opposite — how evil is not arbitrary in North Korea, and how it is systematically meted out from the top down, the military dictatorship that exploits the myth of the Great Leader to its own citizens imprisoned in a gulag posing as a nation.”




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