Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Barbara Ehrenreich's Critique of Positive Thinking

Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided is a funny, fierce, and effective critique of positive thinking.

She takes it on in a number of contexts chapter by chapter: for example, in breast cancer treatment and the rhetoric that has grown up around it ("Smile or Die: The Bright Side of Cancer"), in business and the dissolution of business ("Motivating Business and the Business of Motivation"), and in an influential strand of evangelical Christianity ("God Wants You to Be Rich"). And she brings it all masterfully together in a final chapter that traces how positive thinking in all of these guises contributed to the current economic crisis.

A particularly crucial insight that emerges again and again is the way in which positive thinking while seeming to offer empowerment may actually block meaningful action. It seems to give people something to do, a way forward at moments of crisis when they feel altogether powerless⎯a woman facing down a terminal breast cancer diagnosis, or a worker newly down-sized from his or her job. But in fact its relentlessly inward focus, the personal "work" on attitude and outlook that it demands, inevitably ends with blaming the victim and letting the persons and institutions who are truly responsible off the hook. Concerted action for change is neatly diverted. Further, the delusions that positive thinking can foster at an individual and a broader level can be downright dangerous.

I didn't agree with Ehrenreich's analysis every step of the way but even then, indeed perhaps especially then, I found Bright-Sided to be a bracing read.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

"The Eye That Never Sleeps": Frank Morn's History of the Pinkerton Detective Agency

"The Eye That Never Sleeps" by Frank Morn is the first history that I've read in my newfound quest to learn all there is to know about the Pinkerton Detective Agency, and I was a bit disappointed. There are so many extraordinary characters and stories associated with the Pinkertons, and Morn covers the ground, but there could have been greater pleasure in the reading if he'd brought more storytelling flair to the narrative. Particularly in the first half of the book, it sometimes felt like harder going than it ought to have been.

Also, there were gaps. Most notable for me was the absence of women. Morn notes early on that "women were an important part of the detective agency throughout the founder's life" and, later, that "female detectives assumed an important place in the Pinkerton story." Yet he accords them only eight sentences including the two I just quoted. I wanted to know more. I also would have liked a bit more detail on founder Alan Pinkerton's eldest son William. Morn includes enough about him to suggest that he may have been the most interesting member of the Pinkerton family⎯he who was known simply as "the Eye" and was apparently beloved of many underworld figures and police chiefs alike. But he doesn't get nearly as much space in the narrative as his younger brother Robert, Alan Pinkerton's more highly favoured son and heir.

I concede, however, that the above critique is an idiosyncratic one and, my personal quibbles aside, "The Eye That Never Sleeps" is an impressive and valuable work of scholarship. It's packed with interesting detail and is clearly the product of rigorous archival research. When I was moved to follow through to the footnotes, more often than not they were citations to letters and documents from the Pinkerton archives. This suggests to me that much of the information Morn has gathered in his history won't be readily accessible anywhere else. Morn also provides a lengthy bibliography which provides plenty of leads on where I might learn more about the Pinkerton-related topics that particularly intrigue me.

Finally, a great strength of the book is that Morn doesn't stop at providing a thorough and informative history of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. He also sets that history firmly in the context of U.S. history more broadly and, particularly, in the context of the development of both private and public policing in the U.S. and Europe. So I recommend it as an excellent starting point for anyone interested in the Pinkerton Detective Agency and also as a useful resource for those interested in the history of policing more broadly.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Tove Jansson on the Creative Process (via the Moomintrolls)

I've reread six of Tove Jansson's Moomintroll books now, the children's series for which she's best known. Once I've made my way through the final two, I'm planning an omnibus review in which I'll try to convey the magic that has me loving them even more as an adult than I did as a child. (Perhaps that should come as no surprise given that it was my recent forays into her extraordinary adult fiction that sent me off on this voyage of rediscovery⎯if you've not yet read Jansson's most recently translated adult novel, The True Deceiver, go and get yourself a copy immediately!) In the meantime, though, I wanted to share a bit of the Moomin universe with you, by way of a couple of paragraphs from "The Spring Tune," the first story in Tales From Moominvalley:

     "It's the right evening for a tune," Snufkin thought. A new tune, one part expectation, two parts spring sadness, and for the rest just the great delight of walking alone and liking it.
     He had kept this tune under his hat for several days, but hadn't quite dared to take it out yet. It had to grow into a kind of happy conviction. Then he would simply have to put his lips to the mouth organ, and all the notes would jump instantly into their places.
     If he released them too soon, they might get stuck crossways and make only a half-good tune, or he might lose them altogether and never be in the right mood to get hold of them again. Tunes are serious things, especially if they have to be jolly and sad at the same time.
     But this evening Snufkin felt rather sure of his tune. It was there, waiting, nearly full-grown⎯and it was going to be the best he ever made.

Though it's about song writing rather than story writing, it's a depiction of the creative process, and the solitude within which it often best unfolds, that resonates with me. "The great delight of walking alone and liking it." How delightful is that? Is it any wonder that I love these books?

Monday, March 15, 2010

The End of Publishing

I encountered this video via Penguin USA's Twitter feed. You can read more about it here.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

P.D. James on Dorothy L. Sayers

P.D. James on my favourite Dorothy L. Sayers novel, Gaudy Night:

For me Gaudy Night is one of the most successful marriages of the puzzle with the novel of social realism and serious purpose. It tells me, as a writer of today, that it is possible to construct a credible and enthralling mystery and marry it successfully to a theme of psychological subtlety, and this is perhaps the most important of Dorothy L. Sayers's legacies to writers and readers.

From P.D. James, Talking About Detective Fiction (2009).

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

P.D. James on the Potentially Liberating Effect of the Constraints and Conventions of the Detective Story

P.D. James neatly refutes the dismissal of detective stories as "mere formula writing" as follows in her new book, Talking About Detective Fiction:

One of the criticisms of the detective story is that this imposed pattern is mere formula writing, that it binds the novelist in a straitjacket which is inimical to the artistic freedom which is essential to creativity and that subtlety of characterization, a setting which comes alive for the reader and even credibility are sacrificed to the dominance of structure and plot. But what I find fascinating is the extraordinary variety of books and writers which this so-called formula has been able to accommodate, and how many authors have found the constraints and conventions of the detective story liberating rather than inhibiting of their creative imagination. To say that one cannot produce a good novel within the discipline of a formal structure is as foolish as to say that no sonnet can be great poetry since a sonnet is restricted to fourteen lines⎯an octave and a sestet⎯and a strict rhyming sequence.

James explores that extraordinary variety through the rest of the book which is essentially an idiosyncratic history of detective fiction with occasional musings about her own writing process thrown in. It makes for most interesting reading for devotees of crime fiction.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

L.M. Montgomery's Toronto House

Ever since I moved to Toronto, I've been meaning to seek out the house that L.M. Montgomery lived in here from 1935 until her death in 1942, and today I finally did. Those were not happy years for Montgomery, but she loved that house⎯the only one of her beloved homes that she actually owned⎯and the Toronto neighbourhood in which it is located. After snapping a couple of pictures of the house, I wandered down to the river that runs along the ravine behind it, and I could easily imagine Montgomery taking solace in that landscape during difficult times. See my photos of the house and the river below.