2015 – The Year of the Great Re-Read

After realizing how much money I spent on books in 2014, I decided last December to deem this year, 2015, “The Year of the Great Re-Read”, and have pretty much stuck to it except for a couple of books that I just couldn’t resist, namely “Fear the Darkness” by the incorrigible, adorable, and inexhorable Becky Masterman, “The Martian” by Andy Weir (had to read it before I saw the movie, obviously), Armada by Ernest Cline (I probably could have waited for this one), “Secondhand Souls” by Christopher Moore (I’m a sucker for sequels), and The Tales of the Captain Duke by an inspiring young author named Rebecca Diem. Other than those and a couple of random graphic novels, everything else I’ve read this year has been a re-read.

Now, if you know me, you’ll know that re-reading is not a very big deal. Usually about half the books I read in a year are re-reads, but this year has stuck out because I set out to do it on purpose.  I love re-reading books.  We listen to music over and over again, and we watch our favourite movies repeatedly, so I don’t really understand why more people don’t revisit their old books.  Yes, the time commitment is a lot greater than a four-minute pop-song, but so what?  It’s a book – You can pick it up and put it back down at will, whereas I don’t really see anybody doing that with music.  “Oh, I’ve just listened to the first half of Beyonce’s ‘Halo’ – I’d better save the rest for later!”  I don’t think anyone in the history of anywhere has ever said those words.  When you listen to Halo, you listen right through because that’s how songs were designed.  Books are different – Most of them are broken up into chapters for exactly that reason – So that you have a stopping point when you need to finally get some sleep as opposed to reading non-stop all night until you get to the end (which, in all honesty, I am also guilty of).  Art is art – You wouldn’t go view the Mona Lisa once, limit yourself to five minutes with it, and then swear to never look at it again.  That’s not what art is for – Art is meant to be enjoyed, appreciated, analyzed, connected with, loved or loathed.

I’ve revisited and rekindled some great fictional friendships over this last year. Reading Saul Bellow’s Herzog from this side of forty was an enlightening experience – Last time I read it I was twenty-four, and although it’s the exact same story, it really was a different novel in a lot of ways from my more, um, let’s call it ‘mature’ perspective.  I still love the character Moses Herzog as much as I did when I was in my twenties, but now that love comes tempered with pity instead of awe.  Watching Catch-22’s Yossarian fight insanity with insanity seems a lot more sane from my current perspective and knowledge of war and politics (and ridiculous beaurocracies).  My understanding of Findley’s “Pilgrim” is quite different than it was when I first read that treasure about fifteen years ago because I came to it without the mystery of who Pilgrim really was, so I was able to pick out the clues and hints around it, and see it all in a new light.

I’ve re-read so many books this year that I feel almost like I’ve given myself a gift. When I’m re-reading a book, and maybe this is just me, but I’m not only going over the words, but I’m also remembering where and when I was the first (or second, or most recent) time I read it.  This happens every time.  I get to page 666 in James Clavell’s “Tai Pan” and I’m instantly transported back to a seat on a bus in Israel in 1992 when I realized that I had to keep reading because stopping on that page would clearly cause me bad luck, what with the symbolism of the page number and all, and then I remember how great that weekend trip up to Rosh HaNikra was and how much fun we had.  I’m in the middle of Tom Robbins’s “Skinny Legs and All” and I’m suddenly back floating on a blow-up chair in my parent’s pool in Florida in 1995, enjoying my mid-semester break with a book and a beer.  I’m in the middle of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and I remember the stomach ache I had the first time I read it, and how I worked so hard to ignore my discomfort so that I could race through the book before anyone spoiled it for me, and at ‘that scene’ I’m suddenly back in my bathtub crying all over again (although I’m really on the sofa trying to keep my drastically dog-eared edition of the book from falling apart as a read it).

There’s so much more to re-reading a book than just revisiting a story and some good old friends. Reading is so much more personal than any other art, in my opinion, which might be why I love it so much.  You actually need to make an effort to read – Listening to music is passive, looking at a painting is passive, watching a movie is passive – They don’t really require much effort because the work is already done for us.  Reading, on the other hand, requires a commitment, requires time, requires you to actively take part in working your way through it, and therein lies it’s beauty – The reader is as much a part of the art as the author – Maybe even moreso.  I know I’ve written many, many things that will never be read, so really, the reader is key to the art in a novel or a story!  It couldn’t exist without us, whereas a song or an image can be shoved down our throats through any one of a dozen mediums, usually through some form of advertising.  You can’t do that with a book.

I don’t really have a point to this except to write something a little less serious than my last few posts, and to remind people that re-reading a great book is never a waste of time. I love it.  I’ve got five or six new books on my to-read list right now, but I’m sticking with my pledge (even with the new John Irving that I’m literally salivating over) and not cracking a single uncracked spine until the new year.  I urge you to do the same – Take some time and visit some of your old fictional friends.  They may not have changed, but you sure have, and every time you meet them again you’ll bring something new to the relationship.  Enjoy.

And maybe visit or add me on Goodreads as I always want to know what everyone else is reading so that I don’t miss the boat on anything! https://www.goodreads.com/JamieSigal

Where Do We Go From Here?

I grew up at the height of the Cold War.  In the 1980’s complete global annihilation was just the push of a button away and could happen at any time.  Between our friendly neighbours in the United States, and the evil communist aggressors of the USSR, there were enough nuclear weapons to entirely wipe out every living organism on the planet twenty times over.  In my adolescent mind, the end of literally everything basically came down to the whim of a lone man or woman (thank you Margaret Thatcher for allowing me to say that) in a room some place that was thousands of miles away from where I lived.  The world was on the brink utter destruction every single day, yet I feel more afraid now than I ever did back then.

Ever since I flipped on the news on Friday at 4:45PM Toronto time, my mind has been aflood with the chaos and horror that has permeated throughout the news and social media with an understanding abundance as we find ourselves as a culture once again trying to make sense and to find some human comfort and solace in the midst of abject terror.  It was horrible when it happened in New York fourteen years ago because New York is our cultural home, where so many of our great novels, movies, television shows, and music soars out to a world that longs to hear what it has to say.  It’s horrible now in Paris because the City of Lights is the city of our dreams, home to art, romance, and the modern concept of freedom and liberty as an alienable right for all people.  It’s horrible nearly every single day when it happens anywhere, as it so tragically does.

Terrorism when carried out in such a brutal and evil manner as this is sickening, heartbreaking, infuriating, rage-inducing, and just plain old sad and depressing.  When this latest horror was still taking place, a friend on Facebook asked the very simple question: “What do they want?”  To which I flippantly replied: “To perpetuate hate.  That’s all that ever comes of nonsense like this.”  I meant that, and I still do.  The people who carry out such atrocious attacks on innocent people who have no pony in their race, who open fire on average people out for a nice dinner on a Friday night after a long week of work or shaking their shit at an Eagles of Death Metal concert, the vile beasts who want to take the safety, security, and enjoyment out of all the things that make our open society so incredible and send a suicide bomber into the centre of it all to spread waves of terror out among us, they are a real enemy and a serious threat, and even a staunch pacifist like me knows with unflinching certainty that something needs to be done to ensure that these types of atrocities never happen again.  I am not content to live in a world where a single child anywhere is afraid to go to the market for fear that they may not make it home again.

So, the question is: Where do we go from here?  For the first time since WWII, France closed her borders on Friday night – A reasonable and justifiable response amongst the confusion of the evening.  What hasn’t been as reasonable or justifiable are some of the responses I’ve seen in the media or on the internet, and I respectfully invite all of you who are spouting hyperbole and vitriol-fueled racism in helping to find an acceptable answer to all of this, because I don’t have one.  How does one respond to violence that seemingly has no motive other than to create chaos?

This isn’t like Hitler marching over Europe in the 1930’s because Hitler had a country and a military industrial complex at his back – something physical for freedom lovers everywhere to wage war against.  ISIS doesn’t have that.  They don’t have a government, and they don’t have an army as much as they have a bunch of disparate militias.  ISIS are an idea more than they are a group, and how do you declare war on an idea, especially when the believers in whatever that idea is are spread out in and amongst innocent people who are only trying to live peaceful lives?  The thing is, we’ve been trying to fight this war for decades already, and I honestly can’t look at it with any objectivity at all and not realize that it’s not working out very well for us.  To call whatever we westerners did in Afghanistan and Iraq a success in any way, shape, or form, would be akin to calling Jay Leno a funny guy – You may want to believe it because of the way it’s been packaged and sold to you, but it’s just not true.  And don’t try coming back to me with “Well, we got Bin Laden,” because we got him neither in Afghanistan nor Iraq, but hiding within the borders of our supposed ally Pakistan, and don’t dare bring “Well, we got Saddam” into the argument because, firstly, he had nothing to do with any of these terror attacks on the west, and all we really accomplished with our police actions in Iraq was to destabalize a huge region in the Middle East and allow ISIS a highway within which to speed and spread their evil throughout. From my perspective, we’ve gone in and infiltrated areas where we weren’t wanted and didn’t really have any business being in the first place, killed people, destroyed property, and then walked away and go on to actually wonder why the people’s whose lives have been trampled upon might possibly hate us.

So, again, where do we go from here?  I see a lot of people saying that this is a Muslim problem.  It’s Islam rearing its ugly, hateful head.  And yes, that’s true to the degree that the people perpetrating these crimes have been Muslims, but to say that all Muslims are evil because of ISIS is a really frightening leap to make.  There are 1.57 billion Muslims in the world.  At our estimates, there are about 40,000 people in ISIS, but by ISIS’s own boasts that number is actually closer to 200,000.  Now, keeping in mind that I’ve never been one to brag about my incredibly poor math skills, even I am able to work out that even with the exaggerated number of 200,000, that means that only .0001% of Muslims are ISIS, or one blade of crab grass on an entire eighteen-hole golf course.  Would you burn the entire fairway just to rid yourself of one weed?

But this where we seem to be coming – People are scared, we no longer feel safe, and unlike the abstract threat of nuclear winter, these terror attacks are real, visceral, and continuous.  They’re nearly impossible to stop because of the very freedoms we love and that are under attack by these extremists protect our right to privacy, and in order for our rights to remain protected, everybody’s rights must remain protected.  That is the paramount hallmark of our free society.

I think the question we need to ask ourselves is not what do the terrorists want, but rather, what do we want?  Who do we want to be in light of these attacks on our civilization?  The next logical steps, if we look at history, are to further marginalize our Muslim neighbours – We’ve already started to take steps to do this in Canada with Bill C-51, but is deeming someone a second class citizen really the smartest way to take a person who may be questioning their place in society and sway them towards the realization that democracy and freedom are better for everybody?  What are we telling them by doing this – Our way of life is better for everyone, but maybe not so much for you?  Oh, you’re already angry at a perceived racism that’s been suppressing you and impacting your psychology for years?  Well, let’s just make sure to increase that disenfranchisement for you.

Seriously, where do we go from here?  The first steps that are already being recommended already smell a little bit too much like fascism to me, and after these don’t work, where do we go next?  Do we start a Muslim Registration Act?  Make them wear silver moons on their coats so that we can easily identify ‘them’?  Do we exile them after stripping them of their citizenship, thereby creating even more refugees?  Or perhaps we should just put them in camps!  I’ve heard that worked out really well in WWII… And I’m not just talking about the Nazis, as any Japanese person living in North America at the time will heartbreakingly tell you.  And if it does come to camps, I think we all know where it goes from there…  Or, maybe you’d suggest doing what Bosnia did in the early 1990s and just rounding up all the Muslims and shooting them down indiscriminately?  Or, no, wait, we deemed that a war crime already, so clearly we can’t do that again.

I do want to editorialize for a moment and remind all of you who are spouting and preaching hate and intolerance without any semblance of critical thought applied to the subject, this is where you’re solutions are most likely to lead, so maybe think before you speak and react.  Nobody wants to look like the next Hitler or Milosevic.

So, again, I’m sadly left wondering where do we go from here?  Our new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, wants to pull the six Canadian fighter-jets we have engaged out of the civil war in Syria, and I can’t say that I honestly disagree.  We’ve already proven that violence only begets more violence, and it’s not like he’s pulling us out of the military effort completely – He would just rather concentrate our funds and our efforts on training Syrian ground-troops so that they can fight and win their own civil war.  What a concept, right?  Why are we blowing up neighbourhoods filled with civilians when we could be training the civilians to take up arms and protect themselves from the ISIS incursions?

Personally, if I’m going to be completely honest and transparent with you, I would like our troops to be out of Syria altogether.  There are reportedly 20,000 ISIS fighters in Syria right now.  I believe that number because they’re only holding pockets of the country right now, and I believe it even more because they haven’t attacked their sworn enemy and neighbour to their direct south, Israel, yet and risked waking a military with an actual vested interest in their destruction because they know they’d be decimated and none of the surrounding Arab militaries would have their back because they hate ISIS much as the rest of us do.  But it’s really these surrounding Arab militaries I want to talk about here.  Why are the US, Canada, Russia, et al, involved in Syria at all?  Between the surrounding Arab countries, you know, the ones who stand a direct threat from ISIS coming in and taking the minds and hearts of their citizens, they have standing armies totalling approximately five million soldiers were they to unite in a short coalition to protect their Syrian neighbours.  Five million versus twenty-thousand – Even with a strictly ground invasion, it wouldn’t take more than a couple of weeks to a month for a functioning military to secure the entire country.  We can’t do that because we’re outsiders and infiltrators in our own right, but what the hell is stopping their neighbours from helping out?

I can’t help but feel that the attacks against us in Paris, New York, London, Sydney, Ottawa, and where ever else in the freedom-loving western world are a direct result of our continually going in and flexing our military might where it has historically been not only not wanted, but not even necessarily needed, so let’s just stop.  I’m not an isolationist, and I’m not saying we need to stop helping, but let’s stop bombing and let the natural enemies take care of themselves.

Because, yes, I haven’t even mentioned yet that this is a cultural war at the heart of it all, but not a war of East against West, or Judeo-Christian values against Muslim fundamentalism as it has been painted in the media.  This is Sunni versus Shiite.  I dare say, this is the Muslim Reformation.  We cannot direct it for them.  How would the Christians have felt if the Jews stuck their noses into Martin Luther’s business?  I think we already know the answer to that, don’t we.  Let’s leave Islam to find out what it wants its identity to be in our world moving forward – I believe that if we remove the external enemy (us) from within their midst, they’ll have no choice but to face themselves and that the will of more right-minded people who just want to live their lives and raise their families and not be forced to flee their homes for fear of violence will prevail.

So, where do we go from here?  We go home.  I suggest we take measures to ensure the security of our cities, infrastructure, and borders.  Look at our internal safety.  Investigate why so many of these terrorists actually seem to be home-grown and haven’t even spent any time in the Middle East, try to discover what’s causing them to lash out, and then fix it.  I know that we can lead by example and embrace our freedoms and our liberties by enjoying every day in a society that allows for all beliefs to come together and find the common ground of togetherness and neighbourly love.  We don’t have to be colour-blind, and we’re probably not going to stop being afraid any time soon, but we don’t have to become monsters either.  All I’m thinking is that instead of continuing to hurt, we should be concentrating more on trying to help.  That’s where we should go from here.  If they want to perpetuate hate and chaos, then let us equally perpetuate love and civility.