Friday, 24 February 2017

Pumpkin Flowers Author Matti Friedman

RBC Finalist Matti Friedman (Pumpkinflowers) describes his life in the Israeli armed forces as "beyond the mindset of life in Toronto.”

review by K.J. Mullins for Weir website

Matti Friedman
When Matti Friedman moved from Toronto to Israel he thought he had landed on another planet.  He was 17 and he was leaving the world’s most diversity friendly city for a place that  was “so beyond the mindset of life in Toronto.”
“I was young enough to roll with the punches,” Friedman said of the move from his safe North York childhood home to the Middle East as we started to talk about the differences between North American and Middle Eastern culture and his current book Pumpkinflowers which has been shortlisted for the RBC Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction. “I liked the cultural shock. Israel is chaotic with its Middle Eastern culture.”
One of the most jarring differences between Canada and Israel is in the military draft. All young people in Israel serve in the military (3 years for males and 2 for females).  While Matti could have returned to Toronto after high school to avoid serving he wanted to become a full citizen of Israel. 

His turn came up quickly. He received his call-up at the age of 19. “I did it voluntarily thinking that I would join the navy. I had visions of a Baywatch life in front of me.” That daydream was just that, a dream. He was put into the army where he was in for the shock of his life. “Toronto did not prepare me for life in the Army,” Matti laughed, “ It's very hard, both physically and emotionally. I was not ready. Today I am very proud of my service to my country.”
Sending his son off to battle was not easy for Matti's father, who grew up in the United States but did not serve during the Vietnam Era. “Of course my parents were worried about me being in the Army,” Matti explained but it is an integral of Israeli life.
The Toronto native wrote of his time in the Israeli military in Pumpkinflowers: An Israeli Soldier's Story. The book gives his and other soldiers' view army life in the military outpost called the Pumpkin.  It was built into the top of  a small hilltop in Lebanon — it had been the scene of bitter conflicts for decades. The fields around Pumpkin weren’t filled with the orange melons, Flowers is the code word  for military deaths in Israel and the Pumpkin was the hill where many young men became flowers -  dying in nameless battles barely remembered even though they took place just 20-years ago.  The area has been at war zone between Israel and Lebanon since the last century. There are no easy solutions and Matti doesn't believe the conflicts within the Middle East will be solved within his lifetime. 

After his time in the Army Matti travelled into Lebanon using his Canadian passport. It was a journey that his friends in Israel would not consider but Friedman was then and is still very much a Canadian. He writes about the emotional trip in his book bringing some of the most moving passages that stay with the reader.
The road trip was “a very Canadian thing to do” Matti said. He has fond memories of the adventure that without his unique upbringing could not have taken place. Because of his Canadian papers Matti was able to tread where fellow Israelis dare not go. There is tension between the cultures that vibrates with every step he took in a country whose soldiers had tried to kill a few short years before.
Friedman says the Israel that he knows is very diverse. While 20% of the population is Muslim there is no doubt that its a Jewish state. “Canada's diversity is completely different. The culture here is very complicated,” Friedman says adding that the differences are “not better or worse, they are just different.”
Matti says that Canadians are blessed with the way they approach diversity within their culture making it very hard for those in North America to “wrap their heads around some parts of the world, like the Middle East.” The conflicts of the Middle East have gone on for centuries, much longer than the entire culture of North America. The conflicts are not simple misunderstandings between the people that are worked out with a few sit down meetings. “It just doesn't work like that.” There is a breakdown between the States of the Middle East with extremist religions. Matti likens it to the ongoing battles in North America over the gun problems. Two sides each have very clear ideals and they are not going to sway from their point of view.
Today Matti is the father of four young children. I asked if he has fears of their lives being in danger because of terrorism. He pointed out that Jerusalem, where his family resides, is actually very safe. Roughly the same size and population as Indianapolis his city had a total of 18 violent deaths last year compared to 118 in the US city. Stating that there is very little gun violence or drug concern in Israel Matti does say that of course he is a little “worried about terrorism.” That worry though does not bleed over in teaching his children about diversity. One of his older children is studying Arabic in school and Muslim culture is all around the city. “I don't think the kids have hostilities towards Islam, they just live very separate lives.”

The winner of this year's RBC Taylor Prize will be announced at a gala luncheon and awards ceremony at the historic Omni King Edward Hotel in downtown Toronto on Monday, March 6th. 

Wireless Communication - it all began in Newfoundland with Guglielmo Marconi

Dr. Marc Raboy

Raboy's Marconi memoir nominated for the RBC Taylor Prize
Feature by K.J. Mullins for Stephen Weir website

The rapid rise and steady growth of inventions and patents from Marconi forged the communication world that we live in today. One of the youngest of the early innovators to use sound waves in order to achieve wireless communication Marconi was just in his early 20s when he first blazed on the scene. Marconi's achievements are a marvel and yet the man himself has always been a mystery. In Marc Raboy's book 'Marconi' each aspect of the man's life is examined. Extremely well written this massive tome brings to life the legend of a great man of his time and shows the reader how his insights of wireless communication came to be.
The man that author Marc Raboy started to write about when he started the research for his RBC Taylor Prize shortlisted book Marconi is not the same man at all, he found. “I learnt a tremendous amount about the man and surprisingly about myself,” Raboy shared during a conversation late January at a coffee house in Toronto,“Marconi is important and the story of his life was worth doing.”
Many do not know who Marconi is. I was one, unable of the importance of the man who revolutionized long and short waves into a working model for communication. Some feel that he was a thief who stole the ideas and inventions of others. Raboy nodded as we discussed this, saying that there are many that are anti-Marconi and pro-Tesla. “Tesla himself though did not feel he was a thief,” Raboy said. Marconi never took sole credit for the original ideas, even acknowledging the inventors whose ideas he elaborated on. Marconi used those ideas for one process, to use the waves in the air as a means of communication. Communication by wireless means was his main focus throughout his life.
Much of Marconi's early success was due to being in the right place at the right time. He was able to parlay his place in society to several firsts including wireless communication when the Crown Prince of England was in a skiing accident. Marconi set up his system so that the prince was able to keep in touch with his mother the Queen during his recovery. Not only was it a score in achieving a media first it helped to cement a place for his company within the British government.
As a businessman Marconi was very wise in listening and following the advice of those around him. His father's sage wisdom lead him to keep his patents by leasing equipment instead of direct sales. He was able to obtain government contracts that allowed him to develop his vision even further. 

Although Marconi was a devout Fascist he left nothing to the government in his will. All of his estate was split between his four children by marriage. Raboy has no doubt that he was devout to the cause but he believes that part of the reasoning behind this was Marconi's age and wanting to be settled down at that time in his life. 
Discussing the many photographs that he had looked at that didn't make it into the book Raboy said Marconi always looked a bit sad and alone. That was not an image that his subject would have wanted to be in the public eye. Marconi guarded his image, making sure that who the public saw was exactly what he wanted. That has carried on even in his death. His youngest daughter Elettra, just seven-years-old when Marconi died, has devoted her life to keep a certain aura concerning her father. But honestly how much can a child of that young age truly remember of the man? 
As Raboy dove into his research what he found was a man who lived a very interesting life. What makes him interesting according to Raboy it wasn't the social advantages that he had but the level of being “a common man. It's that level that I focused on. Things like why did his first romantic relationship disintegrate?” As Raboy discovered  who Marconi was behind closed doors by researching those who knew him, letters and documents and conversations with his family members he found a man who was very complex and sadly, very lonely. “Honestly right now I know Marconi better than anyone else,” Raboy smiled. 

What Raboy found was a complex man who never really fit into one box. He was Italian but also Irish. He was was an inventor of technology but used others' research to formulate his discoveries. He was of a high society class but felt most at him with his workers. He loved being in love but once he found love he had a hard time settling down and staying in one place. The public followed his every move but never really knew the man they were following.
The winner of this year's RBC Taylor Prize will be announced at a gala luncheon and awards ceremony at the historic Omni King Edward Hotel in downtown Toronto on Monday, March 6th.  

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Reggae through Iceland’s longest night of the year

Huffington Post Story by Stephen Weir. December 12, 2016
AmabAdamA strut their way through the longest night of the year 

On December 21st – Day One of Winter – sunlight in Reykjavik is just a 4 hour 7 minute low-in-the-sky rumour. The dim sol stays lit long enough for Icelanders to shop, grab an espresso, gas the car and suck up what little light the gods offer that day.
Busy. Busy. But oh so brief. What do Icelanders do for the other 20 hours of a winter day? For Gnúsi Yones, Salka Sól Eyfel and Steinunn Jónsdóttir, the three singing stars of  AmabAdamA  the seemingly never-ending night is time for perfecting the Jamaica strut,  singing and writing reggae music -- all in Icelandic of course!  Next spring when the sun comes back, AmabAdamA will have a new album for their growing world fan base.

Iceland Crowd Goes Wild When Band Took The Stage
There wasn’t much light last month when I travelled to Reykjavik to take in the Airwaves music festival. Sixth year in a row and the third time I was seeing AmabAdamA.  For most of the show I was trapped in a crowded media pit watching the two blond female singers and a bearded red haired man giving their Icelandic take on the Jamaican strut.Incongruous. Herky-jerky.  Infectious.  The 1,000 Vikings in the packed hall (that is big audience for a city of 120,000) started mimicking these odd Jamaican-like moves as the music on stage throbbed in a decidedly Caribbean Call and Response musical movement.
It is old style reggae AmabAdamA music has trace elements of last century stars like Toots and the Maytals and Chaka Demus and Pliers.
I didn’t get backstage that night – a glacial wall of security people blocked the entrance from the screaming fans.  I wanted to find out how there could be original reggae being written and performed so far north? What are they singing about? And, where did that Iceland strut come from anyway?

I did connect with the band after returning to my own version of the Great White North, albeit via e-mail.  Over a couple of days we talked about AmabAdamA’s  three year evolution from a Reykjavik  “Bashment Dance” band to A-list performers with online Icelandic videos garnering more views than there are people in the world who can understand the language.
“ We haven’t made an English song yet! It’s all in Icelandic. We write about things that matter to us,” explained singer Steinunn Jónsdóttir. “We have made songs about corruption (hermenn) and lack of compassion (fljúgum hærra), the importance of respecting earth (gaia), dancing (hossa hossa), and forgetting what you are doing because you see something nice (Ai Ai Ai) and lots of other stuff. We say what we think and (with these long dark winters) we think a lot.”

“Gnúsi makes the “riddims” and he and I have written most of the lyrics, but we all influence the outcome.”

The band formed in 2013 and quickly signed to a local recording studio.  One album Heyrðu mig nú   has been released and a single from it  "Hossa Hossa" (Think the 1965 breakthrough hit  Bam Bam by Toots &  the Maytals) was a solid hit in Iceland and got play in Scandinavia. Last year "GAIA", found a large following (by Icelandic standards) on radio and YouTube.
I couldn’t understand a word of what I heard on stage but the tight harmonies and the enthusiasm of the performers make it oh so approachable.  For Iceland ears, the lyrics resonate as strongly in the land with little light, as reggae does in Sun Splashed Trench Town.
“ We use the same themes (as Jamaican reggae), just because they speak to us. Lovers. Rock and Rebel music,” she continued. “We are fortunate enough to grow up in a very peaceful and privileged island so we cant say that we have been through much hardness, but still there are some things in our society that we think are wrong and we point them out. “
“Our biggest political party is right-wing. We dont connect with that way of thinking and we are not afraid to say that out in our songs. We want to inspire our listeners to care! To stand up! To love our neighbours. That’s how we were brought up.”
“We are Icelandic and we are not pretending to be anything else. We write about our own experiences. We still connect to the compassion and simplicity of the lyrics of classic reggae songs.”
At Airwaves, the people cheer, clap and try to mimic AmabAdamA’s moves. It looks like the  whole room is moving a chicken dance has met dancehall thing (watch their YouTube Hossa Hossa to understand).
“We don’t really think a lot about our choreography, but Steinunn took some dancehall classes and taught us some moves. We haven’t mastered it yet though (as you probable noticed) but we just like to dance!”
One of the reasons we love reggae is the trance of the (sic) riddims. You just cannot stand still!,” said singer Salka Sól Eyfeld. “Icelandic people don’t really let loose on the dance floor but we do, and don’t really care if we don’t look our best doing so, and that influences our audience.”
The band has only performed once outside of Iceland and that was in England.  This time of year they dream of taking their act to somewhere warm … including Canada (It is all relative, the band thinks of Canada as a ‘way south’).
The three singers don’t have the luxury of warm weather vacations, all have part-time jobs to sustain themselves.  “Gnúsi has a recording studio, Salka is a radio host and one of the Icelandic Voice judges on TV. I teach dance and work at a cafe called Kaia Kaffihús (that sells Marley coffee :)”

Friday, 25 November 2016

Does Life Change When You Win A $100,000 Book Prize


Susan Pedersen Reflects On Family and 2015 Cundill Prize 
By K.J Mullins Newz4U

Winning the 2015 Cundill Prize in Historical Literature has not changed author Susan Pedersen but it did help her have more time to reconnect with her youngest son. Last autumn when Pedersen won the prize she was taking some time off from her teaching position at Columbia University to work on her current project. She used some of the prize money to fly her youngest child to the UK for some much needed one on one time.

Pedersen said that winning the prize was special but in terms of academic success did not have a large impact at Columbia University. She noted that the book appearing in the Oxford University Press in summer 2015 was more celebrated at the American school.
Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell (l), Susan Pedersen
and Chancellor Michael Meighen - Cundill Win!

Pedersen is a dedicated academic and a devoted working mother. Loyal to a life of exploring and retelling the history of Britain there are times that her two worlds are in conflict. Long periods of research while teaching takes time, making each minute with her family important quality time. She remembers speaking at a lecture in aboard when her daughter was just three months old. Still nursing she transported back several large containers of milk on the airplane. “The flight attendants all were working mothers and so helpful” making sure to pack the bottles in dry ice for the long trip home.

During the summers Pedersen was often away from home doing research. Her children always came with her and her husband on these trips. “I always told the two of them to entertain themselves,” Pedersen laughs. Because of that time her daughter and son spent together they have a tight bond with each other which Pedersen is quite happy about.

Pedersen admits that at times the blending of her two worlds is a challenge, a fact that she shares during some of her lectures. Many young working women have been inspired by her example of mixing family and a successful career.

Pedersen in university housing for NYU in Greenwich Village with her family. (Her husband is a professor at NYU). We spoke about the high cost of rents in both New York City and Toronto for small apartments. For this historian having a large office with room for books at her school is a life saver! That's not to say books aren't an important part of the family home which she confided is filled with book shelves.

Her book The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire showed the power and fatal flaws of the League of Nations. The book took a decade of research. Her next book is still years away but her excitement of the subject is infectious. She is venturing into the world of Edwardian era of politics from the eyes of three women. At a time when women, like children were to be seen but not heard, feminism played an important role. Pedersen had a mischievous smile in place as she discussed her subjects in Toronto hours before the announcement of the 2016 Cundill Prize for Historical Literature (McGill University) was announced. Still early in the game of research Pedersen has found some delicious scandals. “This book will be very different than The Guardians,” she promised. One of the biggest changes will be the overall style of writing which she believes will speak to a large audience. Not that The Guardian was not an amazing read that appealed to a wide audience.

One of the most lasting powers from literary prizes like the Cundill Prize is increasing the reach of books that often have a very limited audience. Historical literature is generally read by historians, with dry academic writing. The Guardian broke that rule by being lively and a page turner, appealing both to the academic and the general public, it has been on many best seller book lists.