Progressive politics, ideas & culture

July-August 2004

Book Reviews: Jack Layton, I Know You Are But What Am I?, Free Culture, Viral Suite

This Staff

Photo of Jack Layton among his supporters


It always makes me wild with rage when the complexities of a federal election are idiotically reduced to a single issue for voters. The major parties, and the mainstream media, seem to assume that people have the attention span of three-year-olds.

Then along comes Jack Layton’s Speaking Out: Ideas That Work for Canadians, explaining multi-faceted, economically sound solutions to our biggest problems: health care, hydro, tuition, industries, you name it.

While Layton can’t help but write from the perspective of the leader of the NDP, this book is not the NDP Orange Book. It’s not a list of Layton’s own ideas and accomplishments or a collection of essays. Nor is it an elegant piece of persuasive writing.

What it is, however, is a list of “best practices,” independent of any particular party, taken from home and abroad. The barrage of ideas can, at times, be overwhelming. Doubtless, many will dismiss these ideas as naïve or simple. But, their simplicity is their strength. Regardless of political affiliation, Canadians owe it to themselves to read this book.

Although a former academic, Layton wisely combines the research and analytical skills of his political science PhD with the hands-on community approach of his political experience. The ideas aren’t full-length studies, backed by statistics, but they are considered and convincing: for example, ordinary people can understand how a “green car” industrial strategy brought together such seemingly odd bedfellows as Layton, the Canadian Auto Workers union, Greenpeace and an MP from Windsor. How money spent on health promotion can have a bigger payoff than money spent on treatment. Or how investing in affordable housing will save us money.

God forbid, long-term planning? Optimism? Faith in the powers of ordinary people? This guy can’t be a politician.
— Sue McCluskey

I know you are but what am I? by Heather Birrell (Coach House Books)FICTION Cover of I know you are but what am I? by Heather Birrell

Time and again in this nine-story collection, Birrell weaves patterns of flashbacks, walk-on characters, best-ever similes (an airplane window like an eyelid), and—most importantly—struggling, complicated protagonists. This creates little universes that are both vast and intimate. “Not Quite Casablanca” and “Congratulations, Really” are particularly wonderful. Too often, though, there is a paragraph near the end in which the protagonist ruminates over the diverse threads that have made up the story, reminding readers that they’ve been reading a story, an artifice, all along. Even so, I will read this book again, and soon; Birrell has a talent matched by few others for tapping the rich details of our experience. (A note to the designer: the book’s cover does it a disservice.)
—Adam Lewis Schroeder

Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity by Lawrence Lessig (Penguin Press)NON-FICTION Cover of Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity by Lawrence Lessig

Every movement needs an inspirational figure, someone able to both set the terms of debate and lead by example. The “free culture” movement has found its leader in the unlikely person of Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig. He has been arguing for years that the internet is on its way to becoming the most highly regulated place on Earth. In his new book, Lessig takes on “Big Copyright,” the system of cultural ownership that has given copyright-rich corporations an unprecedented degree of control over popular culture. The copyright wars are shaping up as the civil rights issue of this decade, and Lawrence Lessig is the one setting the agenda.
—Andrew Potter

Viral Suite by Mari-Lou Rowley (Anvil Press)POETRY Viral Suite by Mari-Lou Rowley

It is rare to see science and poetry mixed as seamlessly as they are in Mari-Lou Rowley’s Viral Suite, but not surprising for Rowley, a science and technology writer. The linguistic gymnastics and energy of the verse is at its best when she combines the world of physics, mathematics and molecular biology with real physicality; as in the third section, “Elucidata.” Visceral gems such as “Sex in Space Time” allow language and image to do their work without interference from the empirical voice, “For the same reason the earth revolves around/ the sun, a hand falling through any arc of/ air will choose the swelling mass of thigh/ over nothing, for warmth/ for meaning.”
—Rajinderpal S. Pal

Sue McCluskey is a writer, editor and country and western musician. She blushes easily.

Andrew Potter belongs to the public domain. He teaches philosophy at Trent university and is at work co-writing a book with Joseph Heath on the counterculture and mass society.

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