New Books and Featured Reading Lists

Each week on the 49th Shelf homepage, we highlight new releases. We also make theme-based lists and showcase lists from guest contributors and 49th Shelf members. This page archives these selections so they are always available to our members.

Show only:
New Non-Fiction for the week of July 15th : New Books on Science
Science of Shakespeare

Science of Shakespeare

A New Look at the Playwright's Universe
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
More Info
The Bulldog and the Helix

The Bulldog and the Helix

DNA and the Pursuit of Justice in a Frontier Town
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged :
More Info
Why Do Onions Make Me Cry?

Why Do Onions Make Me Cry?

Answers to Everyday Science Questions You've Always Wanted to Ask
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
More Info
Orca

Orca

How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean's Greatest Predator
edition:Hardcover
tagged :
More Info
A Feast of Science

A Feast of Science

Intriguing Morsels from the Science of Everyday Life
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
More Info
Rise of the Necrofauna

Rise of the Necrofauna

The Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover eBook
More Info
The Whole-Body Microbiome

The Whole-Body Microbiome

How to Harness Microbes—Inside and Out—for Lifelong Health
edition:Paperback
More Info
18 Miles

18 Miles

The Epic Drama of Our Atmosphere and Its Weather
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
More Info
Excerpt

Introduction

“Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there really is no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.” — John Ruskin

You’d never guess it but we live in a world flatter than a sheet of paper. Shrink the Earth to the size of a basketball and our atmosphere would be as thick as a layer of food wrap. The oceans likewise. Two of the most critical elements for our survival, water and air, are relatively scarce commodities. We are like microorganisms living in an evanescent fluid film, a dampness that would burn off like morning dew if the sun increased its solar output by just 15 percent.

Astronauts know all of this. From the space station, they see the tops of clouds spread out at the surface of the atmosphere like smoke beneath glass. And slipping back under that thin blanket of air is a real challenge. Their reentry angle can be no shallower than 5.3° and no steeper than 7.7° — too shallow and they will ricochet into deep space, too steep and they will burn to a crisp.

Yet it’s also a question of scale. The vantage from here, from Earth’s surface, is of another order entirely. The sky seems to go on forever. When a waning moon shines by day, it looks to me as if it’s suspended in the same blue atmosphere I breathe. No wonder Icarus dreamed of flying to the sun. And the immeasurable vastness of clouds, taller than mountains, what could contain that immensity?

For us, the atmosphere is a theater beyond reckoning, a massive, transparent stage for the drama of the skies. Every sunset is a light show; every storm a nail-biting, colossal thriller. Weather inspires our emotions and sometimes seems to reflect them. There is nothing more romantic than a rainy evening for newlyweds on their honeymoon, and how many philosophers have paced through windy streets deep in thought?

When I was a boy, the wind was a mood, a way of being, a kind of delirium that called me out of my house. I raced the leaves blowing along the street or stood at the edge of the ravine to hear the wind’s soft thunder in my ears. Clouds were another mood. At sunset, they transformed into dreamlike landscapes inviting the secret empire of night. I was fascinated by weather. Every season was a new universe, the next chapter in an epic story I made up as I went along.

January found me at a research station in Antarctica in the ravine behind my parents’ house. There I braved subzero blizzards to map glaciers with my special team of explorers, handpicked from neighborhood friends. Once, with amazing luck, we unearthed the frozen carcass of a mammoth, and on another expedition there was a time warp in the middle of a particularly dense snowfall, and we came face-to-face with a snarling saber-toothed tiger that charged out of the blizzard. Fortunately, we survived.

One hot July, there was a softball game followed by an expedition to explore the upper reaches of the Amazon in the same ravine — the raucous calls of howler monkeys echoed through the rainforest while treacherous Komodo dragons rustled in the undergrowth. We came upon the forest trails of lost tribes, sometimes catching glimpses of their ocher-painted skin as they disappeared around the bend of a trail. Of course, since then I’ve discovered that mammoths didn’t visit Antarctica, nor do Komodo dragons inhabit Brazil, but I’ve never lost my deep connection with climate and weather.

When I was a little older, in my early teens, I was fascinated by weather forecasts. Forecasters were scientific magicians who could conjure storms out of a sunny afternoon. From Weather: A Golden Nature Guide, a book my parents bought me, I began to learn the weather signs: a ring around the sun meant rain within one to two days; earth glow on the moon (when the dark side of a half-moon is faintly visible) was the reflection of masses of white clouds to the west, an almost sure sign of rain to come. There were illustrations of hurricanes and tornadoes and sun dogs. Now I was really hooked.

Then one afternoon, while leafing through my new copy of the Edmund Scientific mail-order catalog, among the usual assortment of tempting items — ant farms, glow-in-the-dark stick-on stars, aquariums, test tubes — I noticed a new item, a complete home weather station that included an outdoor anemometer (those whirling wind cups that measure wind speed). I had to have it. I saved my allowance and made extra money doing yard work.

When the package arrived, it was a little smaller than I expected, but everything was in there, including the glorious anemometer with its three wind cups. I blew on them and they twirled obediently, orbiting the little mast. There was also a separate spar for the wind vane, and both had connections for wires that led to my indoor instrument panel. All I had to do was install the wind vane and anemometer high enough to give accurate readings, which wouldn’t be easy. It meant I had to make a trek to the top of my parents’ house.

The afternoon of the installation was cool and windy. I climbed out of an attic window that was barely big enough to squeeze through and then screwed the base for both masts into the wooden gable above the dormer at the peak of the house. I imagined being captured by a National Geographic photographer as I braved the harsh mountain gales to install my weather station. After setting up the anemometer and wind vane, I connected the wires and threw the loose coils over the eaves in the general direction of my bedroom window below. Then I clambered back inside.

In my bedroom, I snared the dangling wires with a rake and pulled them through the window. I’d already installed the two wall-mounted, battery-powered weather gauges that the wires would connect to, one for wind velocity and the other for wind direction. Then came the moment of truth — if nothing happened, if the instrument panel was dead, I’d have to trek back to the roof to check the connections. I hooked up the wires, and the gauges danced to life.

The directional gauge was a circular compass with a little arrow that pointed out the wind direction in tandem with the vane on the roof mast. The velocity gauge was horizontal with a needle indicator — like an old-fashioned speedometer in an automobile dashboard — that showed a wavering wind speed of about 20 miles per hour. I was euphoric. Along with the barometer and window thermometer that I’d previously mounted, I now had a professional indoor weather station. I could take instrument readings from the comfort of my own bedroom no matter what the weather outside, and, more importantly, I could make my own weather forecasts, going mano a mano against the evening news’ weatherman.

By combining weather signs with instrument readings, I became a pretty good forecaster. I learned that a halo around the moon at night along with falling barometric pressure meant that it would probably rain within 18 to 48 hours. When an east wind shifted to the west and the cloud bases got higher and the barometer was rising, fair weather usually followed. In the winter, a north wind that shifted counterclockwise to become a west wind and then a southerly wind meant that snow was likely within a day.

Later I discovered that I could make pretty good predictions — especially of stormy weather — using only wind direction and my barometer. If the wind was blowing out of the south and then shifted to the east and my barometer was 29.8 inches or below and falling rapidly, a severe storm was imminent. The same was true if the wind shifted from east to north, especially in the winter and my barometer again was showing 29.8 inches or below and falling rapidly. I usually compared my results to the evening news’ weather report. I wasn’t always right — there were some things I just couldn’t see coming without a satellite view and upper-atmosphere readings — but I did pretty well considering.

But for all the quantitative data I was now receiving, my love of weather remained visceral, aesthetic even. The instrument panel just underlined the meteorological drama. A howling gale, even if gusts were measured at 50 miles per hour, was still a howling gale, with all the excitement of the wind roaring through the trees and garbage cans blowing down the street. Somehow the science permitted an illusion if not of control then at least perhaps a complicity of sorts. I was part of the weather.

Today I like to think of myself as a connoisseur of weather, an epicurean of hourly changes. Perhaps it’s a consequence of being a writer, or maybe I’m just meteorologically sensitive, but I’m very susceptible to the moods of weather. I revel in certain hot, overcast August afternoons with a ceiling of featureless, rainless stratus clouds. It’s the brightest light possible without casting any shadows, only a gathering of darkness under the parked cars or trees in the park. I like a similar sky on October afternoons when the undersides of the clouds are quilted, and the gray light seems to amplify the fiery reds and oranges in the autumn foliage.

There’s magic to urban evenings just after the sun sets and the city lights the bottoms of scattered cumulus clouds. They become islands between which stars ride an indigo blue ocean. And in July there are windy, hot summer afternoons, clear and dry, sometimes followed by equally windy summer nights where even the Milky Way seems to be adrift. I have seen sunsets as astonishing as fireworks, like surreal Sistine ceilings that stretched from horizon to horizon, and I remember foggy mornings like mysteries that dissolve the world. As T.S. Eliot wrote about ocean fog in his poem “Marina,” “What seas what shores what gray rocks and what islands / What water lapping the bow / And scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog.”

What exquisite atmospheric nuance — a boat in the fog, where scent and song are the only beacons. Eliot’s fog conceals our highest spiritual aspirations and yet also evokes our devastating ignorance. As a species, we have so much left to understand and yet our yearning is our beacon. In a way, we’re like astronauts riding flaming ships through the sky on their return to Earth; we can only have faith. The astronauts know our atmosphere is a narrow, fragile margin, but they also know that it’s a magnificent realm — at once gorgeous, terrifying, capricious and elusive.

close this panel
This week's recommended reading lists

Swim-Lit

0 ratings
rated!
rated!
View List
New Non-Fiction for the week of July 1st : New: Biography and Memoir
Love Lives Here

Love Lives Here

A Story of Thriving in a Transgender Family
edition:Paperback
More Info
Ready to Come About
Excerpt

Chapter One

Winter 1981, in our second-floor apartment of an old brick house in downtown Ottawa, I sat at the drop-leaf table David had set with a faded chintz tablecloth, a pair of candlesticks, and the sparkling cutlery we had been given as wedding presents, while he prepared dinner. There were blizzard-like conditions beyond the frosty panes of glass, but the kitchen’s baby-blue radiator kept us warm.

“What’s cookin’?” I asked, watching him turn stove dials up and down, lift and lower pot lids, and open and close the oven door like a one-man band.

“My own recipe.” He stirred a dollop of butter into a steaming pot. “Pork Shake ’n Bake, except on chicken,” he divulged with pride.

Gotta love ’im. I giggled to myself.

After serving up two plates of his concoction with Minute Rice, mixed vegetables, and sprigs of parsley placed just so, he sat down, uncorked a bottle of Mateus, and poured us each a glass.

“Happy anniversary, my dear,” he said.

“Happy anniversary,” I said, smiling.

We had been married seven weeks. He thought that was cause enough for celebration. My heart swelled as our glasses clinked.

We ate at a leisurely pace, but chatted with passion about our new life together.

Ottawa, with its green spaces and vibrant arts scene, had a lot to offer. Perhaps we’d even make it home. Kids? Absolutely. When? Soon, was my thinking.

“Well then …” David said with a glint, and we laughed.

And workwise, we were off to an auspicious start. He had been promoted to permanent status as an entry-level accounting clerk in a high-tech firm. The pay was good, his colleagues were collegial, and he could bike to work — perfect for the time being.

I had just completed a week of orientation as staff occupational therapist in the rehabilitation wing of a nearby hospital. The department was a beehive of optimism: an amputee being trained to feed himself using prosthetic arms in one area, a quadriplegic learning to drive a power wheelchair in another. “The OT mission is function with dignity. The vision is possibility,” I explained to David.

“You’ll be so great at it,” he said, his soft blue eyes moist.

I scooped up a forkful of veggies and considered that he was absolutely right.

“It feels like what I was meant to do. And to grow old and ugly with you,” I joked. “Seriously, everything’s just so perfect right now.” My eyes welled as I took a bite.

That’s when he said, “The only thing I regret about being married is I won’t ever sail an ocean.”

I stopped chewing — and, momentarily, breathing — and studied his face.

He was serious.

“Didn’t even know you sail,” I said as evenly as possible.

“Oh yeah. I did. My Aunt Caroline gave me a small sailboat my grandfather had built. I used to sail it on Lake Yosemite, an irrigation lake about seven miles from our house. My mom would drop me off there on her way to work. I”d sail back and forth all day long and imagine I was crossing an ocean, even though it was only a mile wide. Silly.”

Why was I just hearing about this for the first time now?

Why did he presume I’d be unsupportive?

And just how regretful was he and would he be with the passage of time? Would he become one of those bitter old men who look back on their lives with despair? Worse, would he blame me?

“More chicken?” he asked.

“God! I can hear it already; you introducing me as ‘my wife, Sue, the dream wrecker’ to our tablemates in the nursing home!”

“Whoaaaa! What the —”

“Don”t you whoa me!” I said, determined to nip any notion I might be overreacting in the bud.

David backtracked as best he could: it was a poor choice of words; he even surprised himself with the comment; he couldn’t be happier. “It was a childhood fantasy, nothing more,” he insisted.

But as he told the story, his face lit up in such a way I wasn’t entirely convinced he had left this fantasy behind. So, determined to seem open to the preposterous idea, I remarked with as much conviction as I could muster, “You know, anything’s possible.”

And we finished our meal listening to the radiator gurgle and ping.

close this panel
Me, Myself, They

Me, Myself, They

Life Beyond the Binary
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
More Info
Chop Suey Nation

Chop Suey Nation

The Legion Cafe and Other Stories from Canada's Chinese Restaurants
edition:Paperback
More Info
Dirty Work

Dirty Work

My Gruelling, Glorious, Life-changing Summer In the Wilderness
edition:Paperback
More Info
Excerpt

The first night in the back cabin, the four of us don’t stay up to chat. Instead, we lie in our bunks, silent and still. When I shift my gaze upward, I see that the names of all the female employees who have lived in this cabin throughout the years are written on the ceiling in permanent marker, along with inside jokes, nicknames, their coded wishes and hopes and upsets—all there, quiet graffiti watching over the rookies. I try not to think about the people who came before me; instead, I shift around on my mouldy mattress, listening to the other women. I’m pretty sure all of us are lying awake, trying to slow our breathing to make it sound like we’re slipping into sleep. But none of us is; we’re not even close. I’m thinking about my choices, what led me here, what led these other women here. What we might be running away from. What I’m running into. The fauna. The flora. The forest behind me, looming outside the little window at my head. The branches are just a few inches too short to tap against the glass; they fold and sway with the wind, casting shapes on my pillow. Every crack, rustle, lick of the wind makes my eyes fly open, but I don’t have the guts to lift my head, turn around, and peer out the window into the darkness.
 
I lie there for a long time. My thoughts race; mostly I feel worried, a greasy knot in my gut. It’s entirely possible that I’ve  made a gigantic mistake, sacrificing my privacy, my body, maybe even my sanity for these sixty-seven days. Still, the fluttering breathing of three other worried souls surrounds me, almost soothes me. Somehow, already, I feel vaguely connected to these women, we, the new ones, relegated to a falling-apart hut, sent to the woods. Already, the four of us are absorbing one another’s pheromones, idiosyncrasies, fears, and desires. Desire that the summer will give us what we need—except not all of us know what we need, and most of us have no idea what we want. But we’ve thrown our lot to the North, and all we can do now is hope that the North reciprocates.

close this panel
The Sadness of Geography

The Sadness of Geography

My Life as a Tamil Exile
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
More Info
Excerpt

CHAPTE R 1

Sangkaththaanai, Jaffna District, Northern Province, Sri Lanka
1983

“Elumpu! Elumpu!”

I woke up suddenly, in the dark, startled. Am I dreaming?

My father was standing over me, his face bent low to mine. He straightened up, then kicked me, hard. “Elumpu!” Wake up.

“I am awake,” I answered sleepily, although I wasn’t sure why. No lights were on. I could hear smothered whispers as my brothers and sisters moved around hastily in the house.

I begged my father to tell me what was happening. “Aamykarar vaarangal!” my father whispered. The army is coming. “Oodippoi oliyada!” Run away and hide.

Groggy with sleep, I rose clumsily but quickly from my bed on the floor.

It was still pitch dark inside the house. I peeked through the window. It was silent. The moon was gone; soon it would be dawn.

“Now!” my father hissed, yanking me along.

When the weather was hot, my brothers and I preferred to sleep on blankets strewn across the concrete floors in the front hall of our house, where it was much cooler. My father, however, had his own room and insisted on sleeping on a cushioned bed under the ceiling fan. My mother, my aunt, and my sisters slept on wooden beds topped with comforters.

I looked for Kanna, my younger brother, but could see only blankets scattered on the floor. Perhaps he was hiding or had run away already.

“Where should I go?” I blurted out, confused. I rubbed my eyes, attempting to bring my father’s dark silhouette into focus, but he was just a blur. I could hear more panicked rustling and harsh, muffled whispering from my mother and sisters.

“Be quiet!” my father said. “Go! Run!”

I blundered forward in the dark but slipped on a blanket and tumbled hard to the floor. It seemed easier and faster to crawl. I crawled as quickly as I could to the kitchen, where I found the key to the back door and flung it open. I ran outside, then froze. I turned back momentarily, looking for my two brothers and sisters, hoping they’d followed. I did not like the idea of being on my own.

“Lathy!” I called back into the house, hoping my older brother would appear. “Kanna?”

Where are my brothers? Should I wait?

I squatted in the darkness of our backyard for just a moment, one that seemed like an eternity, wondering what to do.

Where can I run?

I could hear the soft rustling of the wind passing between the leaves on the coconut tree, a soothing hush that belied the terror of the moment. My body felt like ice and my heart was pounding so hard it felt as if it would burst through my chest.

In the distance, a rooster was crowing. With the coming of the sun, the soldiers would appear and I would be caught. I had heard stories of what the soldiers did to Tamil boys. I was just a teenager and I could easily become their prey. They would murder me — or worse.

I could hear another sound: trucks on the main road outside our small village.

“Lathy! Kanna!” I called out again. Nothing.

I couldn’t wait for my brothers; I needed to go.

I stumbled through our backyard garden and crept along the high cement wall at the edge of our property. It was at least seven feet high. Even if I could climb it, the razor-sharp broken bottles anchored to the top — meant to keep intruders out — dissuaded me from even trying.

My mind was racing. Could I risk going through the front gate? There was no place to hide on the road, and I could not outrun the trucks. The soldiers would see me, assume I was a rebel.

I had no choice.

I propped an old piece of discarded lumber against the wall to hoist myself to the top. I had one hand on top of the wall when the piece of wood snapped. I crashed to the ground.

“Ennada saniyan!” I swore.

I jumped to my feet and circled the yard in a panic. There was nothing else to help me scale the wall.

I willed my heart to stop thumping long enough for me to listen. I could hear the trucks coming closer: the deep-throated sound of shifting gears, the revving of the engines, the shrieking of brakes.

By this time, the stingy early morning light was bringing the flat contours of our backyard into relief. I felt unbearably exposed.

I’m trapped!

I had no choice but to use the front gate. If there was a soldier on the road, however, there would be nowhere for me to hide. My knees trembled; suddenly I felt a warm dribble on my leg. I felt my sarong with my hand, ashamed to discover that I’d wet myself. How Lathy would make fun of me if he knew! In my shame, thinking of how he would tease me was almost as bad as my fear of the soldiers.

All I wanted to do was disappear, but somehow I convinced myself to creep around the side of the house. Our front gate was made of iron bars. In fact, it was the only iron gate in the neighbourhood. Most of the families in our neighbourhood were too poor to afford iron gates, which is probably why my father had insisted on having one. In our village, fences were usually woven from coconut leaves and affixed at intervals to the trees that lined the street. My father was a proud, prosperous, and well-respected businessman; exhibiting and maintaining his status was very important to him. He insisted the gate be locked every night against intruders. After all, the driveway was wide enough for two cars — even though we never had two cars. Most families in the village didn’t have even one car. The majority had bicycles or scooters, or simply walked.

In any case, the gate was no obstacle. I was barefoot, which made climbing it easier.

At the top, I looked up and down the road but did not see any soldiers or military trucks. I jumped.

The road in front of our house, like all the roads in our village, was unpaved. Luckily my feet were tough from walking barefoot; otherwise, landing on the sharp stones would have been painful. Even so, I winced and hopped before starting to run.

I stayed low, sticking as close to the side of the road as I could to remain inconspicuous. After just a few steps, I skidded to a halt. A military truck had stopped at the top of the road. Soldiers dressed in green and brown camouflage and carrying submachine guns were jumping from the back of the truck and fanning out in groups of three or four along the road. At each house, a group of soldiers would duck into the laneway.

Except for the faint crunching of boots on the gravel, the soldiers were eerily quiet, like ghosts. Suddenly the silence was broken by shouting, first in one house and then another, and another, like slowly toppling dominoes. Orders were being barked. Rough male voices, then women’s screams and wails.

Get off the road!

I ran into my neighbour’s yard. Unlike our large, modern house, many homes in the village were crude and very small — many of them no more than improvised shacks or huts. Most had a tiny porch at the front and one big sleeping room for the family. The kitchen was cramped and had firepits made of clay for cooking. Toilets were located at the back, separate from the house. Some houses had a well, but none, except ours, had running water. Anyone who could manage it had a modest garden to grow vegetables and some little cages in which to raise chickens.

The shouts from the soldiers grew louder as they got closer. From the houses I could hear the shrill, terrified cries of women and girls. I zigzagged from one backyard to another until I reached a railway crossing. From behind some bushes I could see military trucks driving along the main road, known as the Kandy–Jaffna Highway. Soldiers were moving from house to house, searching. My only hope was to reach the rice paddies beyond the highway. Our house was only a short distance from the highway; the fields, however, were about four miles away, and I had no way of knowing if I could make it that far without being seen.

What if soldiers had been stationed at the fields to watch for boys and men making a run for it?

I waited by the highway, hiding behind the bushes until a short convoy of military trucks had passed. Then, crouching low, I ran as fast as I could across the tar-paved road toward the Sangkaththaanai Kanthasamy Kovil, a Hindu temple in our village. Years later, I can still recall the soft sound of my bare feet slapping the tar road as I ran.

I passed the temple and kept running, away from home, toward the paddies. The fields at the edge of the paddies were lined with mature trees with enough foliage to help obscure my movements.

I was panting, breathless, and slowed down to catch my breath. What a beautiful morning, I caught myself thinking, as if in a dream. I would never forget the image of the fiery edge of sunrise in the distance and the blue sky arcing above the green rice fields.

Just as suddenly as before, more trucks appeared nearby and my sense of security instantly disappeared. I hurried down a narrow path that split the rice paddy into two sections and was soon surrounded by rice stalks — bright green at that time of year — that reached to my shoulders. It was midseason, and the ground was still wet and muddy from a heavy rainfall the night before. It was early, but the sun would soon be a torch in the sky. I was alone. I had no idea what was happening to my family. There was nothing I could do but hide. And wait.

close this panel
Under the Nakba Tree

Under the Nakba Tree

Fragments of a Palestinian Family in Canada
edition:eBook
More Info
This week's recommended reading lists

Cottage Books

0 ratings
rated!
rated!
View List
New Non-Fiction for the week of June 24th : New Books on People and Places
Love of the Salish Sea Islands

Love of the Salish Sea Islands

New Essays, Memoir and Poetry by 40 Island Writers
edited by Mona Fertig
introduction by Gail Sjuberg
edition:Paperback
tagged : essays, canadian
More Info
Calgary through the Eyes of Writers

Calgary through the Eyes of Writers

edition:Hardcover
More Info
Rain City

Rain City

Vancouver Essays
edition:Paperback
More Info
Waterloo You Never Knew

Waterloo You Never Knew

Life on the Margins
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
More Info
Excerpt

PREFACE

You might say the dead talk to me. Every story in this book tells the tale of someone who has died. To me, their presence lingers, begging to be heard. Through these accounts, whether previously told or not, their stories have been left behind in death records, newspaper articles, and diaries. These beckon to me. To hear them, one must be willing to listen. And, one must be willing to dig into strange places.

These stories need telling, and I admit that I feel compelled to tell them. These are not my stories or my personal journey, but I feel that someone must share them. So, I am beginning the process that those more worthy may take up the torch and go where I cannot. These stories have often been obscured or forgotten because of their marginality. Marginality, in this book, is the term used to describe the condition of the people who live apart from the mainstream, by choice or by design. Some may have lived their lives on the margins of society because they were unable to gain access to the important things in life, but others chose an existence that defied social conventions, doing so for personal reasons or for profit.

This book introduces stories of ordinary people who lived in extraordinary circumstances — touched by disease, poverty, crime, and, arguably, even the supernatural. These are stories many communities own but may not share (at least publicly) — scandals, murder, passion, and greed. No one story sums up the total of a community’s identity, but collectively they speak to the complex tableaux of layered existence within any (and, arguably all) communities. Our history is your history.

Some of those mentioned in this book lived their lives in infamy, while others only found that at the ends of their lives. Many possessed multiple social identities, moving between the varied strata of social status and privilege. Consider, if you will, the politician whose fascination with séances was so strong that it affected not only his personal life but also his professional one. Great pains were taken to conceal his activities from the general public in order to protect his reputation and his ability to perform his job.

There is also the once-esteemed doctor who fell from grace by robbing the dead in their final repose. These were men of high social status, seemingly respectable, yet their secret actions and interests forced them to hide parts of themselves from society.

Others, many of whom were far less fortunate, nonetheless left their own marks on the history of this community. There is the story of the ex-slave who lived a long but otherwise unremarkable life in obscure poverty. In the end, disabled and elderly, he died a pauper’s death in the Waterloo County House of Industry and Refuge. That would have normally been the end of his story — but he was rescued from obscurity after his death, when local residents who respected him greatly published his obituary (not once but twice), poignantly recognizing him as someone “nearly every citizen” knew. There is another story that highlights the apparent contradiction between traditional Mennonite spiritual beliefs and the practice of occult healing. And so it goes. These stories, however fraught with emotion, outrage, or scandal, need to be told and need to be remembered. It is through their telling that we meet the people who were most affected by the arbiters of policy and law-making (either by breaking the law or by being contained by it). An encounter with the mundane and ordinary lives of the past enables us to hold up a mirror and see ourselves.

A note about “life on the margins,” marginalism, and marginalization: it is prudent to remember that the language we use does matter. A margin is defined as a boundary that demarcates one thing from another. In discussions of social status, those described as “marginal” are thought to live, act, behave, or believe in things other than those considered to be the norm for the society. The marginal whose stories are told in this book lived lives — by choice or because of social prejudice — outside the social mores commonly accepted at the time (some of these have sociocultural parallels and conventions that are still in effect today).

The types of margins that we create illuminate how we perceive what we see, and what we (think) we know or “understand.” To truly understand a society, whether one existing today or one existing in the past, it is necessary to examine the nature of the margins created — what is (or was) considered “beyond the pale.”

Stigma is attached to those deemed “different,” to those whom society has marginalized, and judgment of them precludes worthiness, as in the case of ideas surrounding “able-isms”(what people can or cannot do) and poverty — the deserving poor (worthy of “help”) and the undeserving poor (those deemed not worthy). Those deemed unworthy are most often the social pariahs, the outcasts whose stories are subsumed within a large narrative, in which their identities and the rationale for their actions are rendered invisible, having only symbolic value within the bigger social picture. It is curious, though, that at the same time such people are deprived of their individuality — they are lumped into a marginalized group — they often lose the right to privacy, too. In order for such marginalization to occur, some aspect of a person’s identity must be thrown into the spotlight. In effect, they become commodified products or “public property,” worthy of scorn, moral scrutiny, or criticism (perceived as not capable or willing to care for themselves). They are sometimes pejoratively categorized as the “burdens of society.” The perpetuation of socioeconomic and political biases that are directed toward the most vulnerable among us is often the toxic result of “othering” (looking at others as “them,” not me or us, and thinking of them as if “they” are inferior). Able-ism, age-ism, racism, and even “religious-ism:” most of these categorizations are contextual and based on circumstantial identifiers like status, race, colour, or creed. Food for thought.

The stories in this book, while filled with curious and entertaining characters, also provide an impetus for the reconsideration of social labelling as a useful tool, particularly when we encounter the real people behind their real “histories.” As you’ll discover in this book, people can move within social categories, either “up” or “down” — sometimes at will and sometimes forced by decisions and circumstances beyond their control. The way such movements are viewed is made clear in the language used to describe them: falling from grace, getting back upon one’s feet, rising above one’s station, putting one’s life back together, falling in with the wrong crowd, facing the court of public opinion, etc. In the process of discovering historical “facts,” we, too, must consider the language (and the assumptions behind the language) that we use when we analyze and process them. How well we do that will depend upon the philosophical lenses we choose to use.

Waterloo You Never Knew: Life on the Margins considers the bigger questions: where do we see ourselves in these stories, and in what ways do we in modern times understand those who did (and did not) fit the “norm” historically. And, are we really that different from those in the past?

This book offers an accessible opportunity for us to examine disparate life histories that could, in many ways, be those of any community: the forgotten, the poignant, the funny, and the downright strange. We also get the chance to see behind the curtain of polished conventionality, cleaned up for public consumption. One may call it the “real deal” — warts and all. Our history is your history.

close this panel
Toronto Reborn

Toronto Reborn

Design Successes and Challenges
by Ken Greenberg
afterword by Zahra Ebrahim
foreword by David Crombie
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
More Info
Excerpt

INTRODUCTION
Toronto as Crucible

I arrived in Toronto in 1968, immigrating from the United States in the period of great turmoil caused by the war in Vietnam.

Although I relocated under duress, I immediately felt welcomed. The city felt remarkably malleable, not fully formed. It seemed to be still evolving, open to new ideas and desires, receptive to reshaping by me and other new arrivals. I had the sense that this was a place where I could contribute and most fully be myself. Toronto was on the cusp of a great change, and I was quickly caught up in the unfolding story of my adopted city. After completing my studies, I worked as a young architect, and then founded the Division of Architecture and Urban Design at the City of Toronto, running it for ten years under the direction of three mayors: David Crombie, John Sewell, and Art Eggleton.

Through this stint at city hall and later work as a professional (and engagement as a citizen), I have had a front-row seat as a participant and observer during decades of remarkable, often inspiring — and at times frustrating — change in this extraordinary city. I shared some of this experience in my earlier book, Walking Home, published in 2011, in which Toronto had a role among many cities. This book gives me a chance to come back to what is happening in Toronto almost a decade later in a more focused way.

Each of us has some stressful formative experiences that motivate (and sometimes obsess or even traumatize) us. One of my own subterranean drivers comes from my childhood peregrinations. Moving from place to place, often abruptly, changing cities, countries, neighbourhoods, schools (sometimes in mid-year), and friends was disruptive to say the least, even if sometimes it felt exciting. In hindsight, I realize that this constant dislocation has led to an intense compensating homing instinct, and, though coupled with a taste for travel, a need to be rooted in a place. This, in part, is what steered me to my career in urban design and to my intense love affair with Toronto. Like an attentive lover, I have been sensitive to its changes and moods ever since.

I am convinced that something out of the ordinary, if not truly unique, is occurring in Toronto. It feels like the city is emerging from a chrysalis. The processes of continual redefinition and renewal have ever been in play in our city, and there have been other periods of enormous upheaval and growth spurts; but in the last fifteen years or so, the direction has altered while the pace of change has intensified and accelerated. Fuelled by a powerful vortex of market forces and demographic pressures, Toronto has become a locus for immigration, investment, and development, and our current spectacular growth shows no sign of abating.

Toronto is being transformed by the simultaneous pressures of enormous and sustained growth; an unparalleled increase in the city’s diversity, bringing an expansion of the talent pool and new ideas; an imperative to achieve greater environmental sustainability; and relentless, often disruptive technological innovation. The city is very rapidly becoming more vertical, denser, and more mixed.

All of these factors are present to some degree in other places, but in Toronto the first and second — radical growth and an increase in the ethnic diversity in the population — are at unusually high levels. These forces are converging to form a crucible in which radical change and innovation are being galvanized. It is rocking the status quo of previous assumptions, familiar ways, rules, and practices, and pushing us out of our comfort zone. The city is at the tipping point, in the throes of a rebirth.

I have come to believe that Toronto has moved to a new level and is at a decisive moment of transformation into a new type of city: changing as much in kind as in scale. The contours of this new city are becoming visible, emerging from the old established roots — literally arising on the frame, the traces, the memories, and the structures (physical, social, economic, cultural) of an older Toronto. The city is being pushed into this new territory by an infusion of new, boundary-stretching ideas and forces.

I believe that much of what has led to the remarkable transformational shift underway in Toronto can be traced back to a critical turning point in the late 1960s and 1970s, which I described briefly in Walking Home. At that time, my introduction to the city and the launch of my career coincided with a dramatic series of events that set the stage for what was to come. Toronto was a city on the verge of massive change in line with the anticity polemic of that era. But then, a dramatic series of events occurred, setting the stage for a major course correction.

Toronto’s guide to its future in 1969, its Official Plan (like that found in many other cities at that time), called for a kind of progress inspired by the principles of what was then the modern movement in city planning. Among other things, it was based on a full embrace of the private automobile, including massive highway construction (with a complete interwoven network including the Spadina, Scarborough, and Crosstown Expressways); ripping up streetcar tracks; separating places of living from places of work as much as possible; replacing traditional main streets with shopping malls — the Dufferin, Pape and Gerrard Malls were, in fact, built as prototypes; demolition of major civic buildings — Union Station, Old City Hall, and the St. Lawrence Market were all considered for demolition — to make way for the new; and a call for widespread “urban renewal.” A vast boomerang shape indicating proposed demolition appeared on a city document, hovering ominously over the whole downtown and adjacent inner city neighbourhoods. In other words, a gutting of the city was in the offing, preparing it to be remade in the name of a then widely held view of “modernity.”

To many, these were frightening prospects. A citizen resistance grew out of a unique amalgam of the city’s traditional small c conservatism and a new, left-of-centre coalition, motivated by a sense of civic empowerment and led by an engaged civic leadership. The resistance grew like a snowball, gaining momentum as new champions emerged. In a series of hotly contested municipal elections, an increasing number of progressive city councillors were elected, supported by grassroots activism and community backlash.

Once they had a majority, the new “reform council,” led by beloved mayor David Crombie, used their mandate to reverse course, rejecting the dominant postwar modernist template. With the unlikely intervention of then premier William Davis, they famously put a highly symbolic nail in the coffin of the Spadina Expressway, which would have eviscerated a series of downtown neighbourhoods, and cancelled a whole network of other city-damaging highways in its wake.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the change. This was a complete about-face for the city, one that would have far-reaching consequences, setting Toronto on a very different trajectory. The car was significantly dethroned as the primary mode of transportation; plans to rip up streetcar lines were thwarted, making Toronto one of the few cities on the continent to retain this form of transit. Urban renewal and “blockbusting” of long-established neighbourhoods to make way for tower-inthe- park style redevelopment was halted. Heritage preservation was embraced, saving a number of cherished structures from demolition — including the St. Lawrence Market, now the throbbing heart of a revitalized neighbourhood; the glorious 1898 Richardsonian Old City Hall; and the magnificent beaux arts Union Station.

The middle class stayed or returned to inner-city neighbourhoods. Population attrition was reversed. The city’s traditional neighbourhood main streets, which had also been scheduled for transformation into car-centric arterial roads, were seen with fresh eyes and received new support from strengthened and decentralized neighbourhood planning site offices and the widely imitated Toronto invention of BIAs (Business Improvement Areas co-funded by the city and local businesses), of which Toronto now has more than any other city.

The separation of land uses (dividing where people lived from where they worked, with an onerous commute by car to bridge the gap) had been exposed as a failed model for urban living; it was not delivering what it promised. The vision of contented citizens able to live in quiet, pastoral suburban neighbourhoods and then make their way quickly to work via wide highways was belied by the reality of the growing inconvenience of congestion, negative impacts on health caused by a sedentary, car-dependent lifestyle, unanticipated social isolation, and mounting environmental impacts.

The reform council pushed back against the “suburbanization” of the downtown core, fighting to prevent the spread of widened roads, a profusion of surface parking lots, and segregated land use. A new Central Area Plan was formulated that introduced mixed-use zoning to the city’s downtown core, and that would eventually bring hundreds of thousands of new residents into the heart of the city to enliven the previously sterile nine-to-five central business (only) district.

The big planning and design challenge: how to actually implement the course correction. This was the challenge that drew me to city hall as a young architect with a growing interest in urban design.

David Crombie recruited me in 1977, along with a whole corps of young, motivated change agents. Working with the newly elected politicians, we formed a think tank, a kind of collegial brain trust. We came from many backgrounds, and not all were formally educated as “planners,” but we shared a mission.

We played different roles on a team dedicated to stopping the speeding freight train of “modernization” and shifting to another paradigm for the city’s future. I headed the newly minted Urban Design Group, which became the city’s Division of Architecture and Design, and my team and I were called upon to play a central role in this transformative moment. It was exhilarating.

We were trying to articulate a competing vision for the city, and we were working in a pressure cooker. Our vision was based on faith in the existing city. Its basic tenets were to move away from land use separations, car dependence, and urban renewal, instead aiming to protect the city’s existing neighbourhoods and architectural heritage, halting the expansion of urban expressways, promoting public transit and pedestrian environments, and encouraging downtown living, with lively main streets as vital neighbourhood spines.

We had a sense of tremendous transformational potential, applying new ideas and concepts that connected all the way from the city street to the city region and expanding the array of available tools and strategies. We aimed to make big moves, pivoting from defence to offence, from stopping the Spadina Expressway to creating the mixed-use Central Area Plan, launching the mixed-income St. Lawrence Neighbourhood for ten thousand new downtown residents on a stretch of obsolescent industrial sites and anchoring it with a linear park on an abandoned rail corridor, and expanding the role of Business Improvement Associations to support local shopping streets.

Combining strategies and tactics, we changed the way planning and urban design were done in Toronto on the fly. Mayor Crombie controversially introduced a forty-five-foot “holding bylaw” to buy time to prepare the Central Area Plan. We pursued a policy of “de-concentration,” linking development and diversification of land use to transit capacity, exporting office space to emerging downtown centres in Scarborough, North York, and Etobicoke.

close this panel
Dreamers and Designers

Dreamers and Designers

The Shaping of West Vancouver
by Francis Mansbridge
photographs by John Moir
edition:Hardcover
More Info
Vancouverism

Vancouverism

edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
More Info
More Abandoned Manitoba

More Abandoned Manitoba

Rivers, Rails and Ruins
edition:Paperback
tagged :
More Info
No Place More Suitable

No Place More Suitable

Four Centuries of Montreal Stories
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
More Info
Rooster Town

Rooster Town

The History of an Urban Métis Community, 1901–1961
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
More Info
This week's recommended reading lists

2019: Pride Books

0 ratings
rated!
rated!
View List
New Children's for the week of June 17th : New Picture Books
Pride Colors

Pride Colors

edition:eBook
also available: Hardcover
More Info
Lion and Mouse

Lion and Mouse

by Jairo Buitrago
translated by Elisa Amado
illustrated by Rafael Yockteng
edition:eBook
also available: Hardcover
More Info
Gargantua (Jr!)

Gargantua (Jr!)

Defender of Earth
edition:eBook
also available: Hardcover
More Info
This week's recommended reading lists

Embed our weekly title selections from 49th Shelf on your own website. The embed will automatically refresh with new books each week.

Width: px
Height: px
X
Contacting facebook
Please wait...