Monday, September 14, 2009

Two Books with the Word "Hope" in their title

"Where Hope Takes Root: Democracy and Pluralism in an Interdependent World"
by His Highness The Aga Khan
ISBN No. 978-1-55365-366-0

"Hope in Shadows: Stories and Photographs of Vancouver 's Downtown Eastside"
by Brad Cran and Gillian Jerome
ISBN No. 978-1-55152-238-8

So this is what it's come to... Maybe it's the current climate of Obama vs. McCain but His Highness The Aga Khan sure sounds like he's running for something. Much (most? all?) of his book is speeches and much of the speeches unfortunately read like the empty platitudes of the hopelessly political, sound and fury signifying not much of anything if you listen really closely. "Civil society organizations need to reach for the highest level of competence to justify their support," he bravely writes. "Without support for pluralism, civil society does not function," he writes a few pages later, going wayyyy out on a limb. In another chapter he writes tha- [Sigh] Whatever... Just as the nightmares of TV news turning into entertainment from 1976's "Network" have actually come to pass so too, apparently, has the disheartening evolution of spiritual leaders into the likes of the Peter Sellers' character from 1979's "Being There" (the slow-witted gardener who comes out with in-plain sight observations like "There will be growth in the spring" and is declared a genius.) The problem with "Where Hope Takes Root" is that some of us have heard real activists who actually SAY things that MAKE sense that ARE solutions; not highbrow fundraiser cocktail party chat. (Hmmm... maybe I should have just reviewed "A Passion for This Earth" [; ISBN No. 978-1-55365-375-2] instead. Now David Suzuki, THERE'S an activist who perfectly marries the high and lofty with the nuts and bolts! And come to think of it APFTE is also a collection of essays too - by 20 Susuki-psyched journalists, scientists and environmentalists - but they don't read like speeches at all.) "Where Hope Takes Root" does have a reason to exist, however. For one thing, it’s excellent reading for university students majoring in political science and anyone else interested in the semantics of political discourse.
"Hope in Shadows" is, as Aga Khan might say, "another book with the word 'hope' in the title." But that's where the similarities end. See, "Where Hope Takes Root" is like those mediagenic tours the Governor General takes every now and then through Vancouver, B.C.'s downtown east side (DTES). You know, the ones where she wanders down a single run-down main street, making empty promises, giving false hopes and exploiting every photo op possible while surrounded with a bunch of bodyguards. (Tellingly, appropriately, Canada 's former GG, Adrienne Clarkson, writes the introduction to Kahn's book.) "Hope in Shadows," however, is the smart activist yelling at the GG from the sidelines.
"Hope in Shadows" is also the kind of book I like to think as being not just part of the solution but also beyond review. To go Aga Khan-lofty for a second it's about something so profound, important and topical that all a reviewer can - and should - do is bring it to the attention of others. For the past five years, Vancouver's Pivot Legal Society's annual Hope in Shadows photography contest gave DTES residents 200 disposable cameras and asked them to document their lives in Canada's poorest neighbourhood. This book is an archive of the personal stories behind those photographs. Whew... and wow! What else is there to say? It's all here: heartbreak, class struggles, drug addiction, poverty, dreams and a sense of home. Coming from the same publisher that brought out the stunning "Every Building on 100 West Hastings” in 2002, "Hope in Shadows" is - to go Aga Khan-lofty again - that rare document: a palpable, user-friendly piece of academia about a people and place that will be studied decades hence to find out what kind of people we were. I heartily recommend Adrienne Clarkson get a copy of it.