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ALUMNI QUARTERLY - winter 2008
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Home > McGill News > 2002 > Spring 2002 > Reviews


In Their Own Words: Canadian Choral Conductors, Dundurn Press, 2001, $24.99, by Holly Higgins Jonas, BA'58, MSW'71.


This book of interviews with almost 50 Canadian choir leaders gives us much more than a series of career "stories" and "vignettes," as editor Holly Higgins Jonas classifies them. While the parts are varied and interesting, the beauty of the book lies in the glorious whole resulting from the common themes of transformation and generosity that run through it.

One conductor talks of the "powerful experiences" that are the "treasured currency of our trade." She describes, for example, a church service in New York City where 4,000 people brought their pets to be blessed. "At a certain point in the service the great doors at the back opened and in came elephants, camels, donkeys, parrots and other regal animals from the Barnum and Bailey Circus. This majestic procession moved down the centre aisle in absolute silence and formed around the altar…. It was one of the most moving and magical moments I have ever witnessed."

A music teacher recalls growing up in a house where her brothers and sisters sang, encouraged by their father who sang to and with them all the time. But her mother never joined in, having been told as a child to just mouth the words "because she wasn't matching pitch." As she neared death from cancer, the mother said her one regret was her "non-singing life in a house full of birds." So, in the last weeks of her life, her daughter taught her to sing in tune, providing both of them with some "hilarious and wonderful" moments. "Her singing voice and she herself knew release."

Apparently that desire to join the birds is shared by many of us. As each conductor tells his or her story, they seem in their work to touch a wellspring -- one small children's choir assembled for a holiday concert becomes several larger, permanent choirs as the children grow and their parents decide they, too, want to share in making music. And the choirs do more than make beautiful noise -- a group for homeless men in Montreal gave people new directions; a Mi'kmaq choir helped preserve a culture; the Men of the Deeps restored pride to unemployed Nova Scotia coal miners.

Another common experience is the support of mentors. Everyone interviewed had at least one teacher, family member or generous stranger who encouraged them, inspired them or even paid for their musical training.

Jonas, who trained as a musical therapist and has been involved with choirs all her life, says that she tackled the book as a way of giving back something of what she has gained from singing. "We are a singing country," she says, and based on what we read in her book about the power of music and the calibre of the people who teach it, that's a very reassuring description.

Useful Knowledge: The Victorians, Morality, and the March of Intellect, Duke University Press, $US19.95, by Alan Rauch, BSc'77.


In Useful Knowledge, Rauch, an associate professor of Literature, Communication and Culture at the Georgia Institute of Technology, combines what some consider to be rather disparate disciplines: literature and science. In fact, Rauch argues, "knowledge, narrative, science and the novel are inextricably entwined," as he shows through close readings of several early nineteenth-century novels, including such classics as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and George Eliot's Mill on the Floss.

Novelists were challenged to respond to the onslaught of new scientific knowledge that threatened to turn traditional, theologically-based society on its head. Rauch cites the emergence of Darwinian theories of evolution: "The idea of origins was becoming a topic of popular as well as scientific concern. And, inasmuch as science was finding materialist answers to what had previously been metaphysical questions, science was relying less on scriptural authority to make its claims." Knowledge became an accessible commodity; the "encyclopedic spirit" raged through England thanks to the popularity of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and scientific societies sprang up everywhere. It was no surprise, therefore, that science became a pivotal influence on a range of literature, from stories for children to popular thrillers like Jane Webb Loudon's The Mummy and Charlotte Brontë's "domestic fiction."

Rauch offers a comprehensive and insightful guide to the collision of science and literature in the nineteenth century in a work that should be of interest to literary scientists and scientific literati alike.

Watchdogs and Gadflies: Activism from Marginal to Mainstream, Viking Press, 2001, $35.00, by Tim Falconer, BA'81.


Canadians often view political activists in a negative light, with images of scruffy gas-masked objectors facing off against riot-geared police stamped in their minds. In Watchdogs and Gadflies, Tim Falconer discusses a broad range of Canadian activism, showing how movements target a variety of different causes and run the gamut in method, intensity and effectiveness.

"When people first asked me if activists were watchdogs or gadflies," he writes in the introductory chapter, "I'd joke that they all see themselves as watchdogs, while their opponents dismiss them as gadflies. But I soon realized that the most effective activists are both: they do the unglamorous research…but they're not afraid to be provocative." Falconer delves into a variety of causes and talks to their leaders. The book looks at parents in Ontario campaigning to raise standards in their children's public schools, students wrapped up in the globalization debate that led to riots in Seattle, as well as middle-aged proponents of a movement in Alberta to preserve Medicare, among others. All share an unerring dedication to their causes; they're in it for the "small victories," setting new goals once milestones are reached.

"Traditionally," Falconer says, "we've viewed activists as people not just outside the political process, but also beyond the political mainstream." Falconer handily dispels the stereotype of wing-nut activism, showing protest to be an integral part of the Canadian political fabric. "Even if those who cling to traditional politics don't like it, activism represents nothing so much as an informed, passionate and engaged citizenry." An excellent survey of contemporary activism for anyone interested in what's behind the pontification, petitions and protests.

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