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A Book to Consider

Book review by Michael Sobota

A Number of Things – Stories of Canada Told Through Fifty Objects
…by Jane Urquhart
…illustrations by Scott McKowen
Published by Harper Collins Publishers Ltd. 2016 Hardcover 227pages $32.99
Jane Urquhart is known for weighty, usually historically based novels: The Stone Carvers, The Underpainter, The Whirlpool.
Her new book, published late last year is, for me, like nothing she has written previously. A Number of Things is her homage to Canada’s 150th Anniversary. In it, she chooses fifty objects and reflects upon them. Each chapter is a named object and all the chapters are short- some barely more than a page and a half.
In describing the objects, Urquhart tells us a little bit of Canadian history. But she doesn’t lecture.
There is no chapter index, leaving the reader to turn the page and discover what the next selected object might be. Each object is beautifully portrayed by graphic illustrator Scott McKowen. He works in “scratchboard, an engraving medium in which white lines are carved into a black surface with a sharp knife.” The illustrations are beautiful. McKowen has designed a wonderful Canadian goose for the cover with its head stretched up to grab the capital ‘T’ in the title. I was eagerly awaiting the chapter about this goose. Alas (spoiler alert), there is none.
The objects of Urquhart’s affection are carefully chosen and emotionally loaded. Several times in reading the book I had to pause, look away, my eyes misting, thankful for her insight and beautiful writing.
I will give a few examples. Here are the opening lines of a chapter called “Sampler”. “Easy to pick up and put down in moments stolen from the chores of the day, the sampler, a piece of clothe through which one could draw coloured threads, came naturally to the female hand. The art of decorative stitchery, therefore, has almost always been the domain of girls and women.” The specific sampler she writes about illustrates a house, an elaborate one that might have been a mansion, and is dated 1858. Urquhart goes on to reveal the provenance of this specific piece, revealing its owners up to our present time, where it currently occupies a place of honour in Alice Munro’s home – Canada’s first Nobel Prize Winner for Literature.
Here’s two more. “Cowcatcher” describes how Lady Susan Agnes Macdonald, second wife of our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, enroute by train to the west coast, required the conductor to stop the train so she could seat herself on the cowcatcher, the better to see the scenery through the Rocky Mountains during the final six hundred miles of their journey.
A chapter titled “Rope” allows Urquart to tell us the history of Louis Riel and the founding of the Province of Manitoba. Yes, the rope is supposedly one of three existing lengths that were part of the line and noose that hanged Riel. She reveals that such pieces of rope were “prized items” and considered to be good luck charms back-in-the-day. It certainly wasn’t for Riel.
This is a wonderful book. You can read it in bits and bites, savouring Urquart’s gorgeous prose and sensitive insights into our Country and its past. This just might be the “one book all Canadians should read” in this celebratory anniversary year.

 

The Almost Nearly Perfect People
… by Michael Booth
I’ve wondered for years what the Scandinavian countries have that make them so great?
I’ve even, more than once, said that we Canadians are missing the boat by taking our lead from the United States when really, come on, everyone knows that the Scandinavia people are happier and their economies are more equitable. They have a much larger middle class and their wealth is distributed more evenly. And the healthcare, education, pensions…well you name it, they are all better systems than what we have. Aren’t they?
Then one day I happened to see these 5 or 6 absolutely beautiful 30 something Danish women being interviewed by Oprah about why the Danes are the happiest people in the world and that did it. I suggested to Cathy we move to Denmark. She wasn’t as excited as I was.
Before we moved I thought a little homework was needed. It would be good if we based our decision on something a bit more than hearsay and Oprah’s interview. I’m of course kidding about moving but there have been moments. I’m not happy with the politics of austerity that drives our economy and way of thinking.
I looked on Amazon for books that might give me a sense of the various Scandinavian countries and liked Michael Booth’s witty approach to the subject.
It also appeared to be an easy read … and is.
I’m sorry to say all is not as rosy as it appears on the surface. Booth, while witty and satirical, paints a fair picture.
I appreciated his research, frankness and personal insights.
He talks about high taxes and says that politicians who run in elections saying they will lower taxes always lose because two thirds of the jobs in the country are public service jobs and he implies one wouldn’t want these jobs jeopardized. It could impact a son or daughter. In Canada we don’t make the correlation between jobs and taxes the same way. Some people think cutting taxes (and government jobs) increases employment.
There is also a thriving underground economy which no seems particularly worried about as government debt is manageable although personal debt is one of the highest in Europe.
Do the Finns really have the best education system? What are the Norwegians doing with their fantastic oil wealth (maybe we Canadians could learn a thing or two?)
He does his best to explain who the Scandinavians are, how they differ and why, and what their quirks and foibles are, and he explores why these societies have become so successful and models for the world
The Almost Nearly Perfect People was named the #1 best book of the year by the Christian Science Monitor.
Having read and enjoyed the book I am still of the mind that we should look to the Scandinavians for ideas to grow our middle class and build a more equitable society. We could learn from their mistakes and build on their accomplishments and then Booth’s next book might talk about the success of northern countries like Canada and the Scandinavians.

We’re All In This Together
…By Amy Jones
Published by McClelland & Stewart 2016
Softcover 432 pages $24.95

Kate, a grandmother, goes over Kakabeka Falls in a wooden barrel. She survives but at the start of Amy Jones’ sassy, swiftly told novel, she is in a coma. A chance tourist at the falls on that day captures Kate’s tumble into the falls on video, and the video goes viral.
Kate Parker is the grand matriarch of a very large family. She has always been what we would readily label “a free spirit” and even though she grew up with and knew Walter from when they were kids, she was reluctant to commit to him until after a life-changing year in Europe as a young adult. Upon returning to Thunder Bay she rushes into the stability or immediate security of marriage and she and Walter have two daughters, Finn and Nicki and later an adopted son, Shawn.
By the time we meet the Parkers at the start of the novel, each of the children have partners, kids or relationships that expand the list of characters we follow. There are ten principal ones. To Jones’s credit, they are specific individuals with multi-layered characteristics, believable in their complication, trials and tribulations, sorrows and joys. And to her credit as well, we easily follow and track their interactions without confusion.
She is specifically good at capturing the authentic voice of different ages, from the relative innocence of an eight-year-old, to the whiney troubled teens with their peer pressures, through the young marrieds who are supposedly adult, to the experiential maturation of Kate and Walter, in their senior years. I like and believe all of these people even when they may be misbehaving. Maybe especially when they are misbehaving.
So We Are All In This Together is a novel about family. The Parkers come together to address the crisis of Kate’s Kakabeka adventure (because of the video capture, she becomes known as “The Conqueror of Kakabeka”). Jones narrative is rich in small details without over-writing background description. She explores, with great insight, gender roles, life expectations and failures, ambitions and repressions, and sex. Jones’ first sex scene begins on page three. Her writing about sex is frank, unembellished, yet nuanced and believable. It’s also sometimes funny, sometimes sad. She doesn’t shy away from expletives and uses them naturally in all of her dialogue.
We’re All In This Together is, at its best, luminous about our contemporary fractured human frailties, and joyous about the way that fracturing can make us better humans. It is set without apology here in Thunder Bay – indeed it celebrates, denigrates and exploits where we live. And it does so with a passionate, caring heart. I love this book. It is one of the best reads of 2016.

Reviewed by Michael Sobota

His Whole Life
By Elizabeth Hay published by McClelland & Stewart 2015
Hardcover 384 pages $32.00
“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” We are only three sentences into Elizabeth Hay’s splendid novel, His Whole Life, when this question is asked.
It is asked by ten year old Jim, sitting in the back seat of the car his father is driving. He, his dad and mom are traveling from New York City to a lake in Eastern Ontario where his mom’s grandparents have a year-round home. It is August 1985, the summer that Canada is heading for a second Referendum on the sovereignty of Quebec. The Referendum that nearly split Canada apart. Jim does not know that this is also the summer that begins the fraying of the fabric of his parents’ marriage.
Jim’s mom is Canadian, his dad American. They spend most of the year living in New York and make this annual trek to Ontario as a break from the stifling city heat, noise and everything else that complicates one of the largest cities in the world. Nancy, Jim’s mom, loves these returns to the quiet of the country and to her Country. George, his dad, accepts this annual trek, only out of accommodation, not out of enjoyment. It is during these treasured summers that Jim learns to swim, handle a canoe and become an excellent fisherman, all through the teachings of his granddad.
When Jim asks that opening question, back in the car as they journey north, his mother flips it off with a humourous remark. His dad answers straightforwardly, admitting that when he was just eight, he tormented a schoolyard boy, punching him in the mouth and making his lip bleed. His mother, full of too many answers that she is unwilling to divulge, tosses the question back at Jim. He demurs, though he is also struggling with something that happened to him recently at school.
The question hovers over their summer, and over the next eight years of the novel’s passage. During this time, Hay writes with such sensitive, direct, honest and mature observations about all the characters in the book. She takes on major themes. How does a marriage and family function under stress. When George is diagnosed with cancer in his jaw, he refuses treatment when it might have been easy to manage, instead relying on quack approaches he discovers online, pushing his marriage to the edge of breakdown. How can a country stay together, when the political circumstances push it to the brink of a near fifty-fifty polarization and national calamity? How does a young boy, when granted his fondest wish – to have a dog – survive the accidental death of that beloved creature? It pushes him to grow up and eventually grow apart from parents he loves.
Elizabeth Hays has written eight novels, including the Giller Prize winning Late Nights On Air. In His Whole Life, she writes with great personal insight, and healthy doses of both humour and intellectual insights. She is writing at the peak of her powers. This is a book to be savored and cherished.
Now then, what’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?

reviewed by Peter Fergus Moore

On Mink Mountain, by Bill MacDonald
Bill MacDonald, in his writing life, published over 40 books, singlehandedly creating in the process a new sub-genre of fiction: Lakehead Magic Realism. Whether he was writing of the
all-too-short life of a valiant cat (Viva Zigotto), the encounter in southernmost South America with a mysterious femme fatale (Patagonian Odyssey), or a snowbound sojourn in a ski lodge
near Lake Superior (On Mink Mountain), to name but three, Bill MacDonald left his reader guessing exactly who was who and what was really going on in these stories.
The majority of the books are a bewildering amalgam of fiction and non-fiction, with actual Lakehead place names dropped like random ink blots throughout, along with thinly-disguised
places and people. In the Patagonian Odyssey, the accompanying photos reveal that the mysterious beauty is none other than Bill’s wife Catherine–this does not anchor the encounter or the people in firm reality, but rather, serves to further disorient the reader. It’s not a bad thing, really; after all, Gabriel Maria Marquez bewildered thousands of readers beautifully.
That said, I would agree with my colleague Michael Sobota that Bill’s one weakness as a writer was that of voice–nearly every character spoke the same way. Yet that, too, could have been a form of deliberate camouflage. Bill dropped any number of hints that his work was, at very least, semi-autobiographical. It is a short stretch to see that family members might recognize themselves in some of the characters, especially perhaps some of the sketchier ones.
In a number of places in most of his Lakehead-set novels, at least one of the characters, often the narrator, expresses trepidation or irritation at this very possibility. Maybe added protective colouring was needed, at least in Bill’s mind.
Which brings me to On Mink Mountain, Bill’s last work of fiction (he did write directly autobiographical works as well). The scene is a fictional/actual ski lodge on a fictional/actual mountain not far from Thunder Bay where two middle-aged writers, Charlie and the unnamed “Ace”, aka “Sport”, are holed up during an unusual warm spell not to ski, but to write.
Or are they?
The writers I know would put beavers to shame in terms of work habits, while these two spend a lot of their time in front of the lodge’s substantial fireplace, knocking back enough alcohol to cast Ian Fleming’s James Bond as a comparative teetotaller. They do get down to writing more or less, but both characters, or rather Charlie, spend a lot of their time telling and listening to stories. Putting off the work, in other words.
That said, it is the stories that in fact draw the reader in. Charlie, especially, turns out to be a story factory, churning them out in monologues of brobdingnagian proportions, devouring pages
in the process. Charlie reminisces about his days as a newspaper journalist, and references how he and Ace are disgraced ex-high school teachers, and why they are both “disgraced” and “ex”.
Ace is the penultimate good listener, and it is through his ears that we are treated to Charlie’s tales. Ace’s eyes and ears bring us as well the mini-world, the “Magic Mountain” of the ski lodge, with its comings and goings of guests, and to-ings and fro-ings of staff.
That said, I was not 100% comfy with these two characters. For one, I wouldn’t have wanted these two teaching any child for whom I was responsible, and I found the casually-applied “fairy queens” label on two of the lodge guests jarring—Charlie may be a mid-century jerk
with attendant prejudices, but the younger staff of the lodge have no such excuse these days.
But that is how the cookie crumbled in this book.
On Mink Mountain is an experience of spending time with dodgy and otherwise characters, emerging from it wondering where several hours went, and feeling, frankly, rather nicely squiffed without having touched a drop. Such is the power of Bill MacDonald’s suggestion.
And that is not a bad thing at all. Thank you, Bill.
On Mink Mountain, by Bill MacDonald, published by Borealis Press

Reviewed by Michael Sobota

All Out
A Father and Son Confront the Hard Truths That Made Them Better Men
…by Kevin Newman and Alex Newman
Published by Random House Canada 2015 Hardcover 320 pages $29.95
All Out is a book about parenting. It is a book about being a father and being a son. It is a book about learning how to become a man and how to be better men. It explores several important questions: can a man working at a full time, demanding job to support his family also be a full time, available dad? How can a smart teenager struggling with his sexual identity reveal this to his family, and in particular, his dad? How can fathers and sons grow and learn from each other – or can they?
Kevin Newman is a well known Canadian media journalist and anchorperson. In his early media career, he worked for the CBC, then got the call to anchor Good Morning America in New York. He became an Emmy and Gemini award winning journalist. He changed careers in the media frequently – each time relocating his wife and family to a new city, a new country, a new house, a new neighborhood. Newman frequently doubted his skills while others lauded them, but he never wavered in that core responsibility family men feel about “having to provide for their family”. Several years ago, Newman moved his family for what they consider the last time, back to Vancouver where he now works for CTV News and W5. Alex Newman, in 2014 named one of Canada’s top 30 under 30 by Marketing Magazine has become an art director at J. Walter Thompson and won numerous awards enroute to his current position
All Out is written by Kevin and Alex in alternating chapters (Kevin begins his first chapter with the overwhelming joy of experience’s his son’s birth, as a new father) – and they would not read or look at what the other was writing until a final manuscript took shape. So we as readers follow their stories, often covering similar periods and events, but told from the uncensored and personal perspective of each of them.
The writing is accessible, emotionally devastating at times, deeply engaging and ultimately moving. Men don’t reveal stuff like this. We don’t easily share our raw vulnerabilities, failures, doubts, nor talk easily about how to change, to love more and to love better.
This is a courageous book. It is the best book on parenting I’ve ever read, and about particularly about fathers and sons. It is helpful to know, while you are reading it, that because they are writing it together, they will come through it into a strong, supportive and loving relationship. I recommend All Out to all dads – particularly new dads as you grapple with the burdens and joys of raising that first child. And I recommend it to young men, perhaps your own sons or nephews or cousins for insight about how to evolve and keep lines of human communication open. You will likely laugh (I did) and you may cry (I did) and you will be well rewarded by the experience.

Kirkus Book Review Florence Gordon
Unexpected celebrity and long-absent family members distract a heroically cantankerous 1960s-era activist in the summer of 2009 as she reluctantly confronts the challenges of age.
Brian Morton (Breakable You, 2006, etc.) returns to the world of writers with Florence Gordon, a feisty literary lioness of the U.S. feminist movement. At 75, she has a just-published book that’s languishing, and despite years away from the limelight, she’s embarked on a memoir only to learn that her longtime editor is retiring. No matter: She treasures her solitude and “having fun trying to make the sentences come right.” Yet fame befalls her in the form of a top critic’s review of her book in the New York Times. Family matters also intrude. Her ex-husband, a vicious burned-out writer, demands that she use her contacts to get him a job. Her son and his wife are back in New York after years in Seattle. Their daughter, Emily, helps Florence with research and almost warms up the “gloriously difficult woman.” Then the matriarch’s health begins to nag her with strange symptoms. While Florence dominates the book, “each person is the center of a world,” as Emily thinks, and Morton brings each member of the small Gordon clan to life at a time when there is suddenly much to discover about their world. He’s also strewn the novel with references to books and writers and the craft itself, which is appropriate for the somewhat rarefied setting—Manhattan’s historically liberal, bookish Upper West Side, where Morton’s characters often dwell—and a treat for anyone keen on literary fiction.
Always a pleasure to read for his well-drawn characters, quiet insight and dialogue that crackles with wit, Morton here raises his own bar in all three areas. He also joins a sadly small club of male writers who have created memorable heroines.
Pub Date: Sept. 23rd, 2014 ISBN: 978-0-544-30986-9 page count: 256pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

 

Sept 2015

Book Review
As I mentioned in my editorial we lost our book reviewer Jim Jack to cancer this summer. He was a loved and admired man by both his friends and the world of music which meant so much to him. Jim will be missed by his family and friends.
Given that we are in election mode I have pulled a book review by David Miller, former Mayor of Toronto that he submitted to the Globe and Mail.
It is a review of Bob Rae’s newest book What’s Happened to Politics
While the book review and I expect the book are obviously biased against the Conservatives the review is filled with what I feel are important insights leading me to want to read more.
…Keith
What’s Happened to Politics?

I read Bob Rae’s useful and important new book, What’s Happened to Politics?, on the steps of the war memorial in St John’s. It’s a good place to think about politics – there is certainly no lack of political commentary here in St. John’s, and people have some pretty strong opinions.
Based on what I heard in a week in Newfoundland, I’d be shocked if Stephen Harper’s Conservatives win even a single seat here. Former premier Danny Williams accusing Stephen Harper of breaking his word about excluding oil revenues from equalization payments might have been the start of it, but the recent refusal to allow the son of former Conservative cabinet minister John Crosbie to run as a Conservative, apparently because he made fun of Harper in a skit, has certainly finished him off. In fact, the pithy comments I heard in a local pub would put downtown lefties in Toronto or Vancouver to shame in their clarity of disdain for Harper and his Conservative Party. I bring them up only because those conversations are extremely relevant to Rae’s book, particularly his concerns about the disengagement of Canadians from politics. One of his central points is about the permanent campaign – how political parties, led by the federal Conservatives, have changed the nature of politics to be more and more based on simplistic slogans driven by ever more polling. Personal attacks, while always a feature of politics, have become more central to the permanent campaign, as TV and radio advertisements, formerly the purview of election campaigns, run all the time. They are effective: Who among us can’t repeat that Michael Ignatieff was “just visiting” or that Justin Trudeau “isn’t up to the job”?
Behind this lies a complex campaign machinery, relying on segmentation of public opinion, increased polling and efforts to demonize one’s opponent. Rae correctly points out that while the Conservatives may have brought the permanent campaign to Canada, all parties are now endeavouring to catch up. And it’s a vicious circle: Fundraising is fed by outraged supporters whose anger needs to be constantly stoked. In these circumstances, there is little room for compromise.
Rae goes on to paint a clear and disturbing picture of the impact of the current focus on slogans and simplistic ideology on important public-policy issues. He is at his best discussing our treatment of aboriginal Canadians, but shares important thoughts on Canada’s place in the world, democratic reform, crime, and trade and the economy, among others.
Although the book is not long, it demonstrates his deep knowledge of the major public-policy challenges of our time and a coherent philosophical approach. It is not hard to see how much of a mistake the Liberal Party made by not electing him leader – intellectually, he would be a tough opponent for Harper, indeed.
He writes in a clear, often pithy way, whether to make a policy or political point. In an eloquent section about the recent failures of Canadian diplomacy, Rae takes direct aim at the current government: “Canada has become a posturer, a poseur, a political game player. Canada has become a right-wing gas bag, shouting from the sidelines. It was not always this way, and it does not have to be this way in the future.”
Later in the same chapter, he focuses on the policy implications for Canada of what he terms the new isolationism: “We are not, today, even remotely leaders on any of the critical issues facing Canada and the world. The disengagement from diplomacy has had its comic moments, but now the consequences are far more serious. We are missing the opportunity to advance Canada’s genuine interests and risk a deeper isolation than we have faced since the 1930s. This does us no good. And we shall pay an even higher price as time goes on.”
In equal measure, Rae lays blame for the current malaise on Harper and on the political process in general. The triumph of spin over substance, combined with the centralizing of power in the PMO, has, in his view, weakened our democracy and alienated the public. It’s here that I would disagree with the author – not over the analysis, which is common, but over his pessimism about change. He concludes his book by saying, “Politics is too important to be left to the politicians,” in a way that makes it clear that he’s not hopeful that such a state of citizen engagement could exist.
As a veteran of municipal politics, I have seen first-hand that people are both capable of and thirsty for engagement. City governments are legally required to engage with people over issues such as planning, and the best ones use their knowledge to invite civic participation on a range of issues. In Toronto’s case, our Listening to Toronto budget sessions, held in neighbourhoods all over the city – a form of participatory budgeting – were wildly successful and oversubscribed and provided effective suggestions that were in turn relied on by City Council in the budget debate. All it took was a government that was prepared to open the door to people. More colloquially, anyone who has taken a taxi, or had a coffee or a beer in any Canadian city knows there is no shortage of opinion or desire for change.
For me, then, there is a sense of optimism about politics and the role of Canadians. I am prepared to put my trust in them to make the change they feel is right. It is possible to agree with Rae’s observations about a corroded political system, while still acknowledging that Canadians can see through the spin and public-policy failures of a particular government. That is certainly the case in St. John’s. And if it’s true in Newfoundland, it can certainly be true across this country.
David Miller is president and CEO of WWF-Canada and former mayor of Toronto.

June 2015

Books by Canadian authors have been my focus for this past year, and for my final selection in the series, I have chosen All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. My wife and I discussed this choice at length because the story centers around the difficult subject of suicide. Suicide is a complex and tragic issue, and I was not sure that I, or anyone else, would want to read a book where it plays such a pivotal role in the story. However, in Miriam Toews’ skillful hands, the complexity of relationships and of saying goodbye is unwound to reveal, at its core, hope. She also affirms the abilities of families to find strength in their love for each other, even through profound loss. Living in the world, being part of a family, presents all of us with challenges. Toews, rather than simplifying these, embraces the complexity. It is this willingness that pushes All My Puny Sorrows into the category of a great Canadian novel for me.
The story is narrated by Yolandi. Yoli and her sister Elfrieda, or Elf as she is called, come from a family of Manitoba Mennonites. Loss, which is such a central theme in this novel, is something the sisters experience early in life. Their childhood home, built by their father, is literally loaded onto the back of a truck one day and taken away. A replacement arrives, but is not quite the same as the one their father had lovingly built for his family. This somewhat peculiar and unsettling experience foreshadows a deeper tragedy, the death of their father by suicide. The multifaceted characters that emerge out of this opening are the true joys of this book, and further testament to Toews’ skills as a writer. Yoli is a “loose cannon” who has difficulty with the concreteness of relationships. Divorced, mother to two children with different fathers, permanence in her personal relationships seems to elude her. As a professional writer, Yoli has moderate success. Elf, by contrast, is a dedicated and highly successful concert pianist. Unlike her sister, Elf has a long marriage to the same man, although they do not have any children. On a superficial level, Elf would seem to be the more stable of the sisters. As the story unfolds, however, we learn that Yoli is, in fact, the more anchored of the two, establishing a loving home in Toronto with her mother and daughter. Elf debilitated by the same depression her father suffered, is obsessed with the idea of committing suicide as he did. Even the minor characters in Toews’ story are carefully drawn and engaging. We get to know Yoli’s son Will, and Finbar, a sleazy lawyer with whom Yoli has a casual relationship. The men in the story tend to have a lower profile in the narrative, but still have an authentic presence. It is, however, the women who evolve into fully human characters as the narrative unfolds. Of course for me, novels that contain humour always seem to be more appealing and Miriam Toews demonstrates her own remarkable sense of humour in this book too.
For most of us, goodbyes are a daily experience, but rarely in a profound way. All My Puny Sorrows looks more deeply into the experience of loss and of goodbye, perhaps provoked by Toews’ own loss of her father and sister to suicide. Near the end of the novel, Yoli is given a copy of a manuscript written by Elf. Surprised that her sister had even written a book, she is caught by a passage that reads, “Though it isn’t customary to say goodbye to the reader at the end of a book, I feel that I can’t end this account without saying goodbye to you. It has turned out to be a book of goodbyes.” Perhaps All My Puny Sorrows is Miriam Toews’ way of saying her own very personal goodbyes. In any case, it is a challenging but worthwhile journey.
The theme of goodbye is also apt because this will be my last book review for Speaking Volumes. It has been an exhilarating two years of selecting and discussing worthwhile volumes to share with you, and this past year has been particularly so because the focus has been Canadiana. Sincere thanks to Keith Nymark and the Thunder Bay Seniors newspaper for the opportunity to share reflections on a wide range of books. I will be continuing Speaking Volumes as a blog starting in the fall of 2015 and I hope you will join me online as I bring you more books to consider. Meanwhile, I wish my successor in this column well and hope that he or she will find the experience as wonderful as I did. I am looking forward to finding recommendations for great books to read here.
All My Puny Sorrows – Miriam Toews. Knopf Canada, 321 pages
ISBN: 978-0-345-80800-4

May 2015

Like most people, I tend to put off tasks that are awkward, difficult, or even just unfamiliar.  This is my situation with April’s review.   It is so challenging that I am forced to return to a single volume in order to create some meaningful assessment.  It is the one genre that leaves me feeling conflicted.  I love to read this genre and I have a large list of favourite writers. But, as in my school days, my ability to analyse and understand even its greatest specimens is rudimentary at best.  I am, of course, speaking about poetry.  So with that disclaimer in place, for April I will try to explain to you what I enjoy about one of Canada’s freshest young poets, Jason Guriel and his slim volume called, Satisfying Clicking Sound.
The Poetry Foundation’s website provides some biographical background about Jason Guriel, “a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader’s Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was the first Canadian to receive the Frederick Bock Prize from Poetry magazine.” Satisfying Clicking Sound is his third volume of poetry.  He is equally renowned as an essayist and book reviewer.
What captivated me about this small volume is Guriel’s ability to playfully connect modern pop culture with its deeper historical antecedents.  He has an uncanny ability to join Steve Jobs’ “satisfying clicking sound”, a ubiquitous feature of our modern world, with the early 20th century symbolist W.B.Yeats, whose poetry also explored the extraordinary through the lens of the mundane. Multiple references to ear buds, cassette tapes, iPods, and vinyl recordings in many of the poems, link the traditional poetic genre with modern communication devices and through them, with our contemporary society.  Sometimes a stand-alone poem like “Foliage” which takes us back to Adam and Eve can be matched with “John Hancock’s John Hancock” an historical reference that is both universal and current.  His facility in stretching ordinary things like “Bendable Straws”, “Washbasins”, “ The Kitchen Sink” and “ His Father’s Stamps” into larger symbols is, for me, both emotionally and intellectually satisfying.  For more practiced poetry lovers, this reaction may be even more profound than my own.
Additionally, I have always appreciated an artist who acknowledges his sources.  Under the titles of many poems in the book, Guriel includes a reference to the source that served as his inspiration.  The second poem in this collection, “Claustrophobia” provides an excellent example.  The subtitled quote in this case is a somewhat unflattering line from a review of Guriel’s second book of poetry, Pure Product: “it is difficult for the reader to find a point of entry”.  The inward-looking musing that follows invokes the most dramatic kinds of claustrophobia – being buried alive, skin completely painted as in the Bond film, Goldfinger – so that even the final humour about “wiggle room” provides no relief.
Finally, I am a big fan of humour, and Guriel wittily juxtaposes light-hearted with more sober observations in this collection. His poem “Harebrained” starts “ You got a hare transplant.”   It then evolves into the black humour of ignorance.  That is, the rabbit is blissfully unaware of the presence of his predator or is ‘hare-brained’. Other poems revel in the inventive rhymes of “beloved and glove” “marrow and pharaoh”, or give us the obvious one-liner born of a genuine standup comic, as in the final line of the Song of the Speed Bump:  “I need to get over myself.”
I make no pretense here.  Jason Guriel has communicated a poetry that speaks to me.  I did not try unravel the complexities of symbolism.  I simply read and reread this small collection a number of times, and by the end experienced the satisfying clicking sound of poetry that connected with me.  I think it is a worthwhile journey of an hour or two.  If you haven’t tried reading poetry in a while, you may wish to re-embark on the Guriel Express.
Satisfying Clicking Sound, Jason Guriel, 68 pages, Vehicle Press, 2014
ISBN # 978-1-55065-373-1
pico.gca.tur.cu

April 2015

Everyone has a short list of all-time favourite books.  For me that list includes The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  In a rather strange and mystifying way, my Canadian selection to add to this list would appear to have little connection with personal interests and tastes.  Yet I have always treasured The Lark in the Clear Air by Dennis T. Patrick Sears, as a work that speaks to me on many levels.
To return to the conundrum for a moment, I am Scottish Presbyterian and United Empire Loyalist by background. The Lark in the Clear Air is a complete homage to all things Irish – the poetry, the culture, the environment and atmosphere.  The Lark in the Clear Air is placed in hardscrabble world of central farming Ontario during the Depression.  My life has centred  around urban areas like Toronto and Thunder Bay. It is a coming of age story that I first read when I was 27, already married, with two children. I cannot even recall from whence the inspiration to read this book came.  All I know is that Dennis T. Patrick Sears created a story that has held me through the past four decades and that I can still recall passages verbatim.
Danny Mulcahy arrives in “Brule” (consider the area somewhere between Beaverton and Lindsay, Ontario) as the result of the tragic murder-suicide of his parents. His great uncle, Mick Mulcahy, is charged with his care.  From this point, many aspects of the story mirror the experiences of the “Barnardo boys”, orphans who came from the U.K. to work the farms of Canada between 1868 and the 1930’s.  I recognize much of this from my late father-in-law who described the harsh and unfeeling environment he experienced in his ‘new home’. Danny does have a strength and work ethic that allows him to fit in with the community. He finds many of the unique characters of the area both entertaining and interesting.
Much of the book involves his maturation and relationships with the women of the area, particularly a local girl Holly and a new school teacher named Elaine. The tragedy involving Holly provides the basis for his struggles with establishing a meaningful love with Elaine. Some of this description is raw and raunchy, but there is also tenderness throughout the story. Sears balances these two aspects of Danny’s emotional and romantic life convincingly. Perhaps that is what I find moving about this particular aspect of the story.
He also writes with genuine artistry in describing the countryside, fleshing out the “bird” theme that appears throughout the novel with various examples of Irish poetry. The environment is absolutely pristine and re-awakens some of the wonder that arises when so many of life’s experiences are new to us.
Etched in tragedy and longing, the humour in this book is one of its most remarkable characteristics for me personally.  My favourite scene involves a wake, during which Uncle Mick Mulcahy pronounces that the most interesting feature about the deceased was that he was almost completely “nugatory.”  Heads around the room nod knowingly, some wished they had said that and a solemn hush falls.  Danny rushes home to consult his dictionary and learns that the magic word actually means “useless.”
Dennis T. Patrick Sears died shortly after completely this work. He has two other novels that are, in my opinion, pale imitations.  The Lark In The Clear Air, is based on a poem by Samuel Ferguson in 1850 – a wedding poem that has seen many lyrical performances and effectively captures the essence of Sears’ novel”

The Lark in the Clear Air By Sir Samuel Ferguson

Dear thoughts are in my mind
And my soul soars enchanted,
As I hear the sweet lark sing
In the clear air of the day.
For a tender beaming smile
To my hope has been granted,
And tomorrow she shall hear
All my fond heart would say.

I shall tell her all my love,
All my soul’s adoration;
And I think she will hear
And will not say me nay.
It is this that gives my soul
All its joyous elation,
As I hear the sweet lark sing
In the clear air of the day.
For me, The Lark In The Clear Air is a treasure that I cannot explain.  But I cannot help but recommend it as an opportunity to share in an undiscovered wealth.

The Lark In The Clear Air – Dennis T. Patrick Sears, McClelland and Stewart, 1974, 190 pages,  ISBN # 0-7710-8027-1

March 2015

I was thinking the other day about my love of reading and to wax nostalgic for a moment, “from whence it arose.” The more I thought about it, my inspiration for reading didn’t come from a classical novel or Shakespeare or even a best selling book. In my first year of high school, I read The Most Dangerous Game, To Build a Fire , and Leiningen Versus the Ants. This is not to say that I began reading in high school, but simply that the works I remember some fifty years later were all of the same type – short stories. I realized that I seldom read this form of literature anymore, which is why I have decided to dedicate my March review to this lost passion. Predictably, some may say, I have chosen Canada’s own 2013 Nobel Prize winner, Alice Munro, as one of my authors. And, since in January I decided to look at books in pairs, I hope to introduce some of you to another Canadian gem of a short story writer, Bill Gaston.

How to select only one Alice Munro collection? Impossible. Nevertheless I am going to recommend The Progress of Love (1986) because it stands squarely in the middle of her body of work and because it won the Governor-General’s Award for Literature – certainly an omen of awards to come. I have paired it with Gaston’s Juliet Was a Surprise. I chose Bill Gaston because he is a revelation to me, represents a part of our nation I haven’t examined before and has published in four areas of literature and also in non-fiction. His short stories have been nominated for both a Governor-General’s award and a Giller Prize.

Alice Munro demonstrates all the qualities of efficiency and brevity in her stories while inviting us into depth and complexity. One of my favourite stories here is Lichen, in which “a fungoidal growth or eruption” is used as an image of the progress of love. David visits his ex-wife at her country home near Lake Huron. Catherine, his girlfriend, accompanies him. In the course of the visit, he discloses a photograph of Dina, with whom he is now enamored. Stella, the wife of 21 years, is able to discern David’s journey of love as the lichen in the picture of Dina. Stella is the rock on which the algae (Catherine) becomes the lover Dina (the lichen). It is a classic Munro unraveling of relationships with a strong independent woman at its foundation. Equally impressive for me are the stories, Monsieur Les Deux Chapeaux – the moment when Ross shows himself to Colin on the bridge is magical and confirms the responsibility of siblings to look after one another – and Circle of Prayer, in which the throwing of a jug reflects the perfect arc of a story. Most people would also include the initial story as one of the most complete examples of the “progress of love.”   This is not to say that I was impressed by all the stories. Eskimo and Miles City, Montana both to me reflect a lightness and superficiality that make the stories less interesting than their nine companions. My final reflection is on Alice Munro’s extraordinary ability to generate complexity out of the mundane.

Bill Gaston, while equally enjoyable as a read, seems to function in the opposite direction. He takes characters who are suave, knowledgeable and urbane and then weaves stories that seem to reduce most of them to some individual characteristic that is visceral, basic and uncomplicated. For example, the first story, House Clowns, involves a man who returns to his rented cabin to find two young strangers, a man and a woman, who have apparently rented the cabin as well. With no way to resolve the double booking (the owner being unavailable in Europe), all three decide to share the accommodation. Through a series of revelations, the man becomes more and more paranoid, and while the result may be obvious, the story enfolds in a fascinating way and the denouement is hilarious. Then there is Any Forest Seen From Orbit. This story involves a physically plain man, an arborist, who receives a call to salvage a deodora cedar tree that is threatening some sewage lines. He encounters the wife, who makes explicit sexual overtones while her husband is preparing to go out with friends to watch a hockey game. After the adultery, the gardener is dismissed, literally fired and told not to return. The tree will be destroyed by another, mindless tree removal company. With this betrayal, the tree man resorts to a mindless act of revenge with dramatic consequences. Four Corners, the final story in this collection is a jumble of lust, neglect and jealousy that again culminates in the worst result. All of the stories in the book are fascinating, and highlight Gaston’s ability to reduce the characters while championing the narrative. And as one tip of the hat to subtle complexity, he does not have a story in the book called “Juliet Was a Surprise.” The genesis of the title is for you, the reader to discover.

I found that I had a difficult time in regaining my love for the short story with this review. These writers are far more sophisticated than those who wrote the stories I loved in my youth. I had many friends tell me when I embarked on this journey that they didn’t like short stories at all, “too little plot, too little character development, too little everything.” I’m glad I rose to that challenge and found a great deal of everything in these stories by two wonderful Canadian writers. I will continue to look for works from Alice Munro and Bill Gaston.

 

The Progress of Love, Alice Munro, 421 pages, Penguin Paperback, 1987

ISBN 0-14-009879-8

Juliet Was A Surprise, Bill Gaston, 201 pages, Hamish Hamilton Pub(Penguin), 2014

ISBN 978-0-14-319241-19 (pbk)

Two Books to Consider

“Do you believe in magic?” (The Lovin’ Spoonful)

“And the princess and the prince discuss what is real and what is

not” (Bob Dylan)

Ah February, the month of Cupid, valentines and romance. My first major obsession or enchantment was not with a person, but with card tricks. I was completely smitten by the world of magic as a youngster.

I spent hours trying to master illusions, and what little spending money I had went toward buying objects that would expand my magical “bag of tricks”. As an adult, magicians continue to fascinate me, none more

so than Harry Houdini. So for February, I offer a pair of books, both fiction, both by Canadians, and both capturing the magic of Houdini, from dramatically different perspectives.

The first is The Confabulist by Steven Galloway. Galloway, a creative writing professor at the University of British Columbia, achieved international recognition with his 2008 book The Cellist of Sarajevo.

That novel was selected by the Toronto Public Library as the “One Book” to be read across the city this past spring. Galloway’s most recent effort, The Confabulist, is the story of the relationship between Houdini and Martin Strauss, the man who was responsible for his death.

In this novel, Martin Strauss is the fictional name Galloway creates for J. Gordon Whitehead, the McGill student who, on October 22, 1926, punched Houdini unexpectedly. The damage inflicted by the blows is widely believed to have caused the peritonitis that took Houdini’s life nine days later on Hallowe’en. Partially through Martin Strauss, the reader becomes privy to Houdini’s life as a magician, his involvement in international espionage, his romantic relationships, and his attacks on the occult. Galloway spins a remarkable tale that includes a cast of characters from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Rasputin to Harry Houdini himself. Martin Strauss is the “confabulist” who complicates the story with memories true and created, and is the perfect foil for an honest magician who acknowledges a logical explanation for all his ill usions.

Compare the complexity of this adult offering with Saving Houdini, author Michael Redhill’s first venture into young adult fiction. Redhill is best know for his novel Martin Sloane, a finalist for the 2001 Giller Prize. In this book, we find a young man, Dashiel Woolf, transported back through time eighty-five years by way of a magic trick “gone terribly wrong”. He finds himself in the Toronto of his grandfather’s day, just prior to Houdini’s fateful encounter with Gordon Whitehead. Dashiel soon realizes that time travel has presented him with two challenges: to save the life of Harry Houdini, and to somehow return to modern day Toronto. This is a fast-paced adventure that extols the virtues of friendship and family. What makes this book  emarkable is its appeal to readers of all ages.

The Confabulist and Saving Houdini embrace the romance of magic, both in its literal sense, and in the sense of wonder in finding purpose in living. Both of these books demonstrate remarkable craftsmanship in the writing, the fullness of character, the complications of plot, and the levels of meaning in the stories. Martin Strauss and Dashiel Woolf take us to new imaginary heights in acknowledging the mystique of Harry Houdini. The real test of the enjoyment of these two volumes was the need I had to investigate the real person of Harry Houdini after I had read them. Most people have at least a passing knowledge of Houdini, the magician, and his untimely death. These novels reveal many fascinating details of his remarkable life.

These two works I recommend most heartily at this time of year because of the romance of the subject matter and the love that these authors demonstrate for it and for their craft. Even if the world of magic is not one that normally attracts you, I suggest that sorting out the complexities of a “confabulist” and a young time traveler, both obsessed with arguably the greatest magician of all time, is a worthy romantic pursuit this February.

The Confabulist by Steven Galloway, Alfred A Knopf Canada, 2014,

301 pages,

ISBN # 978-0-307-40085-7

Saving Houdini by Michael Redhill, Harper Collins Canada,2014,

271 pages,

ISBN #978-1-44340-994-0

 

Above All Things and Into The Silence

The dead of winter, snow piled high, winds howling, freezing temperatures. Northwestern Ontario could well be the setting for the volumes I’m talking about this month. However, I’d like to take you to a magical place, far away and perhaps not so long ago. It is a place that has been the inspiration for many tales, fictional, fantastical and real. My review will look at two such accounts, written by Canadians, from dramatically opposite perspectives. The contrast is significant – one is a first time author weaving a creative story from a character perspective, the other a veteran author of many celebrated non-fiction works. Tanis Rideout in Above All Things explores the relationship between George Mallory, the world famous mountain climber who was the focus of the three British expeditions in the early 1920’s to conquer Mount Everest, and his wife Ruth. Our second author, Wade Davis, writes a massive documentary of these three hikes with Mallory at the centre. He includes an expansive account of all the participants and their adventures, in his book Into the Silence.

Tanis Rideout focuses her story on the Mallory family. Ruth and George have an uneasy love, mainly due to George’s ambition and sense of adventure. The pressure to conquer Mount Everest seems to consume him and distance him from his family. After introducing the two main characters in an intimate personal way, the book shifts dramatically. Rideout interchanges scenes of the final assault on Everest with the experiences of Mallory’s family waiting for news of the climb at home. Above All Things, with its dramatic and inventive conversations, is historical fiction, and there are some extraordinary liberties taken here. Mallory’s brother Trafford is killed in the Great War in her account. In reality he dies much later after the Second World War. The mysterious woman in the novel, Stella, is shown in an adulterous relationship with George, though this is not proved by any documentation. These fictional details combined with the actual correspondence between Ruth and George, help make a riveting story that engaged me, even though the outcome was known in advance.

Wade Davis’ book makes this very point in his first sentence of Into The Silence. Mallory and his partner Andrew “Sandy” Irvine disappear on Everest. The motivation for Davis’ book, 12 years in the writing, was the discovery of Mallory’s body on Everest in 1999, 75 years after he and Irvine went missing. What Wade Davis does in his book is create a meticulous yet vast panorama of the entire set of Everest expeditions from 1921 to the final moment in 1924 when the quest was abandoned. Whether Mallory reached the top before succumbing is a mystery that is beyond speculation.

The full title of his book is Into The Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest. Davis provides the necessary background for this set of voyages into the heights. The British, obsessed by the failure of leadership in the First World War, seek redemption by going where no man had gone before. They had also lost the races to discover the “Poles” (North and South), which made the urgency to conquer Everest even more acute. Mallory is the ideal candidate for this effort. As Davis points out, “colonials” like George Finch from Australia and Oliver Wheeler of Canada made enormous contributions to the first Everest expeditions in two important ways. Finch created a breathing apparatus for the use of oxygen at high altitudes and Wheeler discovered the ultimate route to the summit of the North Face. Yet they received little respect from their British counterparts and for the final attempt in 1924, only British climbers, led by Mallory, were allowed to participate. Davis chronicles each of these expeditions with full documentation including the scientific discoveries of unique flora and fauna.

To compare these two books is like seeing personal snapshots, slightly out of focus, alongside the panoramic landscapes of Anselm Adams. Interestingly, both books were published within six months in 2012 and therefore stand independent of the other. Both books recreate a fascinating period in British history, as they show the decline of empire. The strength of Tanis Rideout is her descriptive and evocative prose, while Wade Davis demonstrates “an astonishing piece of research”. Both books involve a subject matter that is attractive to the ordinary reader. Both books have been finalists in book awards. If you are looking for an exotic adventure in the dead of winter, these books provide that experience.

A large part of my personal goal was the fun of examining these two books together. And what better time to embark on reading about this struggle against the frigid, perilous forces of nature with the future of an empire at stake, than in the cocoon of a warm hearth in January.

Above All Things: Tanis Rideout, 368 pages, McClelland and Stewart,

2012, ISBN 978-0-7710-7635-0

Into the Silence: Wade Davis, 672 pages, Knopf Canada, 2011

ISBN 978-0-375- 40889-2

Angel Square

Last year at this time, I reflected on the spirit of the season and offered a book that would satisfy two criteria. It would not take long to read, therefore not infringing overly on the busyness of this time of year. And secondly, it could be shared by any number of people. I used my classroom as an audience. This year’s selection has an additional plus. It was written by a Canadian and takes place in our nation’s capital – Ottawa. For your holiday enjoyment, I would like to recommend “Angel Square” by Brian Doyle.

Angel Square is the central intersection of the working class neighbourhood of Ottawa, known as Lowertown. It is home to “Pea Soups, Dogans, and Jews” so you know you are in a different time period when political correctness was not yet a concept. At the same time, you are treated to the nostalgia of Quick Quaker Oats, nonsense songs like “Chicory Chick,” streetcar barns, “flat fifties” and a multitude of other references to my childhood. Brian Doyle has captured an era, the period immediately following the Second World War, or the beginning of the Baby Boomers.

The story is first and foremost a mystery. Tommy aka The Shadow ( yes – Lamont Cranston, the Shadow) learns of the brutal beating of his friend Sammy’s father. It is so severe that Sammy and family have disappeared. Tommy and his friends investigate the incident. At the same time, Tommy is working at various jobs to purchase his presents for family and friends.

This is a coming of age story that discovers tolerance in an atmosphere fraught with intolerance. While Tommy is surrounded by churches and religious communities, he himself serves all of them and his prayer – he had never prayed before – is a simple but eloquent summation of a young man’s plea for a better world. The treasure here, I believe, is that this prayer is the real climax of the story. The consistency of this story reveals itself in the somewhat gentle treatment of the criminal.

Brian Doyle has created a wonderful story for December. Some of the authentic qualities are generated from his own biography. He had a sister who was intellectually challenged and Tommy’s sister Pamela in this story is as well. His ability to find subtlety in a child’s world of absolutes – the first chapter is full of “best, worst, stupidest , etc. and the need to categorize brings Tommy’s world to life. Doyle has lived in Ottawa for most of his life and the references are all historically accurate, He is a four time winner of children’s literature prizes and this ability to communicate from a youth perspective is never clearer than in Angel Square.

I look forward to renewing this tradition a year from now, Perhaps I could ask you, the reader, to suggest personal favourites that fit the criteria established. If you don’t recall, last year’s selection was ” The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” by Barbara Robinson. Happy holidays, everyone.

Angel Square by Brian Doyle, Groundwood Books, House of Anansi Press, 1984, 143 pages, ISBN 978-0-88899-609-1

The Rites of Spring

While you may be reading this review in November, I am actually writing it on August 4. What??s the significance? August 4, 1914 marked the beginning of World War I when Great Britain declared war on Germany. If you remember my first review of this new series, one of the significant themes for this year was the centenary of the Great War. Both of my grandfathers fought in this conflict, both were wounded, and both survived to tell their grandson some chilling firsthand tales of the “war to end all wars.” It is in this framework that I consider “The Rites of Spring” by Modris Eksteins. His book is not simply a fresh historical look at how the first World War led to the second, but a carefully considered philosophical and cultural approach to these epic struggles.

Modris Eksteins is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toronto (Scarborough). After emigrating from Latvia as a young boy, he attended Upper Canada College through a remarkable set of circumstances. Eksteins went on to attend the University of Toronto, won a Rhodes Scholarship and eventually received his doctorate in philosophy from Oxford University. In addition to earlier academic works, he wrote The Rites of Spring in 1989, Walking Since Daybreak in 1999, and most recently, Solar Dance in 2012. A genuine intellectual, his books are both interesting and accessible to a wider audience. After its publication, The Rites of Spring won the Wallace K. Ferguson Prize from the Canadian Historical Society, a Trillium Book Award, and the Literary Review of Canada named it “one of the 100 best books to be published in Canada”.

Eksteins writes: “The Great War was the psychological turning point for Germany and for modernism as a whole. The urge to create and the urge to destroy changed places.” This is the crux, or the “big idea”, of this book. It is not a chronological account of the First World War but a well-documented examination of how a cultural phenomenon was reflected both on the battlefield and in the years after the war. The title of the book is borrowed from Igor Stravinsky??s ballet The Rite of Spring. In using it, Eksteins acknowledges Stravinsky??s work as a pivotal artistic expression of modernism that reflects a central motif for that time in history – movement. The ballet premiered in Paris a year before the war began. With its primitive energy and depiction of renewed life through sacrificial death, it has become a symbol of a twentieth-century world that, in its quest for life, killed off millions of its best human beings.

As you read this review, you will also be in the shadow of Remembrance Day. I mentioned my grandfathers. My paternal grandfather used to take me out on the lake in Muskoka and row tirelessly. At the same time he would describe scenes and images so fantastic, so grotesque that it has taken the reading of this book to bring meaning to them for me. The Rites of Spring has been a personal epiphany, powerfully connecting me to my grandfather??s stories of his experience as an ordinary foot soldier in the Great War. My maternal grandfather was a signalman, who told me that, although the Geneva Convention specifically identified communications soldiers as exempt from direct fire, he and his colleagues were often the first targets, as the enemy sought to destroy contact between the soldiers and their commanders. This utter disregard for the rules of combat is starkly illustrated in Eksteins?? analysis of the tactics employed during the war. These were tactics that, through their brutality and futility, slowed the momentum of the war to a snail??s pace and eliminated any idea of a higher purpose. Lest we forget.

Eksteins then extends his theme through the 1920??s with the phenomenon of Charles Lindbergh??s solo flight across the Atlantic. Lindbergh was the iconic celebrity who was mobbed and celebrated by crowds in Paris and London. He was the man of action who overcame obstacles of nature and human limitation with technology. Flight was his expression of movement. Eksteins paints him as the role model of the post-war era, at least from the point of view of the Allied countries. In contrast to the triumphant quality of Lindbergh??s story, All Quiet On The Western Front, showed the lost generation of World War I through the experiences of the German soldiers. Its author, novelist Erich Maria Remarque, emerged as an eloquent spokesperson for a generation that had been, in his own words, “destroyed by war, even though it might have escaped its shells.” All Quiet On The Western Front would sell 2.5 million copies and become a successful motion picture. Eksteins points out that, although Remarque too was a handsome, popular public figure, he was vilified by the Nazis, and had his book banned and burned in 1933. Remarque??s realistic depiction of trench warfare from the perspective of young soldiers struck a chord with the war??s survivors?soldiers and civilians alike. With its anti-war sentiment it was at odds with the emerging National Socialism political movement. These tensions between heroism and horror emerge as key characteristics of Ekstein??s premise.

Eksteins closes the book by describing the scene where, on learning of Hitler??s suicide, the other occupants of the bunker begin to dance. He neatly brings us back to Stravinsky??s epochal Rite of Spring, where, with the death of the central figure, the celebration of life continues.

The Rites of Spring is a book to read this November. Lest we forget.

The Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age by Modris Eksteins, Random House, 431 pages, ISBN 978-0-307-36176-9

 

Speaking Volumes: A Book To Consider

I??m back for my second year of reviews. Summer offers such a wonderful time for reflection as far as books are concerned. Through May and June, I collected a list of potential works to share with you this year. Then, the CBC created a list of one hundred “must-reads” by Canadian authors that sent me in an entirely different direction. The number one hundred started me thinking about important centennial moments, like the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) where I am a volunteer, and the beginning of the Great War, WWI. Out of all this, the word “extraordinary” somehow emerged as a challenge to me. How do I make this year??s series of reviews “extraordinary”? With these disparate influences, a plan emerged. I invite you to come with me, on what I hope will be an unusual and extraordinary yearlong voyage of discovery.

Many of you will know that I have been a volunteer at the ROM for the past two years. 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of its opening on March 19, 1914. One of the ways in which the yearlong celebration was launched, was the publication of a book called Every Object Has A Story. This beautiful presentation of what is probably considered a “coffee-table” book is an anthology of twenty-one objects, introduced by curators of the ROM, celebrated by 21 “extraordinary” Canadians ? astronauts, filmmakers, scientists, writers and decorated by the photographs of brilliant Canadian artists. The added bonus is that this remarkable book will cost you about the same as a bestseller (or less).

For those of us who are so geographically removed from the ROM that regular visits are unlikely, this book is a rich collection of objects that showcase some of the most interesting pieces in the museum, which is actually owned by the people of Ontario. If you were to take a museum “highlights” tour, the guides would point out at least half of the objects in the book as they walked you through the three floors of the museum. Why is this important? Most people don??t know that there are more than six million objects stored by the ROM. These are some of the most significant. But enough of this, what about the book?

The curators from the ROM provide the groundwork for the examination of each item, and then get out of the way for the superstars to do their work. After three readings, I still find new favorites for discoveries of information and brilliant writing. My last excursion involved objects chosen by the poets in the book. Austin Clarke, who is sometimes referred to as Canada??s “first multicultural writer” pens an Ode to Sea Molluscs, both descriptive and historical “to see the real molluscs, one of these days, get drown.” Nigerian born Uzoma Esonwanne, now a professor at the University of Toronto, utilizes perhaps the most clever turn of phrase in describing the Ikem headdress, ” Eight Decades and I, a trophy, am atrophied.” And children??s author Sheree Fitch, on Gordo, the Barosaurus, “I was a species, gone to pieces/ Forgotten, lost, ignored/A skeleton in a closet/My bones long stored in drawers.”

It would be misleading to suggest that all of the 21 presentations here were satisfying to me. I found Joseph Boyden??s fascination with the discovery of the Blackfoot Robe in Scotland more interesting than the robe itself. Linden MacIntyre struggles, trying to salvage the grandeur of the Assyrian Lion through a tenuous connection with the World Book Encyclopaedia. Both these efforts, made by two of my favourite authors by the way, seemed to miss the mark. The reader however, may want to take issue with these judgments.

That said, there are so many wonderful reflections here. Robert Bateman and Guy Vanderhaage, both with personal connections to the ROM in their youth, reflect nostalgically on passenger pigeons and the parasaurolophus. The historian, Margaret MacMillan, also a young devotee of the ROM, provides an insightful and delightful look at the Black Opal. This particular essay is decorated by, in my opinion, the most spectacular photography in the collection. Canadian novelist Lawrence Hill presents a provocative piece on the Edo Plaque. Throughout this collection there is the ever-present balance between natural and human cultural history that make the ROM unique in the world.

For me, the most satisfying presentation of this volume is David MacFarlane??s creative and challenging homage to Bull, the White Rhino. This is brilliant writing. Starting from a place that bemoans the loss of the “serious” face- W.H. Auden. Humphrey Bogart, Charles DeGaulle – Macfarlane leads us to serious questions about extinct species, nobility in the face of decline, and concludes with a challenge to leadership. The last four sentences of MacFarlane??s reflection characterize all that is truly extraordinary about this book.

There are two added bonuses here. The opening preface of the book could hold valuable advice for any institution that has survived the last hundred years and faces an uncertain future. And the final thirty pages are a fascinating look at “A Century of Acquisitions”, in essence a short history of the ROM itself.

And so, I start my journey this year with something truly extraordinary ? a book that should provide satisfaction for almost every reader and yet, is not likely to be a best seller. Every Object Has A Story: Extraordinary Canadians Celebrate the Royal Ontario Museum, is the beginning of my investigation into the best writing Canada has to offer. I??m not just talking fiction here, either.

Every Object Has A Story: Extraordinary Canadians Celebrate the Royal Ontario Museum:

ROM anthology, 188 pages, 2014, House of Anansi Press, ISBN # 978-1-77089-486-0

Brave Genius

At one point in this yearly collection of book reviews I considered comparing Neil Young??s autobiographical “Waging Heavy Peace” with “I??m Your Man”, Sylvie Simmons biography of Leonard Cohen. While I found that I would recommend the latter as an excellent capture of one of Canada??s music legends, the former was tried and found wanting. I was happy to discover, however, another compelling yet different type of biography that involved two heroes, “Brave Genius” by Sean Carroll. For my final offering, I am grateful I chose this example.

Brave Genius is the story of two strange bedfellows connected by their shared history in the French resistance in World War Two, their amazing feat of winning the Nobel Prize in two dramatically different areas, and, in spite of a very limited personal connection, their shared philosophy or world view. This is the story of two of the “most insightful minds” of the Twentieth Century, a scientist named Jacques Monod and an author named Albert Camus.

Biography is a rather loose term for this book, in that fragments of their earlier lives are disclosed through the fall of France and their separate participation in the Resistance movement during the war. In fact more than half the book is taken with the historical setting and evaluation of the Resistance and Monod and Camus?? quite different roles. Monod was the action man, physically carrying out raids on railways and other communication lines. Camus, the writer and journalist who captured the spirit of the Free French with his articles in the underground journal Combat. Indeed most of the first two segments of this book are more WW II history than biography.

After the war, Jacques Monod returns to his laboratory at the Louis Pasteur Institute where he and his colleagues develop some wonderful experiments and insightful discoveries in the world of molecular biology. I must confess that, in spite of the author??s attempts to render this science accessible to the layman, I found myself more drawn to the accounts of Monod??s activism. Monod was instrumental in securing the escape of a prominent Hungarian scientist after the revolution in 1956. It was his scientific work however, that culminated in the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1965.

Perhaps more well-known is Albert Camus, a writer and philosopher sometimes identified with the Existentialist camp of modern thought. He, however, renounced that label and considered himself an absurdist. He is famous for his novels, The Stranger and The Plague, and his essays The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel. Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 “for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times”. Camus too became embroiled in a revolutionary cause, the Algerian conflict in the 1950??s, but again, only through his writings.

Surprisingly, the friendship of these two men is established in just 34 pages of the book. It arises as the result of separate but similar conclusions about the failure of Communist science and social engineering. Camus?? very public falling out with fellow French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre over the Stalin form of totalitarianism came at the same time Monod was writing a scathing rebuke of Soviet science as espoused by Trofim Lysenko, a “biologist ” favourite of Stalin. This meeting of the minds established a lifelong relationship between Monod and Camus.

Brave Genius, in its concluding section, points out the shared philosophy of these two men. They both extol the triumph of transcendence ? the revolt against death that involves living life passionately and to the fullest. Monod??s bestselling book Chance and Necessity quotes at its conclusion the final words of Camus?? The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus argued that Sisyphus created meaning in his own life by deciding that “the struggle towards the heights is enough to fill his own heart.” He concluded his essay, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” These were the words Monod chose to quote at the conclusion of his book.

While this book is challenging as an examination of ideas, it is worth the journey. While it is strongly weighted in terms of history over biography, it gives real insight into the minds of these brave geniuses.

It has been a real joy to provide these monthly forays into the world of books. I can only hope that at least one of these examples can provide some motivation for you, the reader to investigate. Thank you for allowing me this opportunity to share my fascination with the written word with you.

Brave Genius by Sean B Carroll, 497 pages, 2013, Crown Publishing House

ISBN # – 9780-307-95233-2

The Golden Finch by Donna Tartt
When Matt Galloway of CBC??s Metro Morning said that he had stayed up all weekend to finish reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, I was intrigued.? The seven hundred and seventy-one page novel chronicles the life of thirteen year old Theo Decker, who, because of a childhood tragedy, is drawn into the underbelly of the art world. Soon after hearing the radio program, I came across a newspaper article describing the 2013 discovery of some sixteen hundred missing masterpieces in Germany, and this seemed like another sign that The Goldfinch should be on my reading list.? When, upon further investigation, I learned that the author had only written three books since 1992, I was convinced. I needed to read this book.? Centered around Theo Decker, the story details his fourteen year odyssey with a painting by an obscure Dutch master, Carel Fabritius.? Where the journey takes him and how he gets there – physically, emotionally and spiritually – is masterfully drawn.? I was captivated by the story and consider it one of my best reads of the year.? I only hesitate to suggest it to book clubs due to its length of some 770 pages.
So, what catapulted The Goldfinch to the top of the book pile?? First, the characters are so carefully constructed that you remember almost all of them. The mother who dies so senselessly in the first thirty pages and yet is provided with an almost complete biography, the school pals who keep reappearing in maturer form, the menacing business associate, Rivard, the loves of Theo??s life, Kitsey and Pippa, all are fully realized. This entire cast of characters could be eligible for best supporting awards. Theo, at the centre, is a resilient survivor, but could never be described as the hero of the story. And this fact is what makes the book remarkable for me.? There are no completely sympathetic characters. Donna Tartt has been able to construct a huge canvass in which you accept the authenticity of these figures as the basis of their value.? Like all of us, the characters have their flaws as well as their virtues.
Secondly, the pace of this story is remarkable. The first third of the book with its explosive opening, is a whirlwind.? One might be concerned that in the next part of the novel, which moves to Las Vegas, the plot would grind to a halt. Las Vegas, a wasteland where only the artificial is valued seems an unlikely location for a story that relies on character development to hold the reader??s attention.? However, it is the strength of the characters and the relationships that are somehow grown in the empty suburban desert that hold our attention.? And always the painting of the Goldfinch is present. After his teen years in Las Vegas, Theo returns to New York, and reunites with the antique dealer, Hobie, where he forges a successful career as Hobie??s business partner. Theo??s business – the selling of ??recycled?? antique furniture as original – coupled with his original illegal acquisition of the Goldfinch painting propel the story to Europe for the climax.?? When the denouement takes twice as long to unfold as the tragic opening did, one might anticipate an ending that feels bloated and overdrawn.? It is, in fact, some of the most brilliant writing of the novel.? When plot comes to an end, the impact of Donna Tartt??s story takes us to a place beyond ? to a place of meaning, or as she refers to it, ?? a rainbow edge??where all art exists, and all magic.? And all??love.??
Finally the themes of guilt, aesthetic beauty, and social class in America are all explored here.? Theo??s survivor guilt and that guilt that chains him to the painting are found throughout the book.? The painting and art in general (music, antiques, the written word) play a critical role in advancing the story and the characters. The Barbour family who initially adopt Theo after the tragedy are ??establishment wealth?? while Theo??s father and girlfriend are lowbrow, suburban middle class people of the sort who celebrate their ??anniversary with steak at Delmonicos and? the Jon Bon Jovi concert at? the MGM Grand??.? Donna Tartt is at her satirical best in describing the layers of American society.
And for me the most serendipitous part of this whole exercise is that this book was written over the span of a decade, yet appeared only a few months after the discovery, in 2013,of a huge collection of ??decadent?? art that had been stolen by the Nazis during the Second World War, worth billions.? The Goldfinch is a real painting.? Art imitating life in an original but parallel way made this a treasured discovery for me.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt 771 pages 2014 Little Brown Pub,
ISBN 978-0-316-05543-7
The Priority List by David Menasche
A week or so ago, I revisited a YouTube video called The Last Lecture: Achieving Your Childhood Dreams by Professor Randy Pausch.? It was the first ??viral?? video I had ever watched, back in 2007.? Pausch was a brilliant computer science professor who was diagnosed with a virulent pancreatic cancer and, in fact, died about a year after delivering this speech.? Today you can find more than 200 quotes taken from this lecture using a simple computer search.? I mention this inspirational work, which was also made into a book, because I have just read The Priority List by David Menasche.? I found it compelling in many similar ways.
Menasche was a Florida high school teacher.? I should point out a significant difference between this story and The Last Lecture here. Mr. Menasche is still alive, just not practicing his vocation as a teacher any longer.? David Measche was a successful high school English teacher whose 15-year career culminated in a National Teaching Award.? He was diagnosed with a crippling brain tumour in 2006, but continued to teach until blindness and weakness on his left side forced him to retire in 2012.? At that point he embarked on a life saving adventure where, through social media, he reconnected with about 75 of his former students and made a solo journey around the United States to visit them. The Priority List: A Teacher??s Final Quest to Discover Life??s Greatest Lessons is the result of that journey.
The title comes from an exercise Menasche devised while teaching Othello. It involved a list of values that students were asked to identify and evaluate in all the major characters of the play. The list is found at the end of his book. Of the many creative ways he approached engaging his students in some sophisticated analysis, this one seems to be the most powerful.? It was also the one for which he was most remembered, along with his deep sense of empathy and the simple ability to listen to students.
Menasche??s journey took over 101 days during which he visited the 75 students, and each chapter is concluded by the students?? reflections about his influence on them. Menasche, in turn, is humbled by the lessons he learns from them and it is clearly a mutual admiration society. One of the most poignant and humorous moments in the book is when he changes his phone ringtone to ??If I Only Had A Brain??.
Initially, I was prepared to have reservations about this book. In the first few chapters, Menasche comes across as a larger than life super teacher with an impossible work ethic and an answer for every situation. By the time he embarks on his quest, one that results in his separation from his wife who describes the trip as a ??suicide mission,?? I was won over.? And of course, he not only survives this journey, he is rejuvenated by it, and lives today in New Orleans, Louisiana.
To bring this full circle, Randy Pausch delivered his final speech to Carnegie Melon University in May 2008, 4 months before he died.? In it he said two things. ??It is not the things we do that we regret when we meet the Reaper, it is the things we do not.?? And secondly, ??Our passion cannot be found in things or money, but is fueled from within, grounded in people.?? David Menasche??s Priority List seems evidence of a continuation of this line of thought. It also reinforces an idea that I found as a criterion for reading any book, a statement from James Bryce ? ?? The worth of a book is measured by what you carry away from it.??
The Priority List: A Teacher??s Final Quest To Discover Life??s Greatest Lessons
David Menasche,? Touchstone Press, 2014, 240 pages ISBN-10: 1476743444