Archive for December, 2011

2011 – A good reading year

December 31, 2011 Leave a comment

It was a year for good reading, and the outpouring of new books — despite problems besetting the publishing and book selling communities — never let up in 2011.

While I enjoy a good novel, my reading preference has always been for non-fiction. I read heavily for research. I’ve been soaking up many books on French and Parisian history, as I hope to do a book some day on a particular episode in French history in which I’ve long had an interest.

But at year’s end, I’ll differentiate from reading for research and reading for pleasure. This posting is about reading for pleasure.

I find the Best Seller lists to be indifferent guides to my own choices. In the Globe and Mail’s year-end non-fiction and fiction best seller lists (25 each), I found only three books that I’d cared enough about to buy and read. I did better by the National Post with its best books of 2011.

Three I enjoyed from that (shorter)  list were Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson (Simon and Schuster Canada) and two novels, The Paris Wife, by Paula McClain (Bond Street Books) and  A Good Man by Guy Vanderhaeghe (McClelland and Stewart). My reviews  of A Good Man and The Paris Wife are in my archives.

My choice for book of the year in the non-fiction department is In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson (Crown Publishers). This is a provocative and compelling account of the rise of Nazi Germany, as seen through the eyes of U.S. Ambassador William E. Dodd and his family — especially his daughter, Martha. As gripping as any thriller, it portrays the family’s encounters with high Nazi officials (Martha was introduced to Hitler at a lunch) and reveals the monstrous details of the German regime that were evident within months of Hitler’s taking power.

Dodd arrives in Berlin as a naive university professor, convinced from the student days he spent in Germany that the cultured nation he knew so well would never embrace the evil threats that  accompanied Hitler’s rise to power. Mildly anti-Semitic himself, he is at first an apologist for Germany’s persecution of its Jews, but it is not long before he comes to realize “Mankind is in grave danger, but democratic governments seem to not know what to do.” Dodd is eased out of his ambassadorship, and returns to America disillusioned with both his own country and Germany.

I found a second book by Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City (Crown), equally enthralling. This is also  a gem of narrative non-fiction writing, and tells the story of the architects behind the Chicago’s World’s Fair of 1893, and the monster who lurked unseen in that city at the same time, indulging in murders and depravity without apparent interference.

A fine  book, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival (Vintage Canada) by John Vaillant, won the $50,000 British Columbia prize for Canadian non-fiction in 2011.As readable as any novel, it deals with the fine balance between nature, wildlife, and man in Russian Siberia. Focused on the behavior of one particular man-eating tiger, it also describes the environmental desecration that brought on a frightful confrontation between the animal and the men who work the Russian taiga. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the tiger.

I enjoyed The Tiger almost as much as Vaillant’s earlier work, The Golden Spruce, about the destruction of the oldest and largest tree in B.C.’s Haida Gwaii islands. Both books carry strong environmental messages which resonate equally powerfully.

Another Canadian book that I enjoyed this year was Charles Foran’s Mordecai Richler biography, Mordecai: The Life and Times ((Alfred A. Knopf). It scored the hit trick in Canadian non-fiction prizes, and deservedly so.

Two books I read largely for research, both dealing with chunks of Paris history, also turned out to be enjoyable for their own sake. Anyone fascinated by that great city should read them: The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (Simon & Schuster) by historian David McCullough, and Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris (W,W. Norton) by Graham Robb. McCullough recounts the effects of Paris on American expatriats there between 1830 and 1900. Robb describes delicious episodes from Paris history from the early 19th century to the Second World War.

Finally, a bit of fun reading I had in 2011. I enjoyed two books by Maureen Jennings: Season of Darkness (McClelland & Stewart) and one of her inimitable Murdoch Murder mysteries, Poor Tom is Cold (McClelland & Stewart). Don’t expect the pseudo-science fiction twists of TV’s Murdoch series, but you can expect a faithful remaking of 1890s Toronto in the Poor Tom book.

All in all, a good reading year. May 2012 be as strong!


Remembering Newfoundland’s Joey Smallwood

December 19, 2011 Leave a comment

His name may not be a household word, but Joey Smallwood ranks as one of the most durable figures in Canadian nation-building — our last “Father of Confederation” and the first Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Joey Smallwood died 20 years ago, on December 17, 1991, just a week shy of his 91st birthday. He’d had an epic life, spanning all but the last decade of the 20th century. He is being remembered in Newfoundland mostly for his almost single-handed achievement in winning his people’s consent to throw in their lot with Confederation in 1949.

I’ve always been intrigued with this remarkable character, and I always learned something new about Joey whenever I went to Newfoundland. I’ve collected the gleanings — together with material from countless interviews, articles and books written about Joey, into a new biography I have just finished writing.

Joey Smallwood: Schemer and Dreamer, will be published in August 2012 by Dundurn Press, in their Quest biography series. Here’s a bit of a peek:

“The physical grandeur of Newfoundland and the splendour of its nearly thirty thousand kilometer coastline, the irrepressible character of its people, and its wealth of resources make it a land like no other. The label of The Rock fits the place well, and in few other places in the world could a man like Joey Smallwood, driven by impulsiveness, self-assurance and blind faith, have overcome such obstacles and attained such heights of power as he did here.

“Geography, ethnicity, language and religion have produced a Newfoundland that for most of its history has stubbornly resisted the pull of mainstream North American culture. From Inuit migrants of four thousand years ago to the Beothuk hunter-gatherers killed off by white settlers in the nineteenth century, this often inhospitable land has drawn ocean voyagers from time immemorial. The Vikings were here a thousand years ago with their short-lived settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows, today a World Heritage Site. The English, French and Portuguese fishermen who followed in the wake of John Cabot’s 1497 “discovery” treated the waters of Newfoundland as nothing more than a vast cauldron teeming with fish, ready for the taking.

“The Newfoundland into which Joseph Roberts Smallwood was born on December 24, 1900, was a country that still lived by the cod, its great ocean resource that the Fishing Admirals of Great Britain, along with adventurous sailors from many nations, had plundered for more than three hundred years. Generations of Newfoundlanders lived out their lives in tiny outports nestled on the rocky shores of countless fjords and bays that indented the island’s coast. Descendants of mostly poor working class families from the south of Ireland and the west of England, their men fished the icy waters from small dories that either went out on their own, or were launched from Banking Schooners miles offshore. Equipped only with hand lines and small nets, they returned with plentiful catches that would be smoked and dried, ready for shipment to overseas markets. For thousands of Newfoundland men, the only variation in this dangerous and bitterly hard way of life came in the sealing hunt that drew fleets of boats to the Icefields every Spring, an equally hazardous and uncertain undertaking.

“Over all this during Joey Smallwood’s early years reigned a thin lawyer of mercantile society, concentrated in the grubby, ramshackle and makeshift seaport of St. John’s, whose twenty thousand or so inhabitants boasted of it being the oldest European settlement in North America. Its harbour was filled with vessels from Europe, the United States and Caribbean. Its main business street, Water Street, was paved with stone but most streets were nothing more than dirt passages lined with small wood frame buildings. The more successful merchants were raising handsome homes on outer streets like King’s Bridge Road. They sent their sons to Bishop Feild College, an Anglican boarding school on Colonial Street that was the only decent academic institution on the island. In time, it would produce fifteen Rhodes Scholars and an alumnus that would include Joey Smallwood, a student there for five years, his way paid by a generous uncle.

“This was the Newfoundland that together with its mainland territory of Labrador, faced the crucial choice in 1948: to continue with Commission government, to reclaim its status as a self-governing Dominion and perhaps throw in with the United States – if the Americans would have it – or to join in Confederation with Canada.

“Into this maelstrom of uncertainty stepped Joey Smallwood, proffering a dream of unimagined wellbeing and security to a people rich in the traditions of home, family and church, but bereft of the affluence by then common in the postwar world. Like other young men of colonial upbringing, Smallwood had gone abroad to work and learn, and returned home determined to make a difference. For Newfoundland, Smallwood came to believe, economic betterment and democratic rule would be found in union with Canada. In pursuing this goal, he showed himself guilty of the excesses of all men carried off by grand ideas: absolute belief in the rightness of his mission, the conviction that he alone could fulfill it, and the illusion that he would earn the undying gratitude of his countrymen for his efforts.

“Twenty years after Newfoundland joined Canada, the Prime Minister of the day, Pierre Trudeau, said of Joey Smallwood that he had “changed the destiny of a people, and thereby carved his mark on history.” Today, the Newfoundland and Labrador that Trudeau in 1969 described as “a distinct society” (well before the term was applied to Quebec), has transformed itself into an energy power whose economic strength is the envy of the rest of Canada. In examining the life and legacy of Joey Smallwood, one has to ask: How much of Newfoundland’s present day confidence can be laid to what he set in motion? Or did his eagerness to throw in with Canada, combined with his autocratic rule and reckless spending on schemes of doubtful value, lead Newfoundland astray? These are some of the questions to which this book seeks answers. We set out to find them in the thicket of facts, myth and legend that has grown up around the mystique of the man remembered as Canada’s last Father of Confederation.”

God doesn’t care, nor should we

December 15, 2011 Leave a comment

The scientists searching for the God Particle — the phenomenon that turned energy into mass at the time of the Big Bang to create the universe as we know it — say they’re closing in on their quarry.

Of course, there’s nothing God-like about what they’re hunting, but the fact they’ve chosen to give it this name aptly illustrates our preoccupation throughout human history with deities of one kind or another.

Human beings created Gods (in our likeness?) around the time that we moved from hunter-gatherer status to tillers of the soil — or maybe earlier. The Sumerians, ancient Greeks and then the Romans codified their Gods but it took the rise of Judaism and Christianity — and later Islam — to create the monotheistic, all-fearing, vengeful God handed down to us in the Common Era.

A new book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt (W.W. Norton) explores how some of the early philosophers, notably Epicurus in 3rd century BCE Greece, and Lucretius in 1st century BCE Rome, challenged this belief in gods. Greenblatt has constructed  a fascinating narrative around a 15th century ex-Papal secretary, Poggio Bracciolini, who  found  the forgotten manuscript of Lucretius, On The Nature of Things, in a monastery in southern Germany. He had it copied (in beautiful calligraphy as readable as modern printing), and soon it was influencing the work of Renaissance thinkers, insidiously undermining the conventional wisdoms of the Church. With the discovery, Greenblatt writes, “the world swerved in a new direction.”

Epicurus had taught that  the gods, if they exist, did not care at all about human beings. If the gods did not care, why should we? The purpose of life, Epicurus said, should  be the attainment of pleasure, and one should believe only that which can be tested through direct observation. The universe is made up of atoms, moving randomly about.

Lucretius used these arguments to bolster further disbelief in gods. As Greenblatt sums up Lucretius’ conclusions: “There is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design … no reason to think that the earth or its inhabitants occupy a central place” in the universe.

The notion of atoms, and of evolution, was joined in The Nature of Things with the conviction that “there is a hidden natural explanation for everything that alarms or eludes you.”

According to Lucretius, Greenblatt writes,  “there is no single moment of origin, no mythic scene of creation … There is no afterlife … When you are dead, there will be neither pleasure or pain, longing nor fear. You will not care, because you will not exist … There are no angels, demons or ghosts.”

Greenblatt points to the rejection by Lucretius of the cruelty of religion, as manifested in the sacrifice of a child by its parent in order to please a god.

“Writing around 50 BCE he (Lucretius) could not, of course, have anticipated the great sacrifice myth that would come to dominate the Western world, but he would not have been surprised by it or the endlessly reiterated, prominently displayed images of the bloody, murdered son.”

When the ancient manuscript found by Bracciolini began to circulate in Western Europe, the Church of course took action. An early strategy was to impugn the teachings of Epicurus as nothing more than a craving for gluttony and a sinful exercise in excess. More damaging was the persecution by the Holy Office (the Inquisition) of those who dared advance scientific thought.

The author of The Swerve draws an interesting comparison between the attack of the early Christians on scientific thought, and the enlightened pursuit of knowledge that had taken place in Egypt under the Ptolemaic kings before the birth of Christ. With their Greek heritage, they encouraged intellectual inquiry which led to the development of higher mathematics (geometry and calculus), posited that the earth was round, that the year was 365 1/4 days thus requiring a leap day every four years, and speculated that India could be reached by sailing west from Spain.

All of this knowledge, and more, was accumulated in half a million papyrus scrolls in the Alexandria Library. Early in the Christian era, Jews, pagans and Christians lived side by side in tolerance. After the Roman emperor Constantine decreed Christianity as Rome’s official religion, the attack on Alexandrian pluralism began. There must be no free-thinking inquiry, everything must give way to religious dogma. Soon, Christian mobs were vandalizing the great library, slaughtering pagans and expelling Jews. Rome’s own libraries fell into disrepair, with the historian Marcellinus bemoaning that “Romans had virtually abandoned serious reading.”

The collapse of the Roman Empire quickly followed. The Western world fell into a thousand years of stagnation and decay. Stephen Greenblatt’s Swerve leaves me wondering how much of a factor was Christianity in those lamentable occurrences. Did the Christian suppression of scientific inquiry cost us ten centuries of progress? Where might we be today if the seeds planted in Alexandria had been allowed to flourish in Rome, Florence, Venice and London ?

Ultimately they did of course bear fruit, in many ways and in many different places. Concludes Greenblatt: Thomas Jefferson would give “a momentous political document, at the founding of a new republic, a distinctly Lucretian turn. The turn was toward a government whose end was not only to secure the lives and the liberties of its citizens but also to serve ‘the pursuit of Happiness.’ The atoms of Lucretius had left their traces on the Declaration of Independence.”