By Brian Bethune - Tuesday, February 19, 2013 - 0 Comments
There’s a commonality to the questions Ian Hamilton has faced as his series of thrillers featuring Ava Lee has grown ever more popular. There’s the question of brand mania: readers lose track of the number of times Lee mentions her addiction to Starbucks Via instant coffee. There’s the use of the word “rat” in the title of Hamilton’s first novel, The Water Rat of Wanchai, that apparently sends publishers around the bend. But nothing has popped up more often than some variant of the response he had from his wife, Lorraine, after he told her he was writing a story about a young, gay, Chinese-Canadian forensic accountant and martial arts expert who recovers money lost in financial scams: “They say you should write about what you know.” To which the 66-year-old grandfather of seven can only reply, “I was in the seafood business.”
That’s actually an appropriate response. Author and character may not share much personal resemblance, but the plot in Water Rat turns on a fraud involving Lee’s Hong Kong clients and $5 million worth of shrimp. When Lee sourly contemplates her new job—“of all the characters she had dealt with, the seafood guys were the worst; it was as if they were programmed to steal”—she’s speaking for Hamilton. And all the scams in the novels, including the fifth and newest, The Scottish Banker of Surabaya (out on Feb. 16), feature mostly Asian clients in mostly Asian locales.
This is all stuff Hamilton knows intimately. He made his first business trip to Asia, in pursuit of seafood, in 1989. Before a serious health scare convinced him to ditch that career in favour of writing in 2009, he was there often, incessantly questioning everyone about how things really worked. “If you’re in China and you’re having a dinner with a guy,” Hamilton says in an interview, “and he starts talking about how his son is at York University and how much the son loves Broadway, if you don’t ask for [the son’s] name and his phone number and his email address and start looking for things you can do for him, you have no business.” Lee’s first move is usually to find out who can smooth her path to stolen money and how much it will take to secure his help.
By Brian Bethune - Monday, February 18, 2013 at 1:13 PM - 0 Comments
Brian Bethune on the papal contenders
Maclean’s writer Brian Bethune is in Rome for the conclave. Watch Macleans.ca for his reports.
For all his forewarning, Pope Benedict XVI, whose eight-year pontificate has been one long series of surprising moments, managed to stun the world once again. And once the Roman Catholic Church absorbed the news that its supreme pontiff was abdicating—an announcement fitly followed, only hours later, by a bolt of lightning striking the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica—it was clear that Benedict had set the stage for the most wildly unpredictable papal election in centuries.
It’s never been easy to guess in advance how 100 or so men, huddled in the Sistine Chapel under Michelangelo’s famous ceiling, would vote. Now, the uncertain effects of the Church’s changing demographics, the protracted lead time to the electoral conclave, the precedent of the resignation itself and the unsettling presence of an ex-pope responsible for elevating to the College of Cardinals many of the same men who will choose his successor, have sent Vatican watchers scrambling. And as they try to reassess their established ranks of papabiles—literally, “pope-ables,” those reckoned to stand an electoral chance—only one name seems to emerge in every serious list’s top three: Canada’s Cardinal Marc Ouellet, former archbishop of Quebec City and now, as prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, one of the most powerful men in the Church.
By Bookmarked and Brian Bethune - Thursday, February 14, 2013 at 11:40 AM - 0 Comments
Historians have been arguing over the origins and distinctiveness of Western civilization since it began. The debate has been endless partly because the scholars can’t agree on their terms—just what is “the West,” anyway? But mostly because within the historical profession as a whole, and probably within each historian’s psyche, lie contradictory emotions: the longing to find a starting point, to say on one side of the line is this, while on the other side is that, and the belief that the roots of the present go back and back and back.
So it is, that after scholars have spent generations pushing back Western origins from the Renaissance and Reformation to arrive at the 11th century—when a reformed papacy emerged and the three centuries of better climactic conditions known as the “medieval warm period” got going—along comes Collins to knock another century off the reckoning.
He makes a lively, if not ultimately convincing, case that the foundations of 11th-century expansion—by the end of which, Europe was powerful enough that, after fighting off or assimilating invaders on all fronts, it was able to start invading its neighbours in the First Crusade—were laid in the 10th century. In particular, a revived, reform-minded and now German-dominated Holy Roman Empire ended the threat of Magyar incursions from the east and freed the papacy from the vicious power struggles of local Roman nobility.
The papacy, Collins rightly points out, reached its nadir in the late 9th century with the infamous “cadaver synod” of 897, when Pope Stephen VI exhumed his predecessor Pope Formosus and put him on trial for perjury. (Unsurprisingly, the corpse was found guilty, then tied to weights and thrown in the Tiber.) But to argue that the 9th century was even worse is not enough to make the still chaotic 10th the West’s foundational era. No matter: someone is bound to make a pitch for the 8th century soon.
By Bookmarked and Brian Bethune - Friday, February 8, 2013 at 11:30 AM - 0 Comments
Maclean’s presents part three in a series with the five Charles Taylor Prize nominees. The prize for literary non-fiction, which recognizes excellence in Canadian non-fiction writing, will award $25,000 to the winning author on March 4.
- Join Maclean’s and the five finalists Feb. 27 for a panel discussion at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto.
Heading off to Trent University two decades ago, Tim Cook didn’t think there was anything inevitable about him becoming a Canadian historian—let alone acquiring one of the profession’s coolest job titles, Great War historian at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa—even if he was the son of parents who each had a Ph.D. in the field. “Anything but,” was his guiding principle, says Cook. But then there was that absorbing Second World War course, and the memory of the trip to Vimy Ridge his parents brought him on when he was 17. “It all turned me on to history, especially military history,” he says. And with a vengeance. Cook, 41, has been crafting muscular, critically acclaimed and bestselling volumes about the First World War—including Shock Troops, which won the 2009 Charles Taylor prize—at a pace that will soon write him out of his job description. (“Yes, my next book,” he laughs, “will be on the Second World War.) Continue…
By Bookmarked and Brian Bethune - Friday, February 8, 2013 at 9:00 AM - 0 Comments
Eugenio Pacelli, who reigned over the Roman Catholic Church from 1939 to 1958, is easily the most controversial pope of the past two centuries. What Ventresca, a historian at the University of Western Ontario, calls the “Pius war” has raged since Rolf Hochhuth’s 1963 play The Deputy excoriated Pius for essentially remaining silent in the face of the Holocaust. That destroyed the pontiff’s once-sterling reputation for having done what he could behind the scenes for persecuted Jews. The bitter debate over whether he did all he could has never really stopped since, fuelled by Pius’s ongoing canonization process. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI, a German who reveres Pius for his personal Christian virtues and who is appreciative of the fact that Pius deeply admired German culture, declared his predecessor to be venerable, one step removed from beatified status, the final rung before full sainthood.
With the full archive of his pontificate yet to be opened to scholars, so much uncertainty still swirls about Pius that those interested in his wartime record, Jewish and Catholic alike, are troubled by the inexorable canonization process. Despite Ventresca’s dismay at the way the Pius war deflects attention from the two-thirds of an important pontificate—it was Pius who decoupled the Church from colonialism, in part by appointing Third World cardinals—the historian knows his biography will be judged by how he judges Pius during the Holocaust. Continue…
By Brian Bethune - Monday, February 4, 2013 at 3:00 PM - 0 Comments
In conversation with Brian Bethune
Tom Diaz, 72, is one of the most prominent gun control advocates in the United States. A former senior policy analyst at Washington’s Violence Policy Center—which considers firearms violence to be a public health issue rather than criminal issue—Diaz wrote Making a Killing: The Business of Guns in America in 1999. It explored the links between political lobbying by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and gun manufacturers. Last year, dismayed by a decade of increasing gun violence and what he considers political indifference to it, Diaz wrote—before the Newtown, Conn., school murders—The Last Gun: How Changes in the Gun Industry are Killing Americans and What It Will Take to Stop It.
Q: You were an NRA man years ago, someone who grew up with guns and was comfortable around them. What changed your thinking?
A: I ended up on the staff of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Crime and Criminal Justice, and I was the only staffer, literally, on that committee who knew anything at all about guns, so they said, “Okay, now you’re going to do the gun legislation.” And a couple of things then snapped me out of my comfortable gun world, especially a hearing about the impact of firearms on children. I interviewed kids and it shocked me what 10-, 11-, 12-year-old kids were talking about—one had actually seen her best friend shot down in the street. And, you know, we thought it was bad then, but it was really only the beginning of the trend in the U.S. The kids’ testimony rolled me back; I thought, “This is not the gun world I grew up in. This isn’t target shooting. It’s not even hunting, it’s just killing machines.” And so, like Saul on the way to Damascus, I suddenly became a convert to gun control. Continue…
By Bookmarked and Brian Bethune - Friday, February 1, 2013 at 12:00 PM - 0 Comments
The Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction, which recognizes excellence in Canadian non-fiction writing, will award $25,000 to the winning author on March 4. Join Maclean’s and the five finalists Feb. 27 for a panel discussion at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto.
Ross King, 50, may have a Ph.D. in English literature, a couple of novels and six critically acclaimed books on art history to his credit, including Leonardo and the Last Supper, nominated for the Charles Taylor prize. But as a boy growing up in Saskatchewan, what King really wanted to be was a political cartoonist. A certain Prairie realism—“I had no ability to draw or paint,” he says—sent him to university for 14 years. Next, unable to find an academic job, he tried his hand at historical novels. They did “well enough,” says King, who has lived in Britain since 1992, but he still wanted to write about actual history, particularly art history. “What I took away from novels were the basics of writing them—plot, character, action, atmosphere. I wanted to put all that into books that read like novels except that everything was true.”
King may not be able to draw, but craft well-researched, beautifully written, novel-like illuminations of key moments in the history of Western art? That he can do like few others. Since 2003, three of King’s books have been nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award, with two of them winning it, including Leonardo.
By Bookmarked and Brian Bethune - Friday, February 1, 2013 at 11:00 AM - 0 Comments
Despite having lived in France since 1962, Berger, 86, remains one of the pre-eminent English men of letters of the past half-century—a novelist (author of G., winner of the 1972 Booker prize), poet and art critic whose Ways of Seeing is a standard university text. Berger is also a stalwart leftist iconoclast—Ways of Seeing, which accompanied a BBC series, was written as a class-conscious riposte to Kenneth Clark’s upper-crust Civilization—and a committed collaborationist on many of his projects. Much of Berger’s past life thus seems present in his newest book, a slim volume (67 pages) containing the poignant thoughts of an art critic once again blessed with sight, and made aesthetically pleasing by exquisite line drawings by Turkish artist Selçuk Demirel.
Surgeons removed the cataract—from a Greek word meaning waterfall or portcullis (that is, an obstruction that descends from above)—in Berger’s left eye first, giving him two distinct fields of vision, depending on which eye he closed. What “my left eye tells me,” Berger writes, is that “on whatever it falls light bestows a quality of firstness, rendering it pristine.” That leads to some comments on the metaphysics of light, how travelling at lightspeed means leaving behind “the temporal dimension,” which in turn prompts one of Demirel’s most arresting images: a man lying on his side, with an occluded right eye and a left eye that has become a rocket ship blasting into space. Continue…
By Bookmarked and Brian Bethune - Friday, February 1, 2013 at 9:00 AM - 0 Comments
A hugely popular British comics writer (Ministry of Space, Transmetropolitan), Ellis has been edging ever more mainstream over the past few years. In medium, that is—his graphic novel RED became a Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren film successful enough to spawn RED 2 this August, and in 2007 critics loved his first novel, Crooked Little Vein—but not in content. The machine in the title of Ellis’s new novel doesn’t make or fire guns; rather, it consists of guns, hundreds of them, all arranged to convey a message. They’re discovered by accident after NYPD detective John Tallow kills a naked man armed with a shotgun and a random blast blows a hole in an apartment wall, revealing the shrine.
The weapons, which were notorious to begin with—including the pistol that once belonged to Son of Sam, a flintlock used in Rochester, N.Y.’s first recorded murder and the gun that had “accidentally” killed a high-ranking police officer’s daughter—had been reused for more killings. Collectively they account for two decades’ worth of unsolved Manhattan homicides. Continue…
By Bookmarked and Brian Bethune - Friday, January 25, 2013 at 10:30 AM - 0 Comments
Although she didn’t know it at the time, Carol Bishop-Gwyn, as a dance-enthralled little girl in Toronto—and the proud owner of an autograph of British ballerina Margot Fonteyn, no less—was part of Celia Franca’s moment in Canadian cultural history. Still enthralled by dance, and now the possessor of two postgraduate degrees in dance history, Bishop-Gwyn, 65, is the author of The Pursuit of Perfection: A Life of Celia Franca. Shortlisted for the Charles Taylor prize, as well as the Governor General’s Literary Award, it’s a biography of the driven Englishwoman who founded the National Ballet of Canada.
The postwar years were one of ballet’s golden eras in the 20th century. As a distraction from the horrors and deprivation of the Second World War, dance “boomed in Britain,” Bishop-Gwyn notes. The Sadler’s Wells company, for which Franca danced, “trooped around the country for 50 weeks of the year,” drawing packed houses. “Of course, the British companies couldn’t cross the Atlantic then, but when they did after the war they caused a sensation.” Bishop-Gwyn still recalls seeing the Sadler’s Wells dancers “shivering on a stage built over the ice rink at Maple Leaf Gardens.” Dance exploded in popularity here too—Bishop-Gwyn’s own lessons, taken “before it became abundantly clear I was not ballerina material,” were one tiny part.
By Bookmarked and Brian Bethune - Friday, January 25, 2013 at 10:00 AM - 0 Comments
Scholars have long tried to determine how the West, now that its world-historical heyday is passing with the rise of Asia, came to dominate the globe in the past few centuries, and what the factors involved might foretell about the future. It’s an issue that preoccupied previous generations of Western intellectuals who watched it happened, notes Morris, a classicist at Stanford and author of Why the West Rules—For Now (2010). The earlier explanations tended to boil down to simple racism. Westerners were finer, better people—or, occasionally, the exact opposite: Europeans took over the world, Kurt Vonnegut once sardonically remarked, because “we are the meanest sons of bitches on the planet”—or to more sophisticated, if poorly articulated, concepts of the superiority of Western thinking.
Neither concept has a leg to stand on, but Morris’s real topic is the imprecision of all the arguments, the inability of scholars to establish metrics by which to measure one civilization against another, or even to agree on terms. Consider his own conclusion that for 90 per cent of the past 15,000 years, the West has been the planet’s most advanced region, the exception being the 1,200 years from about 550 to 1750 CE, when East Asia led the world. This is liable to startle readers unaccustomed of thinking of Turkey, Iraq or Iran—Eastern realms to most Westerners—as parts of a broad Western way of life, which they were in the long sweep of history. Morris’s definition is a useful reminder of how culturally determined our geopolitical terminology is: we do not call the westernmost edge of Asia the “Middle East” for any justifiable geographical reason. Continue…
By Bookmarked and Brian Bethune - Friday, January 25, 2013 at 10:00 AM - 0 Comments
Why are we more likely to see a sparrow than a condor, a rabbit than a jaguar? The old explanations remain true, notes Dinerstein, an award-winning conservationist at World Wildlife Fund-U.S. There will always be more prey than predators, and more generalists than specialists, like the 12 species of frogs who live only on a single Haitian mountain. (Solitary mountains, which have vertically as well as horizontally isolated ecological niches, boast a disproportionate percentage of the world’s rarities—Tolkien was on to something when he put Smaug, the last dragon, on the Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit.)
But other factors are starting to gain attention among biologists: beauty, rarity and human desire tend to converge, leading to additional human pressure that reaches well beyond the habitat loss and direct killing bedevilling all wildlife. The question matters, argues Dinerstein, because ecological footprint is not necessarily linked to numerical abundance. A mere 25 per cent of species—humans, robins, rats and roaches prominent among them—account for 95 per cent of the individual creatures on Earth. That means, by simple math, that three-quarters of species are rare. Their role in preserving the common ones, Dinerstein asserts, needs far closer consideration than it has received.
In prose that is both lyrical and exact, he takes readers through various “motherlodes of rarities” in search of answers, from Cuba’s Zapata Swamp through the jaguar-dense Madre de Dios region of Peru to the still little-known Vietnamese jungle. But his heart lies in Bhutan, which leads the world in setting aside virgin habitat, complete with wildlife corridors, for its rich biodiversity. The Himalayan kingdom forgoes a lot of economic growth for that, but also makes a fortune from ecotourism. The human lust for rare creatures, which has killed so many over the years, may yet save the rest.
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By Brian Bethune - Monday, January 21, 2013 at 5:00 PM - 0 Comments
When one of the world’s bestselling novelists dropped by a deserted strip mall in suburban Toronto recently, he was unperturbed to find just four people waiting for him in a Christian bookstore. As long as there is anyone at all to hug—as he does with everyone he meets—and to share stories with, William Paul Young is more than content. Story is everything for Young: the personal tale of childhood pain, adult brokenness and spiritual healing he poured five years ago into The Shack; the story of that novel’s astonishing explosion from 15 copies printed at a Kinko’s to 18 million copies sold worldwide; and the 100,000 stories he has collected from readers. He doesn’t even mind that the people he meets barely spare a word for Cross Roads, the new novel he is—in theory—promoting. For Young, the fact that everyone wants to talk about their response to The Shack is neither surprising nor truly his doing: The Shack phenomenon is primarily a matter, says the grinning author, of “God’s sense of humour.”
Young, 57, never used to find God and his ways funny, or have much to laugh about at all. Born in Grande Prairie, Alta., but raised by his missionary parents in Dutch New Guinea, Young was sexually abused by some of his parents’ congregants, and again later, at a Christian boarding school. As an adult, Young kept his past and his feelings of shame and worthlessness secret, bundling it all into his metaphorical shack, “the place we make to hide all our crap.” Until, at 38, the crisis came, when Young’s wife, Kim, discovered his affair with one of her best friends. He realized he couldn’t hide any longer and had to somehow restore his relationships with Kim, with God and with himself. Continue…
By Bookmarked and Brian Bethune - Friday, January 18, 2013 at 10:00 AM - 0 Comments
The Roman Catholic Church council in Trent, Italy, which concluded 450 years ago, has always been recognized as a key event in the cultural and religious history of Europe. A bogeyman to many contemporary Protestants dismayed by the Church’s successful rally against the tide of reformed Christianity, Trent has almost as many detractors among Catholics. For every traditionalist who believes Trent kept the Church strong until it was lamentably weakened by Vatican II, there is a liberal Catholic who believes precisely the opposite. The Tridentine mass, the uniform Latin rite extended to the entire Church by Trent, remains a large bone of contention.
For all that, argues O’Malley, a Jesuit and prominent historian at Washington’s Georgetown University, what actually happened at Trent—and brought five popes, two Holy Roman emperors and other European monarchs repeatedly to the brink of disaster—remains little known. O’Malley’s take is enlivened by the way he refuses to neglect the mundane details for the high theological debates. Trent was a small town, which struggled mightily to house and feed the attendees, in an era when an important cardinal travelled with a retinue of 150 and their even more numerous horses. The broiling summers stoked the tempers of the northerners, while Spaniards and southern Italians were appalled by the winter snowdrifts. The town was a hard three-day ride from Rome, not far enough to safely ignore frantic papal instructions, but far enough to cause frequent delays while the dispatch riders whipped their horses, sparking one delegate’s sardonic observation that, unlike previous councils where the Holy Spirit descended on bishops from on high, at Trent, he arrived via the papal mailbag. Continue…
By Bookmarked and Brian Bethune - Friday, January 18, 2013 at 9:55 AM - 0 Comments
The wonderfully named Grinling Gibbons, whose 17th-century woodcarved masterpieces of flowers, fruits and foliage can be seen in London churches and stately homes across the British countryside, is something of a folk hero to the English, one of the few artists of his time and medium whose name is still remembered today. David Esterly, on the other hand, is an American carver, once a Fulbright scholar who was in Britain researching his doctoral thesis on Yeats, when he encountered a Gibbons carving. In that moment of “conversion,” Esterley writes, he suddenly saw “in a way that I’d never seen anything before.” It led to an overpowering desire to unite mind and hand in his life’s work. Gibbons’s work “was saying something that couldn’t be said in any other way, and it wasn’t saying it to the intellect.”
After more than a decade of learning his craft, and struggling under Gibbons’s large shadow, Esterly was tapped, in the aftermath of the devastating Hampton Court Palace fire of 1986 (and in the teeth of British xenophobia) to replace a destroyed Gibbons carving, a long pendant of flowers and leaves over a door in one of the king’s apartments. A quarter-century later, Esterly opened for the first time the journal he kept during the project and revisited one of the crucial years of his life. The result, The Lost Carving, is beautifully written and hauntingly evocative, a graceful meditation on art and craft, the singular life and achievements of Gibbons, and the ties that bind us to the past. Continue…
By Bookmarked and Brian Bethune - Friday, January 18, 2013 at 9:45 AM - 0 Comments
A heavyweight literary biographer (Augustus John, Bernard Shaw) and husband to novelist Margaret Drabble, Sir Michael Holroyd is 77 now, but is at pains to note his newest book is not his last. “I have already written that,” he declares in On Wheels, either because he has that volume, whatever it may be, tucked into his solicitor’s safe, or because he believes this odd and oddly charming collection of car-related reminiscences is too much of a trifle to be called a “book.” No matter. From Holroyd’s observation that cars and motorcycles were the smartphones and computers of the early 20th century—mystically liberating objects truly understood only by the young—to his description of Welsh painter Augustus John, who had had but a single driving lesson, motoring from London to Dorset, unable to get out of first gear, On Wheels is more than bookish enough.
For all his interest in cars—as a child Holroyd spent hours playing in the never-used Ford parked in his grandparents’ garage—he was no natural driver. He couldn’t understand how all the cars on the road generally managed to miss each other, an ongoing matter of luck that he believed was bound to end if ever he was put behind the wheel. But faced with a girlfriend tired of driving him around, Holroyd gritted his way through lessons, and later successfully taught Drabble, another motoring klutz. Drabble was so impressed with his lessons, she told the Daily Mail, “Michael is wasted on biography.” Continue…
By Brian Bethune - Tuesday, January 15, 2013 at 3:10 PM - 0 Comments
In conversation with Brian Bethune
The eminent American geographer Jared Diamond, 75, has spent two decades exploring the question of how human societies have interacted with their environments and resources. His Pulitzer prize-winning Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) discussed the natural advantages available to the cultures that arose on the Eurasian land mass, while Collapse examined how various societies—which may yet include our own—made bad decisions in response to the environmental hands they were dealt. Now, in his newly published The World Until Yesterday, Diamond considers whether the practices derived from the way all humans once lived still provide valuable lessons for the modern world.
Q: Are you arguing that humans have not yet adjusted to the way we now live, emotionally, psychologically and physically?
A: Physically, it’s clear: we have not. Differences to which we have not adjusted include the fact our bodies still have a metabolism appropriate to a binge-and-bust diet, where often you don’t get enough food and then when you get a feast you release lots of insulin and you store the calories as fat. That was fine for the spartan living styles of our past, but now we end up with diabetes. That’s the clearest example of our not being adjusted physically to our current circumstances. As for emotional and psychological lags, there is speculation, but it’s chronically difficult to separate genetic from cultural factors in human attitudes and behaviours. So I personally would not assert anything in those areas. I wouldn’t deny the possibility, I would just say that it’s not established. Continue…
By Bookmarked and Brian Bethune - Friday, January 11, 2013 at 9:20 AM - 0 Comments
The author of The Jewish War—our sole account of the 70 CE destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Romans—has always been one of the Ancient World’s most controversial figures. Born Joseph ben Mattathias to a Judean priestly family, Josephus was a leading Jewish general during the first years of the doomed rebellion, but, unlike so many of his contemporaries, he did not die either in battle or—like the martyrs of Masada—by his own hand. Instead, Josephus survived a brutal siege and passed into the hands of the Roman general Vespasian and his son Titus, both later emperors, and so became Titus Flavius Josephus, Roman citizen and adviser to the imperial family. Small wonder two millennia of commentators, Jewish and otherwise, have mostly seen him as an apostate and traitor.
But in the multitalented and prickly Raphael—novelist, classicist and Oscar-winning screenwriter for Darling (1965)—the ancient survivor has found his ideal judge, a man as certain of being a Jew as he is uncertain of the meaning of that fact, much as Josephus himself was. (“There is comedy of a kind,” the 81-year-old Raphael writes, “that the only people who might now insist that I am not really a Jew—since I neither pray nor abstain from forbidden foods—are other Jews.”)
The result is a mesmerizing study that evaluates Josephus’s choices within the context of internecine Jewish strife (both real and polemical) and overwhelming Gentile power. Josephus was the first, Raphael argues, of a long line of Diaspora Jews, from Maimonides to Spinoza, balanced on a similar knife-edge between internal suspicion and outside hatred. Who has the right to judge Josephus, whose works are one long defence of his people and his God (and filled with necessarily subtle denunciations of their persecutors)? asks Raphael. Exile, witness, reluctant loyalist who argued against a suicidal war, less than dependable propagandist for the victorious enemy: Josephus deserves respect.
By Bookmarked and Brian Bethune - Friday, January 11, 2013 at 9:10 AM - 0 Comments
Western tradition is studded with iconic cities representing moments in time, from Periclean Athens to Victorian London, but none is as protean as Venice. The Italian city is at once: a mudbank shantytown founded by survivors fleeing the fifth-century ruin of the Roman world; the powerful seagoing republic known as La Serenissima (“most serene”), which sent Marco Polo all the way to Cathay, and whose doge annually married the sea by tossing a ring into the Adriatic; Casanova’s art-stuffed city of masques (and masks), so redolent of Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”; and the modern Disneyland writ large, sinking under the weight of its millions of tourists.
But none of those images captures Western history as a whole because, as Madden’s lively new history—the first in English in a generation—makes clear, Venice was always integral to Europe and slightly out of sync with it, always a little ancient and a lot proto-modern, even while the rest of the Continent was thoroughly medieval. While mainstream Europe was a collection of agriculture-based feudal states, Venice was an urban capitalist republic, a pioneer in deposit banking and double-entry bookkeeping.
“The first Venetians were Romans,” Madden notes, and they held fast to their roots for over a millennium. The openness of their democracy varied considerably over time, but Venetians never abandoned their republican government or had a less than broad-based ruling elite. Although La Serenissima and the U.S. co-existed for only two decades before Napoleon swept away the former, John Adams, one of the founding fathers of the world’s newest republic, carefully studied the institutions of the world’s oldest. Perhaps he was struck by its system of checks and balances, which makes American political gridlock look streamlined: at one point,Venice required nine groups, consisting of 282 electors chosen largely by lot, just to nominate a doge, a process, writes Madden, “meant to be so cumbersome that only God could influence it.” Rather like the U.S. House of Representatives.
By Brian Bethune - Saturday, December 22, 2012 at 10:10 AM - 0 Comments
Newmakers 2012: There’s no denying Suzanne Collins’s heroine hit the zeitgeist right in the sweet spot
Katniss Everdeen has had a very good 2012, and deservedly so. The heroine of The Hunger Games series, Suzanne Collins’s highly popular trilogy of young adult novels (2008-10), already had a devoted fan base as the year began, but she exploded into a genuine pop-culture phenomenon with the March release of the film version of the first volume. Now Katniss is not only beloved by millions of teen girls—and a few boys (her film avatar, after all, is Jennifer Lawrence)—she’s also fodder for serious social commentary. American journalist Hanna Rosin, in an interview about her book The End of Men and the Rise of Women, paused while discussing the profound socio-economic changes unfolding in her country, from the erosion of traditional marriage to women’s increasing confidence and even aggression, to call Katniss an iconic figure. “She’s a classic aggressive male provider: unpleasant, self-sufficient, a total protector of her family. Those are all things that we associate with men. Twenty years ago, Katniss would have been a bizarre and unacceptable character, and now she seems completely natural.”
There’s no denying Katniss hit the zeitgeist right in the sweet spot. She’s the 16-year-old daughter of a dead coal miner who keeps her mother and beloved 12-year-old sister Primrose fed by her skill at archery (and poaching). They live in near-future Panem, an authoritarian state risen from the ashes of ecological catastrophe: worsening climate, rising sea levels and resource wars. The residents of the ruling Capitol, living in high-tech splendour, tyrannize the hardscrabble provincials, forcing each of 12 outlying districts to annually send a male child and a female child, aged 12-18, to ﬁght in the televised Hunger Games until only one remains alive.
Teenagers put in an arena to literally kill each other for the amusement of grown-ups is as savage a satire of reality TV and high school as can be imagined. (For adolescent girls, who live in a social milieu potentially even more vicious than that of boys, the appeal is obvious.) But if The Hunger Games is a pitch-perfect dystopia for our era of superstorms and economic uncertainty, it’s merely riding a wave of such storylines. Current YA fiction is dominated by dystopias, both the classic form, featuring harshly repressive societies, and post-apocalyptic scenes of chaos, all with climatic catastrophe as their root cause. The characters in the most popular series are far more often female than in past adventure stories, and the girls all have kick-ass potential, even if Katniss—who can fire an arrow through a songbird at 200 m—kicks harder than most. Continue…
By Brian Bethune - Friday, November 23, 2012 at 11:14 AM - 0 Comments
When the Second World War ended, the future of Newfoundland was not only an…
When the Second World War ended, the future of Newfoundland was not only an issue for its people, it was also a matter of considerable significance for the victorious English-speaking nations at the heart of what would be called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Newfoundland, in the British phrase, had had a very good war, taking a front-row place in the crucial Battle of the Atlantic, hosting large numbers of Allied (particularly American) servicemen and economically emerging out of the Great Depression that had seen it lose its self-rule in 1933 and become again a colony governed directly from London.
Now, a broke Britain wanted out of what it saw as a burden. Canada wanted—in its lukewarm, Mackenzie King way—to complete its 80-year-old Atlantic-to-Pacific dream and, more determinedly, to prevent outright American control of Newfoundland. And the U.S. was amenable, as long as American air bases there—as important in the nascent Cold War as they were against the Nazis—were untroubled. As far as the larger nations were concerned, then, a deal practically made itself. Trouble is, as Malone—an actor and political activist best known for the Codco TV series—points out, not only did no one really ask the Newfoundlanders what they wanted, no one wanted to take the democratic gamble of giving them a fair chance to decide. Continue…
By Brian Bethune - Wednesday, November 21, 2012 at 8:00 AM - 0 Comments
Stephen Asma argues that liking one kid over another is natural
Love means nothing if it does not mean loving some people more than others.
There’s nothing like the birth of a child to get a philosopher thinking about the gulf between our deeply held notions of fairness toward all and our natural inclination to identify our nearest with our dearest. After all, as Columbia College Chicago philosopher Stephen Asma points outs, if our mothers, icons of selfless and nurturing love, had not been so preferentially—and, when necessary, so ferociously—dedicated to us, there would be far fewer of us around to bemoan the unfairness of life.
A few years after his son’s birth, Asma found himself at an ethics conference, horrifying fellow panel members, including a priest and a “revolutionary Communist” egalitarian, by blurting out, “I would strangle everyone in this room if it somehow prolonged my son’s life.” He was laughing as he said it, Asma recalls in an interview, but he soon realized he wasn’t really joking. “I knew I meant it on some deep level, and I wondered, ‘Why not embrace the natural?’ Why is this preference cast as a struggle between primitivism and our higher principles?” The eventual result is the newly released Against Fairness, Asma’s cheeky but thought-provoking inquiry into the tension between “two competing notions of the good.” Continue…
By Brian Bethune - Thursday, November 1, 2012 at 2:51 PM - 0 Comments
There is no other book that looms over Western culture in quite the same way as the Bible’s opening act. Its continuing life among observant Jews and Christians, and its equally vibrant afterlife among everyone else, means its stories, tropes and characters—Adam and Eve, the great flood, Joseph’s coat of many colours—still resonate with meaning. They are familiar sources of metaphor, proverbial wisdom and even of branding. Adam and Eve is now the name of a sex-toy company, Hendel notes, while a research group working to extend human lifespans calls itself the Methuselah Foundation.
More importantly, Genesis has not lost the political bite it first developed two centuries ago (rather late in its 2,500-year-old life). The battle over slavery in the U.S. once saw both sides appealing to Genesis’s authority; now, in the contemporary American debate over same-sex marriage, some proponents and the great majority of opponents also find their justification within its pages.
And all this discourse turns on a book so interpreted and reinterpreted that it’s nearly impossible to read what Biblical literalists call the “plain sense” of the text: try understanding the story of Adam and Eve without paying attention to the idea of original sin or the identification of the serpent with Satan, both concepts far newer than the text itself. All our readings of Genesis, asserts Hendel, a University of California at Berkeley professor of Bible studies, resemble “a Shakespeare play set on a rocket ship”—however fresh and new they make the material, they are far from its original meaning.
Hendel does cover the story of Genesis’s ancient foundations and original sense, but rightly devotes most of the book to detailing how it became so freighted with often contradictory meanings over time. His essential conclusion is that the ways in which Western culture has understood Genesis—as a literal account of events, as a figurative depiction of divine action, as a collection of folktales and tribal origin stories— “tend to correlate with the ways that people have understood reality.”
By Brian Bethune - Thursday, November 1, 2012 at 2:44 PM - 0 Comments
There is no hotter topic in evolutionary psychology than the continuing presence among us of psychopaths. They’re often confused in popular perception with violently irrational psychotics like Norman Bates of Psycho fame, but Dutton’s focus is on men (mostly) more often considered “evil” than “crazy”—characters like cold and calculating Patrick Bateman, the serial killer and Wall Street banker of American Psycho, who are unencumbered by fear, guilt or empathy, and ruthless (if not necessarily violent) in pursuit of their goals. Dutton, an Oxford research psychologist, throws himself with zeal into the question of psychopathy’s persistence—that is, what evolutionary advantages it confers—for reasons both professional and personal: his father, he writes in the book’s first sentence, was a psychopath.
Fear evolved as a survival mechanism during our predator-rich distant past—monkeys with damage to their amygdalas (the brain’s emotional sorting centre) do some very stupid things indeed, including trying to pick up cobras—but too much of a good thing has its problems too. Modern humans are more risk-averse than reckless. Those who score high in tests on psychopathy’s “positive” aspects (fearlessness, stress immunity, focus, social dominance) can flourish—some to our gratitude, like first responders (police, firefighters, military); others (high-octane CEOs, coldly precise surgeons) to a more muted admiration. The disorder’s negative aspects—antisocial behaviour, narcissism, impulsivity—are what fill prisons with psychopaths.
Modern capitalism, Dutton believes, rewards psychopathic attributes in a social sense—useful in saving a child from a burning building (not to mention killing Osama bin Laden)—and economically. A famous 2005 study found psychopathic traits as present in the wealthiest boardroom as in the padded cell, while male employees who scored below average on the “agreeable” index of psychological tests earned about 18 per cent more than their more pleasant peers. Women had less of a monetary split, but the tougher ones still had incomes five per cent higher than those of their softer sisters. The lesson Dutton draws from this is that we should all let our inner psychos shine—just a little.
By Brian Bethune - Friday, October 26, 2012 at 10:20 AM - 0 Comments
Book by Aida D. Donald
Of all the accidental presidents of the U.S., the men who came to the Oval Office through the deaths of their predecessors, Harry Truman was at once the most likely—Franklin Roosevelt was a very sick man—and the most unlikely. It’s impossible to imagine the machine politician from Missouri winning the job on his own, without the benefit of incumbency. He just didn’t look or sound like a president to his contemporaries: when Truman entered the East Room for FDR’s White House funeral service, two days into his own presidency, no one stood up—an unheard-of insult to a president. He himself blurted out, early on, “I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me.”
But based on Truman’s nearly eight years in office, scholars beg to differ. The conclusion of the Second World War, the founding of NATO and other efforts to contain an expansionist U.S.S.R., firing overbearing Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and staunch support for the fledgling United Nations have all led historians to conclude that Truman, who consistently makes their top-ten presidents lists, was the very embodiment of Shakespeare’s third part of greatness, one of those who had “greatness thrust upon them.”
Donald convincingly finds the secret to Truman’s astounding success—essentially inheriting a prostrate world and managing it until it was on its own feet again—in the president’s character. She emphasizes his personal honesty even as he won elections with the aid of a corrupt political organization, and the loyalty to his fellow soldiers Truman developed in the Great War. Loyalty to common soldiers played a key role in what will forever be his most contentious act, the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. Truman believed that he was “saving the lives of 250,000 boys from the United States,” as he wrote his sister. The man whose desk sported a sign reading “The buck stops here” knew what would unfold; he suffered from severe headaches in the days before and after making his decision, but he still made it.