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 Ken MacQueen - Wednesday, October 31, 2012 at 11:20 AM - 0 Comments
MacLeod’s Books—and its overflowing shelves—has a run-in with the fireman
Somewhere in the shelves or tottering towers of tomes at Vancouver’s MacLeod’s Books there has to be a copy of Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s bleak tale of book burning and misbehaving firemen. The title refers to the apparent ignition point of books, and it is that flammability issue that now bedevils Don Stewart, owner of one of the most amazing, eccentric and, um, well-stocked bookstores in Canada.
Early last year, the Vancouver fire department announced it was radically increasing its annual rate of fire inspections from 13,000 to 20,000 commercial, industrial and multi-unit residential buildings. Among the businesses now lavished with attention is MacLeod’s, an early-20th-century building stuffed to the gunwales with books, or “fire load,” as inspectors call them. The fire department is also applying a $100-an-hour fee for buildings that require re-inspections.
Stewart had a peaceful relationship with fire inspectors for most of the four decades he has owned MacLeod’s, a downtown haven for bibliophile, browser and tourist alike. Now he’s had repeated visits from inspectors and once even a veiled threat of thousands of dollars in fines. Stewart says he has no quarrel with inspectors’ concerns that exit aisles are kept clear and that there’s access to electrical panels. “The one thing we’re having difficulty with is that they consider books to be a fire load. Even though we’re sitting in a sprinklered building, there is a perception that we represent a danger to everyone around us.”
By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, October 30, 2012 at 10:22 AM - 0 Comments
Penny Marshall’s memoir sold 2,000 copies—and was banned by bookstores
Amazon, that futuristic pioneer and scourge of old-fashioned media, bet its fledgling publishing business on the star of TV’s Laverne & Shirley. In its attempt to launch the New Harvest publishing group, the online giant put a great deal of money and promotion into Penny Marshall’s autobiography My Mother Was Nuts, its first big entry in the redoubtable celebrity-memoir genre. But the book flopped, selling only about 2,000 copies in its first week. It may be the revenge of the companies Amazon has battered so badly: Barnes & Noble and other brick-and-mortar outlets refused to carry New Harvest books due to what they saw as Amazon’s attempt to drive competitors out of business. Many refused to carry the digital version as well. The boycott has made it difficult for Amazon to attract big-name authors for its original books. Maybe next time, it can at least go with a book from Lenny and Squiggy.
By macleans.ca - Friday, August 10, 2012 at 8:41 AM - 0 Comments
Sex sells, even if it’s only described in words. Still, it might still come…
Sex sells, even if it’s only described in words. Still, it might still come as a shock that erotic pulp novel Fifty Shades of Grey is now the bestselling book of all time in the United Kingdom, the Telegraph reports. Sales of the last Harry Potter book have been eclipsed, largely thanks to the rapacious buying of married women over 30.
Shades of Grey has sold 5.3 million copies, including more than 1.5 million e-books. The two sequels have sold another 7 million copies. The first novel in the series was only released last year. It plots the steamy relationship between a recent college graduate and a much older billionaire.
Susan Sandon, who works at the book’s publisher, Random House, said: “The Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon is perhaps one of the most extraordinary experiences of my entire publishing career and I feel privileged to be part of it.”
Book author E.L. James described the success as “completely and utterly overwhelming.”
Naturally, a movie is in the works.
By Blog of Lists - Monday, July 2, 2012 at 12:49 PM - 0 Comments
Over the decades people have sought to ban from libraries numerous books by Canadian authors because they didn’t like what was contained within their pages. Here are some attempts, listed in reverse chronological order, compiled by the freedom of expression committee at the Book and Periodical Council:
1. Contes pour buveurs attardés by Michel Tremblay: In 2010, a mother in Laval, Que., sought to have the book removed from a school reading list because she didn’t want her son exposed to “such promotion of Satanism and pedophilia.” The school board rejected her demand.
2. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: In 2008, a parent in Toronto sought to have the novel taken off a Grade 12 English class because of “profane language,” anti-Christian overtones and “sexual degradation.” A Toronto District School Board review recommended the book be kept.
3. New American and Canadian Poetry edited by John Gill: In 1994, the school board in Sechelt, B.C., removed the book from a high school after a parent complained it offered anti-establishment views and presented sex in a positive light. The board later reversed its decision, but the sole copy was stolen and never replaced.
4. Dance Me Outside by W.P. Kinsella: In 1994, the library at a Barrie, Ont., Roman Catholic school pulled the book after complaints from an Onkwehonwe anti-racism alliance because parts of it “might be objectionable if taken out of context.”
5. The Wars by Timothy Findley: In 1991, a Lambton County, Ont., high school student asked for the novel to be taken off the curriculum, arguing a passage about the rape of a Canadian soldier encouraged students to accept homosexuality. The school board chose to keep the book.
6. Canadian Poetry: The Modern Era edited by John Newlove: In 1987, the book, along with several novels by Margaret Laurence, including The Stone Angel and The Diviners, came under attack from a parents group in Victoria County, Ont. The school board refused to remove the books.
7. Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro: In 1982, Toronto parents sought to have the book removed from the high school curriculum because of the “language and philosophy of
the book” but the school board rejected their demand.
8. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler: In 1982, in Etobicoke, Ont., the school board was asked to stop teaching the book, but refused.
Have you ever wondered which cities have the most bars, smokers, absentee workers and people searching for love? What about how Canada compares to the world in terms of the size of its military, the size of our houses and the number of cars we own? The nswers to all those questions, and many more, can be found in the first ever Maclean’s Book of Lists, hitting stands in time for Canada Day.
Buy your copy of the Maclean’s Book of Lists at the newsstand or order online now.
By Colby Cosh - Sunday, July 1, 2012 at 10:53 AM - 0 Comments
Our literary editrix sent me the oddest book to review, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it; I decided not to review it for our print books section, where space is tight, but I thought I’d put on record that I did read Stephen L. Carter’s The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln from front to back.
A lot of respectable pulp-class writers, from Harry Turtledove to whomever ghosts the books sold under Newt Gingrich’s byline, earn good coin from the art of alternate-universe U.S. history. (I think Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is the major inspiration for this genre, but feel free to apply the rod of correction in the comments.) Lincoln being the perennial topic he is, one imagines that Carter’s basic premise—a world in Lincoln survives the wound he receives at Ford’s Theatre—has probably been done a dozen times before. But one expects Carter’s book to be more serious than the general run of this stuff, because he’s a moderately important public intellectual, not to mention the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale. (This is one of the few jobs in the United States whose title practically demands a tympani roll and a trumpet fanfare.)
The book, however, is just plain weird—an action movie, a courtroom drama, and an interracial romance thrown into a big blender. The portrait of an impeachment proceeding turns out to be quite interesting and informative, because even though we have recent experience of a president’s trial in the Senate… well, to be perfectly honest, what I remember most from the trial of President Clinton is Chief Justice Rehnquist’s wacky robe with the striped sleeves. The proceeding itself was a bit perfunctory: by the time the trial commenced the ending was foreordained, the public was exhausted, and neither theoretically-possible outcome was likely to please anyone much. Moreover, the trial was carried out in an odd, slightly confusing order, and no live witnesses were examined in the well of the Senate chamber. As theatre, it was a bust.
Carter’s fictional trial shows us what a real, proper, open-ended presidential impeachment proceeding would look like—yet it, too, fails as theatre. You know how courtroom movies like A Few Good Men always end up letting star witnesses testify uninterrupted and fight exciting verbal duels with cross-examining counsel in ways that would never be tolerated in real life? Just to refresh your memory: the lawyer for the baddie will usually explode to his feet once and demand that the good guy’s Hail-Mary line of questioning be shut down, but the judge, who has been crushing the hero’s huevos throughout the movie, suffers a mysterious and unexplained attack of leniency and says “I’ll allow it—but this had better be going somewhere fast, mister!”
Carter is too much the law professor to let a “real” courtroom drama like that develop: his portrait of an obstructionist, cranky 19th-century Senate is so accurate that the witnesses are barely allowed to breathe, and Lincoln’s impeachment trial turns out to be kind of boring. (And, by the way, the actual impeachment of Lincoln by the House technically happens off-camera in a short passage on page 34, so the title’s a little misleading, too.)
There are other credibility problems with the plot to balance the too-much-credibility issue with the courtroom scenes, but my big problem with this book is that its portrait of Lincoln is unrecognizable and unattractive. I can’t help thinking that this is a decisive, unmitigable flaw in a Lincoln book. Carter seems to have thought it was important that Lincoln not be portrayed as a plaster saint, so he overemphasizes the cynicism, the backwoods cunning, and the borderline-megalomaniac sense of sacred mission that contemporary detractors saw in Lincoln. This is certainly fair. What we don’t get is any sense of Lincoln’s mind, which was one of the finest of its era.
Certainly we get no taste of his gift for English, which only a trivial handful of individuals have shared in equal measure since our alphabet included the yogh. I think literally every single bit of Lincoln dialogue we get in the book is prefaced by one of Lincoln’s countrified stories about travelling salesmen with ferrets in their trousers or what-have-you. The anecdotes all supposedly authentic, but they are laid on much too thick. In real life, when the President deployed these stories, they were charming and inevitably to the point. By contrast, Carter’s Lincoln seems cryptic and distracted, even a mite demented. Maybe it’s the head wound?
By Julia McKinnell - Thursday, June 21, 2012 at 11:20 AM - 0 Comments
Author identifies various types of difficult mothers: Neglectful, Envious, Angry, Narcissistic.
It’s normal for a mother to get angry and speak viciously on occasion, says psychologist Terri Apter. But when she routinely uses anger and neediness to manipulate a child, she’s in a different league. She’s what Apter calls a “difficult mother” and she can haunt a child for a lifetime.
Apter was researching relationships between adolescents and parents when she noticed that, in 20 per cent of her cases, the mother was causing intractable problems. “I was not setting out to do a study of difficult mothers but I realized I had data on difficult mothers,” she explained last week from England, where she is a fellow at Cambridge University’s Newnham College.
She also realized the controlling behaviour of her late mother had been on her mind for years. In her new book, Difficult Mothers: Understanding and Overcoming Their Power, Apter describes how she can still “chill to memories of my mother’s angry breath. Her critical, suspicious, probing presence is a constant companion.”
By Richard Warnica - Thursday, February 2, 2012 at 10:49 AM - 0 Comments
Noted crank expands on his already extensive list of dislikes
Readers of Jonathan Franzen know he has a particularly dour outlook on life. The author of The Corrections and Freedom seems to like songbirds and hate just about everything else. Added to that list this week were e-books, which Franzen says are eroding the permanence of great literature.
According to an unofficial tally by the Daily Beast, in addition to books not on paper, Franzen’s disdains include: the Internet, cats, Michiko Kakutani and experimental fiction. Not listed, but likely applicable: kids these days, new-fangled bicycles, and writing characters that are in any human or appealing.
By Anne Kingston - Friday, January 6, 2012 at 1:00 PM - 0 Comments
Books are making way for more stylish ‘lifestyle’ products at Heather Reisman’s Indigo chain
On Nov. 8, 2011, Canada’s literati gathered in Toronto for their Oscars, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, an event designed to bolster book box office and buzz. Yet the hot topic as guests tucked into their tuna tartare was not literary but corporate—a new plot twist at Indigo Books & Music Inc. Hours earlier, the country’s dominant book retailer announced that Kobo Inc., the e-reader in which it held a 51 per cent stake, had been sold to Rakuten Inc., a Japanese company, for US$315 million. When regulatory hurdles are cleared, Indigo would net an estimated US$150 million.
That Indigo was jettisoning its much-publicized e-asset, one publishers had scrambled to accommodate, was puzzling—at least to those seeking a consistent narrative. Founded in 2009 to compete with Amazon’s Kindle, Kobo was Indigo’s fastest growing division, though only a small fraction of revenues. Minutes after announcing the divestiture, Indigo reported second quarter 2011 results, a loss of $40 million. Sales at Kobo were up 219 per cent over a year earlier, whereas those at indigo.ca rose 1.1 per cent and store sales were down—4.3 per cent at Indigo and Chapters superstores.
Months earlier, in June 2011, Indigo CEO Heather Reisman had talked up the digital/dead-tree book synergies to the Toronto Star: “Indigo is in the business of encouraging people to read,” she said. “We don’t care if people want to read digitally or physically.” A month before that, she predicted e-books would grow to 40 per cent of Indigo’s total book sales. Yet by November, the digital arm was history, shed in part because it would take an infusion of over $100 million to make it globally competitive, and the company was refocusing on a more high-risk area: non-book, or “lifestyle products.” In spring 2011, Reisman told the Globe and Mail that books would decline to 50 per cent of Indigo’s sales in a few years from 75 per cent. “Our stores are about the life of a book lover,” she stressed.
By Brian Bethune - Thursday, December 1, 2011 at 12:49 PM - 1 Comment
More readable fare is one thing, but enough with the populist gimmicks tacked on to literary prizes
Macleans.ca has asked its leading bloggers, pundits and critics to weigh in with what they’d like to see in 2012—in politics, television, film, books, wherever. The wish lists will run throughout the month of December and will be archived at macleans.ca/wishlist.
(1) According to journalistic adage, it takes three to make a trend, but there’s one trainee trend that ought to be nipped after two. In 201,1 two big-name authors released big-time follow-ups to the works of even bigger, but long dead, writers. P.D. James, now 91 but still smarter than most of us, wrote Death Comes to Pemberley, featuring most of the cast of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (and a handful of other Austen characters), while Anthony Horowitz channeled Arthur Conan Doyle and the gaslit world of Sherlock Holmes right through The House of Silk. Both living writers produced admirably—quality isn’t the problem here, rather it’s the unlikelihood anyone else will do as well. That goes for James and Horowitz too, as the latter is well aware. “I wouldn’t want to be that guy,” he allows, “the one about whom people say, ‘He wrote another of those too, but it wasn’t as good.’”
(2) Back in 1944 Raymond Chandler famously wished for more of the sort of (fictional) murderers who “commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” Continue…
By Brian Bethune - Friday, September 30, 2011 at 9:00 AM - 0 Comments
Book by David King
It would seem axiomatic that a city under brutal foreign military rule would at least be an orderly one, with crime as repressed as every other aspect of life. Not Paris in early 1944. There, life under Nazi dictatorship made for a perfect ecological niche for a serial killer. For years, thousands of people had simply disappeared, some to safety but far more to concentration camps, and no one asked questions of the authorities. In March 1944, it took five days of warm weather and open windows before neighbours complained of the noxious smoke pouring from the chimney of supposedly empty 21 rue Le Sueur. When police entered it was into a charnel house nightmare: a basement lime pit full of dozens of decomposing bodies and, in the furiously burning furnace, a smoking hand.
When the owner, physician Marcel Petiot, showed up, he asked one of the cops waiting for higher-ups if he were “a true Frenchman.” When the officer replied yes, Petiot told him No. 21 was a Resistance safe house and the victims collaborators. The patriotic officer let Petiot go, and the killer escaped arrest for over seven months. (In the confused days after the August liberation of the city, Petiot managed to join the police under an alias and spent some time investigating his own crimes.) Meanwhile, French police authorities assumed they had stumbled into a Gestapo torture chamber.
What had actually been going on at 21 Le Sueur was a crime that could only have been committed under Nazi occupation. Petiot had been running a fake escape line for the Third Reich’s endless list of enemies, one that mimicked—in its demand for total secrecy and trust—the real ones that funnelled refugee Jews and downed Allied airmen into Spain. Except Petiot took those desperate people to his house and murdered them, taking their last valuables for himself. In the whole appalling story, expertly told by King, that cruelty stands out the most.
By macleans.ca - Thursday, September 29, 2011 at 8:40 AM - 0 Comments
Book by Rory A. Stewart and Gerald Knaus
Stewart and Knaus grapple with the seminal question of modern international affairs: can intervention work? By this they mean: can the West, using military force, end wars, halt genocide, topple dictators, replace them with friendly governments, and build nations, without making things worse? Their answer is yes—but not as often as many of us think, and only with limited goals, and more humility and local knowledge than has typically been the case in recent decades.
Stewart, a young British member of Parliament who gained fame for a book about his 2002 walk across central Afghanistan, says foreigners intervening in a failing or war-ravaged country too often succumb to mission creep. Their mandate swells, drawing in ever more resources and troops to little beneficial effect. “There isn’t an insurgency,” a military friend told Stewart after a 2005 reconnaissance trip to Helmand province in Afghanistan, where Britain was about to deploy thousands more soldiers, “but you can have one if you want one.”
Stewart has argued for years against sending more soldiers to Afghanistan. What is needed instead, he says, is a “light long-term footprint.” Commit, but don’t try to do too much. Foreign soldiers, diplomats and aid workers, deploying for in-country tours that are so short British imperialists of a century ago would scoff in disbelief, don’t develop the expertise to implement grand plans designed in faraway capitals. “We—the foreign government organizations and their partners—know much less and can do much less than we pretend,” says Stewart.
By macleans.ca - Wednesday, September 28, 2011 at 8:30 AM - 0 Comments
Book by Theresa Weir
It seems that when it came to intrigue, mystery writer Weir had to look no farther than her own backyard. Weir, who writes bestselling mysteries under the Anne Frasier brand, has this time sourced her own marriage to a handsome but tortured Illinois apple farmer, Adrian Curtis. It’s Jane Eyre meets Green Acres, a stunning memoir with page-turner pace.
The young couple met one day while she was waitressing at her uncle’s bar. They fell in love and were quickly married. Everyone disapproved—especially his domineering mother. As local tongues wagged, they tucked away in the tiny hired man’s house on the Curtis family farm and scratched out a life together. Weir lasted one brief morning working on the Curtis farm before she was fired. So she pulled out her pawnshop typewriter and started to pen mysteries. That single act of creative independence grants Weir the courage she needs to bolster her marriage and salvage her battered self-esteem. She might be living under someone else’s roof—and cruelly excluded from family meals—but she remains undaunted.
This marvellously Gothic book swivels between Weir’s unhappy childhood and life on the claustrophobic apple farm. The air is heavy with pesticides and family tension: the Curtises are intent on producing perfect fruit—no matter what the consequences. While hubby works from dawn to dusk, Weir pounds out her mysteries and raises their two children. There is no escape from farm servitude since family loyalty is primary. The beleaguered couple is even forbidden to move, as Adrian’s rightful place is on the family farm.
The memoir is a gripping account of divided loyalties, the real cost of farming and the shattered people on the front lines. Not since Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres has there been so enrapturing a family drama percolating out from the back forty.
By macleans.ca - Wednesday, September 28, 2011 at 8:20 AM - 0 Comments
Book by Mukoma Wa Ngugi
What’s black and white and dead all over? There may be several unfortunate answers to that question, or, one may simply be referring to the plot lines of Ngugi’s novel. Dead white girl, black cop, blacker suspect and dead folk . . . all over.
In the snow-white town of Madison, Wis., African-American detective Ishmael Fofona is investigating the death of a young white woman whose body has been found on the doorstep of Joshua Hakizimana’s home. Though Joshua is a well-respected professor and “hero” who is said to have saved thousands during the Rwandan genocide, his identity—in Wisconsin, at least—continues to be defined by colour, not deeds. As racial tensions rise, Ishmael and his (also black) police chief are under huge pressure to find a quick resolution, and Ishmael has no choice but to take the advice of an anonymous caller: “The truth is in the past. Come to Nairobi.”
Kenya serves as a real flip side, where pursuer is pursued, black man becomes white man (mzungu, or foreigner) and a cold Bud is replaced by a Tusker. Ishmael tries to glean what he can about Joshua, making his way through a maze of people and places, coming out the other end sticky from both the heat and questionable morals he’s encountered. While Ishmael discovers that Joshua may not be the man he claims to be, he is equally shocked to find a flip side to his own self.
As with any compelling mystery, nothing is what it appears to be, and just as the reader begins to suspect that Ngugi’s novel has embarked upon a disappointing denouement, both literarily and ethically, he smacks his last pages in our face to thrilling effect.
By macleans.ca - Wednesday, September 28, 2011 at 8:15 AM - 0 Comments
Book by Marlene Zuk
Entomologists have crafted some of the best popular science prose. That’s partly because those who love such generally unloved creatures as insects really love them, and their enthusiasm is infectious—Zuk, with her abiding passion for crickets, is no exception—and partly because bugs are inherently interesting: both surprisingly familiar and frighteningly alien. Nothing grabs her students’ full attention, the University of California biologist dryly notes, like the news that a male honeybee’s genitals explode after sex.
That’s just another detail in the high-stakes sex lives of male insects: everyone knows what female mantises do with their mates’ heads (expectant mothers need sustenance), and Zuk is almost gleeful in her description of the reproductive dilemma of a male cricket surrounded by acoustically orienting parasitic flies. Male crickets have to chirp to attract a mate, an act that also attracts a fly that deposits tiny, burrowing larvae on him; over time the maggots consume the entire cricket from the inside out. The dilemma, of course, is what to do: stay quiet and fail to breed or call out and risk death. The crickets, like most of creation, usually roll the dice.
And therein lies the true fascination of insect studies: they have a lot to teach us. Cutting-edge biology—genomes and nerve cells and evolutionary paths—is most effectively studied with bugs. Fruit flies and bees last shared a common ancestor 250 million years ago; in comparison, all mammals are essentially identical. Yet humans and social insects have ended up with a lot of similarities—in the ways we organize complex societies, raise offspring and make group decisions—raising anew the old question about what makes us stand out in the animal kingdom. We’ve always tried to answer that by comparing ourselves to our closest relatives. Zuk makes a compelling and engaging argument for looking far, far away.
REVIEW: Sex, Mom, and God: How the Bible’s Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics—and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway
By macleans.ca - Wednesday, September 21, 2011 at 6:55 AM - 3 Comments
Book by Frank Schaeffer
Former evangelist Frank Schaeffer may have quit the business and turned his back on what he now calls “our dreadful, vengeful little God,” but the man clearly still has a knack for sermon titles. And Sex, Mom, and God is nothing if not a righteous, furious, cringe-inducing and surprisingly nuanced sermon delivered in book form against Schaeffer’s heavenly demons. Schaeffer knows the evangelical world well; his father Francis Schaeffer was also a father to America’s evangelical right who oversaw its post-Roe vs. Wade politicization. Frank followed in his father’s footsteps—he helped produce Ronald Reagan’s 1984 anti-abortion book—before an abrupt, late ’80s volte-face that, in many respects, he’s still trying to explain.
Sex details Schaeffer’s upbringing at L’Abri, his parent’s Swiss commune and base for their evangelical publishing empire. He was an obsessively horny teenager damned by the Good Book; Schaeffer argues that he was warped by the Bible’s violence and distinct anti-female tracts. (His frequent citing of Leviticus is a reminder how, when it comes to brutal misogyny, hard-core rap could take a few lessons from the Old Testament.)
Saving him from all of this is Edith, Frank’s beloved mother, at once a lingerie-wearing, Bob Dylan-quoting free spirit and an unalloyed proselytizer of her husband’s fire and brimstone—“a much nicer person than her God,” as Schaeffer writes. Schaeffer loves his mother too much to call her a hypocrite, but it is difﬁcult to otherwise imagine this ebullient mother who loved life and high fashion in practically equal measure was also responsible for such subservient tracts as The Hidden Art of Homemaking. (Like her son, Edith had second thoughts.) Schaeffer’s contention that most, if not all, of organized religion’s shortcomings stem from hang-ups over sex is nothing new. What’s compelling about Sex is Schaeffer himself, who bashes away at what he held dear for so long.
By macleans.ca - Wednesday, September 21, 2011 at 6:45 AM - 0 Comments
Book by Larrie Ferreiro
Science is science, and politics is politics, but anyone who thinks the twain never meet should consider the climate change debate. Or read Ferreiro’s detailed account of the first international (France-Spain) scientific expedition, which set out in 1735 to measure a degree of latitude at the equator (in today’s Ecuador) to see if it was the same length as one near Paris. The answer would determine which theory was correct: René Descartes’, that the Earth was elongated at the poles, or Isaac Newton’s, that the force of gravity had flattened the poles. If the Frenchman was right, degrees at the equator should be longer than those further north; if the Englishman had the better model, then the degrees would be shorter. The gentlemen scholars could have aimlessly debated the question for another century if the politicians hadn’t become interested—the answer mattered for ocean navigation and thus for Europeans’ imperialist ambitions.
So the French sprung for the costs and provided the scientists, while the Spanish offered guides and an equatorial proving ground in their South American colony. The men thought they’d be home in three years, but the actual task took three times as long. There wasn’t enough money (the expedition leader, astronomer Louis Godin, lavished a lot of it on his paramour); malaria struck; team members were forced to climb extinct volcanoes inconveniently located where they wanted to measure; suspicious locals thought they were smugglers and Jews, and reported them to the local inquisitor, who was only pacified by an invitation to a pork dinner.
And once the measurement was done, the troubles really began. One scientist had married a local woman, who became separated from him. Portuguese authorities in Brazil refused him entry to pick her up and the couple spent 21 years apart at opposite ends of the Amazon River. They didn’t make it back to France until 1773. Ferreiro dutifully records the scientific advance—Newton, as it turned out, was correct—but rightly stresses the adventure.
By macleans.ca - Monday, September 19, 2011 at 10:15 AM - 0 Comments
Book by Anna Reid
The 900-day encirclement of Leningrad, the cradle of the Russian Revolution, by Nazi armies is one of the most famous events of the Second World War. And one of the least understood, according to Reid’s sweeping and appalling narrative. Just 11 weeks after Hitler’s surprise attack on the U.S.S.R, the Germans were on the city’s doorstep. A fatal mix of factors then came into play: the Soviets’ desperate struggle on other fronts and Stalin’s indifference to the city’s fate on one side; on the other, the strong German preference that Leningrad starve rather than be conquered at any cost in casualties or even surrendered (in the latter case, the Wehrmacht would have been responsible for feeding the inhabitants). By September 1941, the stalemate was complete, and remained in place for 2½ years—Leningrad left to itself, cut off except for a tenuous ice road in the winter months, with the Germans dug in around it. And then the city began to die.
By January the death toll was running at 100,000 a month; by the end of what was a savage winter even by Russian standards, with frequent days of -30° C, the total was already half a million. In later winters, the pace slowed, mostly because there were fewer mouths to feed. In the end, one in three of the population, 750,000 civilians, perished before the Wehrmacht left in January 1944. How they lived and died was long obscured by Communist mythmaking, but with the end of the Soviet Union, elderly blokadniki, as survivors of the blockade are known, rushed their diaries into print. The stories they tell—of moments of bravery and self-sacriﬁce punctuating a nightmare of an endless quest for food, withered emotions and collapsed family life, looting, murder and cannibalism—are far from heroic, but intensely human. Read’s dispassionate recreation of one of the war’s worst catastrophes is a moving memorial for Leningrad’s victims.
By macleans.ca - Friday, September 16, 2011 at 10:57 AM - 6 Comments
Book by Dick Cheney
Cheney’s unapologetic memoir, which stretches from a modest childhood in Nebraska and Wyoming to his rise as the most powerful vice-president in history, saves its emotional energy for settling scores, especially against fellow members of the administration of George W. Bush. (One of the few tidbits he does reveal: the secure “undisclosed location” to which he was so often consigned after 9/11 was not some cave bunker but often his own home or the woodsy presidential retreat of Camp David.) On policy, Cheney has few regrets. “One of the most significant accomplishments” of Bush’s presidency, he writes, was “the liberation of Iraq and the establishment of a true democracy in the Arab world.”
The book describes Cheney’s outsized influence in the first Bush term and increasing marginalization in the second. While he successfully pushed for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, by the summer of 2007 he could not persuade Bush to bomb a Syrian nuclear reactor. “After I finished, the president asked, ‘Does anyone here agree with the vice president?’ Not a single hand went up around the room.” Cheney saves his harshest words for Bush’s two secretaries of state. He accuses Condoleezza Rice of misleading Bush while fumbling disarmament talks with North Korea (“We were promising rewards for their duplicity”) and naively seeking diplomatic engagement with villains. “In meeting after meeting, it seemed we had to argue against yet another misguided approach from the State Department.” And Colin Powell is painted as a disloyal colleague who criticizes Bush’s policies to others but not to the president’s face.
The world according to Cheney is dangerous and needs American power. When defence secretary Robert Gates tells the Saudis in late 2007 that Bush would be impeached if he took military action against Iran’s nuclear program, Cheney is livid: Gates “removed a key element of our leverage.” But Cheney’s will not be the last word. Rice’s political memoir is due out Nov. 1.
By Julia McKinnell - Wednesday, September 14, 2011 at 11:55 AM - 0 Comments
Thinking of owning goats? Get yourself to Maine—or buy this just-released manual.
When North America’s only goat school first opened in Maine, it attracted a total of 12 students. Now, Ken and Janice Spaulding’s school is a two-day affair that often draws more than 100 students. This year’s goat school is on Oct. 8 and 9 at Stony Knolls Farm in Saint Albans, Maine.
For those who can’t attend the school but are interested in owning goats as pets, or raising goats for milk and meat, Janice Spaulding has just released a do-it-yourself manual called Goat School: A Master Class in Caprine Care and Cooking. In it, you’ll find everything you need to know about assisting a pregnant goat in labour to how to whip up a 30-minute mozzarella using goat’s milk and rennet.
“Goats are amazing creatures. They are smart, funny, personable, nosy, and did I say smart?” writes Spaulding. “They can open any latch, sometimes unlock doors, turn light switches on and off, take things apart, and they love to help. They will help you shovel snow or poop, they will untie your shoelaces for you, and they love helping take things out of your pocket.”
By Brian Bethune - Tuesday, September 13, 2011 at 10:00 AM - 0 Comments
People were so excited about the new award, they voted for books they hadn’t read
It turned out to be a grand Labour Day weekend for literary Saskatchewan. Two women from the province won the Scotiabank Giller Prize’s new promotional plums: one got the Readers’ Choice Award, given to the book that received the most votes in an online poll conducted by the CBC; the other was the randomly chosen winner of two tickets to the November Giller gala in Toronto (plus airfare, hotel stay, clothing and meal allowances). Myrna Dey, 69, from tiny Kamsack, 330 km east of Saskatoon, took the Readers’ Choice for her debut novel Extensions, while Helen McCaslin of Regina, also 69, won the tickets.
The Giller itself did all right—in a situation that could have come out far worse. The idea of adding a populist element, the Readers’ Choice, to a literary award that’s never been shy about promoting itself—but is sensitive to constant outraged cries that it “missed” a popular book (like Emma Donoghue’s Room last year)—must have seemed a natural. But it was always going to fit uneasily with another core aspect of the Giller: the prize derives its prestige from its elite status.
The Giller’s three-person jury, which winnows down the submissions by stages to the ultimate winner of the $50,000 prize, is always made up of book insiders, mostly writers and announced with fanfare every spring. As Giller director Elana Rabinovitch puts it, “We select juries for their expertise very carefully and have full faith they will see where the rubies are.” Despite the fact all literary prize lists are explained, by insider gossip, in terms of book trade politics, to raise the possibility that popularity might influence judges disturbs a lot of literati. “Now we’ll see—and to my mind it cheapens the prize—people barking like trained seals to get mentioned,” says novelist Andrew Somerset.
By Jessica Allen - Thursday, September 8, 2011 at 10:40 AM - 0 Comments
Book by Patricia Marx
When a former Saturday Night Live writer and the first woman elected to the Harvard Lampoon writes a novel, you can expect hijinks. And Marx, best known for her New Yorker “On and Off the Avenue” pieces, delivers. Her second novel chronicles an unconventional love story: “perfect guy” Wally, a scientist, falls in love with emotionally distant lingerie designer Imogene, who doesn’t care for perfect types. Their story unfolds in 691 “chaplettes.” (If you’re looking for proper chapters, warns the author up front, then “adios muchachos.”) Marx also includes her own illustrations (musical interludes, pie charts and diagrams of pasta shapes, for example), a who’s who of characters, including Patty—the voice of the author herself—and a farcical index.
When Imogene finally decides to move in with Wally (who shares a Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoise named Stuffy with his ex), it comes out of left field. In fact, her disinterest in him, and most things, is so great that it’s hard to imagine why Wally falls in love with her in the first place. But there are endearing moments, especially relatable for anyone who’s felt the cold touch of domestic complacency: one night Imogene counts the number of divorced friends she has in order to lull her to sleep and at number 44, Wally kisses her on the forehead. But Imogene doesn’t stir: “She was considering whether she would ever leave Wally.”
The self-referential bits are funny at first, as when Wally asks of Imogene, “Do you think we’ll be in this book long enough for them to hear me stop pleading with you?” But, along with many of the illustrations, they leave sensitive types longing for more intimacy with the characters so that when momentous plot points pass, like the birth of children or the death of a parent, they aren’t accidentally glazed over.
And for those still concerned with the brevity of Marx’s chaplettes, she reminds, in her own voice as Patty, “Have you checked out life lately?”
By Mike Doherty - Thursday, September 8, 2011 at 10:25 AM - 0 Comments
Book by Benjamin Black
As his pseudonym’s surname implies, when Booker Prize winner John Banville writes books as Benjamin Black, they’re romans noirs. The first three Black novels about Dublin pathologist Garret Quirke are enveloped by various shades of grey, but Death in Summer, the fourth, swaps dingy pubs and oppressive nighttime fog for “tawny” afternoons and summer “going blithely about its blue-and-gold business.”
In interviews, Banville stresses the differences between the laboriously crafted prose he pens under his own name and his more spontaneous work as Black. And yet, there’s perhaps a growing affinity: something of The Infinities, Banville’s sun-dappled and atypically buoyant last novel, seems to have seeped into Black’s work. That’s not to say Death in Summer is lighthearted: its first scene describes a corpse with half its head blown off by a shotgun. Quirke is assigned to perform the autopsy, and he and his friend Inspector Hackett decide that the seeming suicide of a newspaper baron is more likely a murder.
Through a scorched Dublin June, Quirke does what any good noir protagonist would do: he snoops around, embroils his life in those of the suspects—particularly that of the victim’s widow—and gets in over his head. But where Quirke’s previous cases got truly messy, with high personal stakes for the pathologist and his eccentric daughter, Phoebe, in this book, despite the depravity Quirke uncovers, one senses that nothing terribly untoward will befall the main characters.