• Fields Notes from a Catastrophe

    Field Notes from a Catastrophe
    Elizabeth Kolbert

    When this book first came out in 2005 it was hailed in some quarters as the Silent Spring of climate change. As it documents, however, the science of climate change has been around for a while, with each new verification only demonstrating how much worse things probably are than our models have predicted. And in any event I’m not sure a Silent Spring moment is necessary to raise awareness of the problem. We know the problem, and, in general terms, the solutions. It’s just that the solutions are unacceptable. Sacrifices are going to have to be made, but they won’t be made willingly, and will likely come as too little and too late anyway. “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.” It may not register as a choice we’ve made, but as Kolbert concludes, we’re still responsible. Some kind of collapse beckons. The sting in the tail, however, is that use of “technologically advanced.” Of course what Kolbert means is that lots of previous civilizations have collapsed due to environmental causes, but they weren’t as sophisticated as ours. The problem is that this doesn’t mean we’re any better equipped to deal with the crisis, and indeed our state of technological advance may be a big part of our undoing.

  • Breathing Lessons

    By Andy Sinclair

    The title of Andy Sinclair’s debut novel refers to learning how to accept air as breath from another person, whether through artificial respiration or by sharing a joint. It’s a special type of breathing that’s involved, but once you get the hang of it, it’s as easy and natural as any other way of filling your lungs.

    There may be some thematic significance to this, as the narrator of Breathing Lessons, Henry Moss, is a gay man at a time when being gay is no longer a marginal lifestyle. The world has adjusted, and now gays “are just like everybody else!” Except they’re “really, really into cock.”

    What this means is that gay sex has become something as natural, and indeed mechanical as breathing. It’s best not to think about it too much, or become too involved with one’s partners. And so the book takes the form of a series of micro-love stories (or sex diary) as Henry tells of how he hooked up with Kevin, Jonas, Perry, Joe, Dillon, Bill, Ken, Jared, Eric, Alex, Ted, Benny, Sean, Brent, and Russ . . . all in 150 pages. If sex is like breathing, the pace here is breathless.

    The point seems to be that none of this means much to Henry. His lovers are mere bodies, only especially muscled, chiseled and buff. Henry has an eye for these things, and even notices that his former high school gym teacher, now over 60, has six-pack abs. But no matter how much time they spend in the gym, Henry’s lovers just come and then go. He gets crushes of various degrees, but after the inevitable break-up he gets over them and moves on.

    Henry himself is another fitness fanatic, and also one of those narrators who is a bit hard to take. He’s healthy, reasonably well off (albeit stuck in a series of going-nowhere jobs), has a loving, understanding family and a formidable sex and social life, but he’s in therapy and on drugs because he feels unfulfilled. Gazing over Henry’s scorecard, one can only share his sense that it doesn’t add up to much in the end.

    The structure matches the theme. This is less a novel than a series of recollections in no real order, none of them contributing to any sense of an overall narrative. Sinclair is a brisk, engaging writer, but you get the feeling that this material would be better suited for a satire of beautiful young people running to stand still, their bodies endlessly cocked and reloading on the sexual treadmill of life.

    Review first published in Quill & Quire, May 2015.

  • Seconds

    David Ely

    If this book is remembered at all today it’s as the source for the 1966 John Frankenheimer film. This is a shame, because even though I love the movie, the book is just as good, if slightly different in tone. Essentially it’s a parable of the American dream (the frontier, freedom, mobility, self-improvement) turned into Kafkaesque nightmare (a corporate early-retirement package fronting for a butcher shop). I’m still not sure how the Company makes money out of all of this, but that’s a detail. What resonates is the sheer emptiness of Wilson’s life, and the lives of all the other unhappy and expendable middle-aged men who form the brotherhood of the reborn. Family means nothing (Wilson’s wife and daughter have quickly moved on) and religion is just a no-name bag of peanuts provided as in-flight entertainment while we travel to our final destination. It all adds up to one of the most despairing, nihilistic, and prophetic visions of the post-War zeitgeist. The dream had failed and you could smell the counterculture coming.

  • Knife Party at the Hotel Europa

    By Mark Anthony Jarman

    It’s unfortunate, but the qualities that make Mark Anthony Jarman the most interesting if not the best short story writer in Canada today, in particular his unorthodox, experimental approach to style and form, are what make him a challenge, and even off-putting, for the general reader.

    Jarman is not a traditional storyteller. Narrative is not his thing, and Knife Party at the Hotel Europa is typical in this regard. It could be read as a novel, but is probably best approached as a series of linked short stories dealing with a Canadian tourist experiencing Italy. The narrator has left the ice and cold of his home and native land, as well as a marriage break-up and the death of a mistress, to melt in the sensual heat of Rome, Naples, and Pompeii. He finds the oven that is Italy turned up so hot it makes him wonder if Canada still exists.

    But wherever you go, there you are. There are few writers who feel as compressed into a personal mental space as Jarman. And so while the narrator takes in all the touristy sites he feels he’ll never know “interior Italy” but only “the chaotic exteriors.” Not being familiar with the language or the local scene (which is awash with immigrants and other tourists anyway), the external world isn’t described so much as rendered as a reflection of “the racket and form held inside my quiet head”: a jumbled series of impressions, allusions, references to high and low culture (“upside-down-cake-brow”), erotic fantasies, and streams of word associations.

    But what seems merely chaotic is usually well crafted and thoughtful. When, for example, the narrator calls Rome “this mammose mammering holy city!” it may sound like a bit of alliterative nonsense, but it’s worth unpacking the vocabulary to understand what’s being said.

    Impressionistic writing, which is Jarman’s mode, doesn’t tell a story so much as it revolves around leitmotifs, images, and emotional preoccupations. A book by Jarman is a bit like a concept album, the language arranged in musical and meaningful ways. But also like a concept album, it takes some listening.

    Review first published in Quill & Quire, February 2015.

  • Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter

    Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter
    Darwyn Cooke

    The Parker novels of Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) are a good choice for graphic novel adaptation, being comic-book action adventures characterized by their tough-guy dialogue and sense of neo-noir style. This sort of thing lends itself to a visual format (as with Frank Miller’s Sin City), which is nice because though they keep selling I don’t think the Parker books are that interesting to read any more. The Hunter was the first, and it also carries with it a legacy in film, from Boorman’s Point Blank to the Mel Gibson vehicle Payback. Cooke’s illustrations go well with the material, casting the figures as silhouette-ish versions of mid-century fashion mannequin-style characters, though I found Parker himself to be a bit too Hollywood, too much the leading man, too pretty. I also thought some of the visual set pieces a little hard to follow. The look has a starkness without clarity, and I’m not sure the two-tone greyish-blue colour scheme fits all of the action. But overall this is a stylish and responsible rendering of what has become, by whatever freak of time and popular taste, a crime classic.

  • The Seventh Day

    By Yu Hua

    Yu Hua is one of China’s best known writers in the West, which may be due to the fact that all of his writing is an attempt to understand, explain, and come to grips with contemporary Chinese life.

    If history is change then China has probably experienced more of it than any other country in the world in the last half century. The individuals Yu Hua writes about are all trying to adapt to this change, the sudden shifts in politics, business, and culture that have defined the boom years of China’s “economic miracle.” Today’s China is his subject, and while his novels usually take the conventional form of presenting a character’s life history, his real focus is on the life of the nation.

    The Seventh Day begins, suggestively, at the end. There’s a sense that some of the bloom has fallen from the economic miracle’s rose. The first sentence describes Yang Fei rising from his bedsit and going out into the thick fog of a “barren and murky city.”

    The weather, which will continue to be heavy with rain, smoke, fog, sleet, and snow, mirrors the state of Yang Fei’s soul. Yang Fei, you see, has just died, and it is his unburied spirit that will now negotiate a dreamy urban and rural landscape of faces, places, and memories for the next seven days.

    The afterlife has a familiar physical appearance and geography, in as much as any part of today’s China stays the same for very long. You can walk down the same streets, but urban renewal is taking place at such a strenuous pace that apartment buildings are being dropped with the residents still in them. Yang Fei even meets the ghosts of some of these forcibly relocated souls in limbo.

    The demolished buildings symbolize the trauma of rapid change, as does Yang Fei’s own life, the stages of which he revisits after his death.

    Born by accident on a speeding train, he falls onto the tracks and is adopted by a kindly railway employee. Later he marries, but is left by a wife who is ambitious to rise in the world. Then, on the fateful day, he stops into a noodle shop just before it explodes.

    Life in modern China is not for the weak. The economic miracle isn’t stopping for anyone. Yang Fei’s adopted mother is one such casualty, being knocked off her feet by a speeding BMW and then run over by a truck and a delivery van. Among the spirits of the dead Yang Fei also meets several suicides, as well as a number of people who have met violent ends, trapped in demolished buildings, for example, or dying as a result of botched black market organ removals. Saddest of all is a group of twenty-seven babies disposed of by a hospital as “medical refuse.”

    The afterlife provides an antidote to these horrors of urban life, presenting a peaceful land of rest after all of this remorseless change. In eternity nothing really happens, which means nobody is in a rush to get anywhere. Instead we see people drawn together by genuine affection, and being reunited with loved ones. A strictly non-denominational, feel-good spirituality presides, easing the dislocation and stress of death.

    Yes, paradise is a bit bland. It always is. But after experiencing such violent chaos, a bit of blandness is just what those left behind are looking for. Especially reassuring during a time of widening economic disparity is the blessed “equality in death.” The spirits of rich VIPs with expensive burial plots go to the front of the line, but they’re made to seem a bit ridiculous in holding on to their sense of privilege and self-importance. They’re dead now, and they should be over that.

    Death can give us that perspective, or at least in fiction it can.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star January 10, 2015.

  • Rise to Greatness

    By Conrad Black

    There’s a tendency for historians to want to climb higher up Olympus as they get older, taking a more extensive view while channeling their inner Gibbon.

    Conrad Black has always written from a lofty elevation, but even so his two most recent books – a 760-page history of the United States, and now an 1100-page history of Canada – stand out as monuments to this epic tradition. Size alone reinforces their claim to being authoritative and comprehensive accounts.

    And yet right away it’s clear that calling Rise to Greatness a history of Canada “from the Vikings to the present” is misleading. The Viking expeditions are given a single paragraph. Before that, the native peoples get a few pages before being swept into the dustbin of history with a dismissive rhetorical flourish (“Indian society was not in itself worthy of integral conservation, nor was its dilution a suitable subject for great lamentations”).

    This is not social or cultural history. What Black is interested in, to the exclusion of everything else, is what he has always been interested in as a historian: political biography.

    But even given this limited scope, and despite the impressive page count, he doesn’t quite pull it off.

    The bulk of the text takes the form of brief, personal judgments that make little reference to any context outside of the political arena, and which are handed down in a manner that allows for no argument.

    As Canada’s archest of arch-conservative commentators, it’s hard for Black to conceal his biases behind a seemingly fair and balanced approach. One of these is his personal identification with great men who have gone on to be reviled. In Rise to Greatness the same pattern can be seen at work, with politicians usually viewed unfavourably by historians (Duplessis, Diefenbaker, Mulroney) being defended, while political icons are grudgingly given their place in the pantheon even as they’re being taken down a notch.

    Pierre Trudeau, for example, became prime minister with “that blasé flippancy of people who have never really done anything” or ever had to earn their own way. He possessed “a very unoriginal mind” and “was a traditional French bourgeois tightwad” except when it came to wasting other people’s money.

    As for the “endlessly enigmatic” and “unfathomable” figure of Mackenzie King, Black isn’t quite sure what to make of him. He does, however, pause to make a very odd historical comparison. It seems that “King’s patient, devious, systematic removal of rivals and dissidents was a bloodless and ultra-moralistic replication of some of the methods of his almost exact contemporary and analogue in shadowy communist manoeuvring, Stalin.”

    Yes, Stalin. This is what they call a stretch. “Of course, the parallels are superficial,” Black concedes. So one wonders why he makes them.

    The character sketches are done very much in the voice of Edward Gibbon, pinning historical personages down with piercing, epigrammatic wit. And Black only gets more opinionated and judgmental as he goes along, becoming quite unrestrained when dealing with more recent history. But this is also where he is most entertaining, even when he fails to make a convincing argument.

    The problem is that pithiness is no substitute for storytelling chops. Only a strong narrative spine could sustain a book of this length, and Black doesn’t do narrative. This is a book to dip into, not one to read straight through. Before long your eyes start to wander over pages littered in names and dates.

    In addition, one of the occupational hazards of the high style is that if you’re going to be judgmental, you’d better be right. Unfortunately, our confidence in Black’s version is often shaken, even when it comes to incidental matters he has thrown in as seasoning.

    We are told, for example, that the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V “had the papal domains sacked by one of his generals in 1527 when he considered Clement VII guilty of ingratitude.” In fact, Charles was embarrassed by the actions of an army of unpaid mercenaries run amok. Then, in the same paragraph, we find out that it was Erasmus who wrote Henry VIII’s Defence of the Seven Sacraments. News to me.

    There are no notes explaining where Black got these ideas, or if they are entirely his own. An even more troubling example of the same tendency is the absence of any support for the knee-jerk claim that the “hysteria of global warming” has now been “largely debunked.” I would like to know when this debunking occurred.

    A theme, however, does emerge: that of Canada’s “ineluctable destiny.” This unfortunate (because inaccurate) expression refers to the improbable way Canada has managed to navigate between major powers while maintaining and developing its own independent national identity. Ours is the history of “a country that has grown steadily, always pursued admirable goals, has never been defeated, and has rarely embarrassed itself.”

    That’s not a rousing claim to fame, which is one reason Canadian history has always been a hard sell. As Black notes, it is a story without a great deal of glamour and panache, one that has studiously avoided passion and drama. The Canadian way has been “along a path of rarely perturbed moderation, almost noiseless and always tortuous, and always navigating between and well within extremes.” It has advanced “subtly, imperceptibly, and largely unnoticed.”

    This lack of notice is why we need great historians. And while Black’s version doesn’t provide a full view from Olympus, it is very much a part, however thorny and contrarian, of the national landscape.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star November 23, 2014.

  • Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice

    Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice
    Adam Benforado

    The “new science” referred to in the subtitle of this book is a combination of neuroscience and social psychology. In recent years it has become all the rage to examine conventional thinking and received wisdom on a host of subjects in light of the latest developments in our understanding of how the mind works and small-group behaviour. Unfair is another example, bringing science to bear on the criminal justice system. According to law professor Adam Benforado, despite all the breakthroughs in forensic science that have been made in recent years, criminal law is still in the dark ages. This is because it is a human system, and so heir to all our human failings, many of which we are blind to or unconscious of. Looking in turn at all of the players in the justice system — the accused, victims, the police, lawyers, judges, witnesses, and juries — he shows how the ideal of fairness is compromised at every turn, but also how, by using the same scientific insights, the system might be reformed.

  • The Deep

    By Nick Cutter

    Following up The Troop, his sensational debut thriller, was never going to be easy for Nick Cutter. But The Deep shows no lack of ambition in its own spectacular journey into the extremes of grotesque horror.

    If anything it might suffer from being too ambitious. In brief, a strange plague has swept the globe, robbing people of their minds to the point where their bodies shut down as well. The only cure for “the ‘Gets” may lie at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, eight miles below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, where a “sentient goo” that might turn out to be a wonder drug has just been found.

    A three-man scientific crew is working in a lab at the bottom of the Trench, but something like cabin fever has set in. And so Luke Nelson, the brother of one of the scientists, is sent down to see what’s going on.

    The isolated location allows Cutter to hammer with exquisite effectiveness on a number of staple horror themes. In the first place there is the total darkness of the bottom of the ocean, which in turn heightens other senses. Strange and scary sounds resonate throughout the lab as the lights start to flicker, and even smells come to life (the “stink of insanity,” the “reek of darkness,” and “the gamey stink of adrenaline”).

    The darkness is also made visible by the imagination. The journey to the bottom of the sea is a trip into inner space and the unconscious. There’s an evil force down there that eats into your head by way of animated “dream pools” and nightmares come to life, not to mention some Freudian furniture from Luke’s past that has to be re-arranged.

    Finally there is the gnawing sense of claustrophobia that comes with living under conditions of extreme pressure. The trillions of tons of water pressing in from outside the lab keeping everyone on edge with the fear of body- and soul-crushing implosion.

    The Deep eschews the purely physical horror of The Troop for more psychological and supernatural frights (“ineffable” is a favourite word). This is both good and bad. While not lacking in bloody gross-out effects, the novel also takes a rather woolly ride through a cluttered narrative. But one expects genre fans to thrill at the imaginative range and page-turning power, and not mind the mess.

    Review first published in Quill & Quire, January 2015.

  • Fields of Blood

    By Karen Armstrong

    In the most recent rounds of the culture wars the Godly forces haven’t been doing well. Eloquent polemicists of the “new atheism” like Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have kept believers playing defense, the case against religion seeming stronger every day.

    But some relief is at hand. Religious historian Karen Armstrong isn’t making the case for God in Fields of Blood (that was another book), but instead addresses a point where the critics of religion may have overstepped themselves.

    One of the most frequent charges brought against religion is that it has been responsible for so much violence, that it is inherently cruel, intolerant, and aggressive. A favourite line is that “Religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history.”

    This isn’t true. While at first blush the history of warfare does seem to have a ribbon of religion running through it, from the wars of extermination waged by Old Testament kings through the first century of Islam’s expansion, the Christian crusades, and the various Wars of Religion that tore Europe apart following the Reformation, such an interpretation of history is misleading on several counts. Armstrong explains why.

    In the first place, civilization and social order require violence to be maintained. War is the inevitable result of the rise of states and their competition for scarce resources. It’s a harsh truth, but conflict is an ineradicable fact of life.

    That’s not religion’s fault. Religion has sanctified violence, but just as often has called it into question.

    Furthermore, throughout most of human history politics and religion have been embedded within one another, with some degree of influence going both ways. As a result, there is no way of separating religious from social, economic or political issues as a cause of war in the pre-modern period. The separation of church and state was a recent invention, founded in part on the belief that society would be liberated from the inherent belligerence of religion.

    That didn’t happen. Since the great separation of church and state war has continued unabated, most of them fought for entirely political causes. The Napoleonic wars weren’t religious wars. The Crimean War wasn’t. The American Civil War wasn’t. The First and Second World Wars weren’t. Korea? Vietnam? No and no.

    Nationalism has become the new religion, the state having been sacralised. In the modern age religion has been far less of a political force but the world has not become a more peaceful place. Indeed it could be argued that war has become even more barbaric (if technologically efficient).

    Even the War on Terror fails to make the case against religion. Almost all experts agree that terrorism is fundamentally and inherently a political act, whatever other motives are involved. Unfortunately for religion, that’s not a message that always gets through, because it’s in the interest of the targets of terrorism to cast it as an entirely irrational evil that only a force as backward as religion can “explain.”

    Armstrong’s case for the defense, which I’ve outlined here, is convincing. Much can be, and in recent years has been, said against religion. When looking to assign blame for the history of human violence, however, we are wrong to make God a scapegoat for the human condition.

    On this count of the indictment, religion has received a bum rap.

    Indeed, it’s not even clear who is being accused. Armstrong stresses the fact that a religious tradition “is never a single, unchanging essence that impels people to act in a uniform way.” Religions evolve over time to fit different historical conditions. The same religion can be bellicose or pacific depending on individual and collective needs.

    War isn’t going to end anytime soon. States will find themselves under increasing pressure from within and without, particularly through having to compete harder for scarcer resources. It’s likely we’ll continue to fight each other till the end of days. But beating up on religion isn’t going to change that a bit.

    Review first published online October 19, 2015.