• Devil’s Knot

    Devil’s Knot
    Mara Leveritt

    There are many shocking and depressing tales of the failure of the criminal justice system, but the persecution of the West Memphis Three has to rank among the worst. As a sociological inquiry Mara Leveritt’s book comes up empty – she never really addresses the question of how and why this disaster occurred – but as a guide to the grim proceedings that nicely complements the HBO Paradise Lost documentaries, one that in particular offers a closer examination of the role of the presiding judge, her account is both thorough and fair-minded. In trying to answer the question of what happened one comes away with a list of all the usual problems: official incompetence that settled into an early case of tunnel vision, followed by the abuse of the power of the state as it tried to defend itself and its operatives. An inverse Southern Gothic, where the narrow, prejudiced, and ignorant trash and bubbas turned out to be those in power: the police, prosecutors, and judge. Is that irony? Or only what you might expect?

  • Hellgoing

    By Lynn Coady

    For several years Lynn Coady – whose last novel, The Antagonist, was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize – hosted a “group therapy” advice column for the Globe and Mail. It’s an experience that may have had some influence on the stories in Hellgoing. Throughout the book she presents relationships fraught with moral and emotional complexities, and though her subject matter remains contemporary and her approach realistic, her characters always seem out of synch with their world and each other. As with the scenarios presented in the advice column, the reader is called upon to interpret and make sense of the messes these people have made of their lives.

    The source of the problem usually lies in people acting and speaking at cross purposes. This is presented most starkly in the S&M relationship between Sean and Erin described in the story “An Otherworld.” A caning, Erin tries to explain, should hurt, but not really hurt. Like a lot of things Erin says, this leaves Sean puzzled. When Erin talks about her orgasms he understands that she isn’t being literal, but can’t figure out if he is being complimented or if he is missing her point entirely. This same failure to communicate also characterizes the up-and-down, over-self-analyzed partnership of Kim and Hart in the story “Body Condom” (the title itself introducing the theme of barren separateness and isolation represented in the story by a wetsuit), and the spectacular mutual incomprehension that marks the conclusion of “Dogs In Clothes.” Marconi’s wireless in the story of that name is another symbol: “A scribble of potential – connection unconnected.” Even something as simple as the flag on a mailbox (in the story “Hellgoing”) may be a faulty signifier and not mean what it should. “You could never trust the flag.”

    In fact, there’s not much you can trust in these stories: lovers, family, and even one’s own feelings (which often shock us with a physical abruptness) can ambush and betray. A sharp, insightful writer with a tight, jamming style that makes use of fast narrative cuts, Coady deliberately leaves the human scribble tangled. This isn’t out of a desire to play coy but is rather an admission that problems involving relationships don’t have easy resolutions, or at least ones that can be clearly expressed. We may judge others harshly, as Cal judges Rain in “The Natural Elements,” but at the end of that story Cal is left with the suspicion that even if directly confronted Rain might have no idea what he is talking about. We can’t get through to one another. And yet some judgement is still necessary.

    Misreadings, miscommunications and disconnections lead to moments of awkwardness and revelation, and to her credit Coady makes us feel every bit of her characters’ confusion and discomfort in a collection as difficult as it is insightful and rewarding.

    Review first published in Quill & Quire, July 2013.

  • The Three Christs of Ypsilanti

    The Three Christs of Ypsilanti
    Milton Rokeach

    The cover of the first edition of this 1964 case study called it the story of three “lost men.” That subtitle was ditched for the 2011 NYRB reprint, which is unfortunate given that it was about as clear an assessment as possible of the three unhappy individuals who were the study’s subjects. Loss of their grip on reality was only the final loss for each of them, and instead of focusing on issues of sexuality (which were no doubt in play) perhaps analysis might have begun with the narcissism born of failure and low esteem. As would be demonstrated in the result, there is no cure for such a condition, as it is in effect not just a product of but a part of one’s life. As for the fourth Christ, author Milton Rokeach, I think he could only be forgiven for his manipulation of the patients under his care on the condition that his goal was solely to help them, and not to write a book or simply further his career. The book was later made into a play and two operas. Shades of Sibyl Inc.? The question has to be asked.

  • The Trial of Pope Benedict

    By Daniel Gawthrop

    In the same spirit of j’accuse journalism as Christopher Hitchens’ The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Daniel Gawthrop takes on the legacy of the recently retired Pope Benedict XVI (née Joseph Ratzinger) in an impassioned broadside that takes readers through a laundry list of scandal and sin ranging from the support of repressive regimes in Central and South America to shady financial dealings involving laundered American mob money.

    Gawthrop, a self-professed “lapsed Catholic” and gay man, feels personally betrayed by the right turn the Catholic church took after the death of John Paul I, and its continuing failure to fulfill the promise of reform held out by Vatican II. In particular, he is angry at the church’s demonizing of homosexuality and its horrendous handling of a long history of child sexual abuse.

    The case is damning but not unfair. The analysis of psychosexual issues surrounding the church’s attitudes toward women and gay priests is especially good, with Ratzinger himself appearing in the guise of a sexually underdeveloped – if not repressed – neo-con: someone whose early liberal tendencies were thrown spectacularly into reverse in response to his experience of 1960s campus counterculture. As prefect of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and later as pope, he would prove an ardent defender of orthodoxy, hierarchy, and a medieval version of family values.

    As a legal brief, however, the argument is a bit untidy. For one thing, given the secrecy of the church’s operations, there is much we don’t know about Benedict’s role in some of the issues Gawthrop raises. Furthermore, while Benedict was an arch-conservative pope by any standard, it must be kept in mind that the Catholic Church plays by its own rules. In time it may evolve along the lines Gawthrop sets out in his afterword (his suggestions include decentralizing power and convening a Vatican III council to review church policy on matters such as female ordination and clerical celibacy), but in doing so it will risk becoming indistinguishable from Protestantism, many offshoots of which have now become almost entirely decentralized and doctrine-free.

    But if Gawthrop fails to convict on all charges beyond a reasonable doubt, he nevertheless shines a welcome light into some of the darker corners of the Vatican while making a strong case for greater openness and reform.

    Review first published in Quill & Quire, August 2013.

  • Broke, USA

    Broke, USA
    Gary Rivlin

    James Baldwin once observed that it was very expensive being poor. Since then, the cost of living-on-less has been going up. This isn’t due to inflation but is rather the result of poverty being where the money is. Poor people tend to be less financially sophisticated, more desperate for immediate cash, and more vulnerable generally due to old age, illness, or variable employment. This makes them easy marks for the industry Gary Rivlin dubs Poverty, Inc.: payday loan offices, pawnbrokers, check cashers, mortgage financers, tax refund businesses, and a host of other predators who roam the rusting wastelands of the fringe economy. Immoral? A lot of it, definitely. Illegal? No (though this is a legislative battleground). More can and should be done to protect the truly innocent. But can the rest, and they are legion, be protected from themselves?

  • Wrecked

    By Charlotte Roche

    Five years ago Charlotte Roche, a minor television personality in Germany, scored a major success de scandal with her first book, Wetlands. It’s hard to be controversial in our jaded age, especially when it comes to sex, but Roche’s raunchy tale of eighteen-year-old Helen Memel’s one-woman war against personal hygiene managed to ruffle many feathers on its way to blockbuster bestsellerdom. Was it a feminist liberation manifesto wrapped up in a Rabelaisian celebration of the body and all of its earthiest functions? Or was it the neurotic nightmare of an autophagous narcissist afflicted by a host of anal and oral obsessions?

    If you were leaning toward the latter position after reading Wetlands, Wrecked should confirm your suspicions. Elizabeth Kiehl is Helen fifteen years later, still stridently atheist, preternaturally juicy, and preoccupied with nagging problems down there (the hemorrhoids and lesions replaced by worms this time out). Now, however, she is the married, semi-domesticated mother of a little girl, and riven by so many neuroses, anxieties, and complexes that she’s in daily therapy.

    Most of all, Elizabeth wants to be a good, boring, bourgeois mom — unlike her own mother, who she blames for messing her up. This antagonism naturally ensures that she will in fact become her mother, and in her emphasis on “Manners, manners, manners” and a “strictly regimented” dinner table we can see the seeds of further generational rebellion being sown.

    Then, once the kid’s been sent to bed, Elizabeth has to quickly switch “between mother and whore” in order to satisfy her insatiable sugar daddy of a husband by playing his “sexual servant.” And he has a thing for back door action as well.

    It’s no wonder Elizabeth has her head stuck you-know-where. She even imagines her apartment as “a giant, subterranean colon.”

    Roche obviously has some hang-ups she’s trying to work through. And I say Roche because, while it’s always tricky seeing authors in their narrators, if Elizabeth is Helen she is also Charlotte Roche. They are the same age, and both married with a daughter who is not the child of their husband. But most significantly, Elizabeth is haunted by a car accident that killed all three of her brothers while they were en route to her wedding, a spectacular tragedy that actually befell Roche in 2001. There’s a lot of therapy going on between these covers.

    Then there is the sex. Wrecked begins with a long set-piece bedroom scene between Elizabeth and her husband Georg, but it seems like something both Elizabeth (and Roche) are only trying to get through. Despite being explicit with the hydraulics the book is rarely pornographic. Elizabeth is too self-conscious to let herself go (especially with the voices of her mother and a prominent German feminist whispering in her ears), and while she experiences multiple orgasms we rarely get the sense that she’s having a good time. Instead, she does what she does mainly to please her husband Mr. Big, who she frankly adheres to for his money. Dirty DVDs help get them in the mood, and on special occasions they attend brothels together to engage in steamy threesomes.

    Alas, the image of a fifty-something German guy prepping for sex by shaving his pubic hair so he can get into a G-string with a golden pouch out front for his family jewels will likely kill any buzz the book’s admittedly pretty good purple parts may engender. In lieu of arousal, the reader may choose to take notes on things like Elizabeth’s helpful tips on how to enjoy (what else?) anal sex (here’s the crib: watch and learn how the porn stars do it and don’t try to use spit as a lubricant because it grabs).

    The erotic adventures of Momzilla and Goldmember notwithstanding, Wrecked isn’t as fresh or as funny a book as Wetlands. Where Helen was a train wreck waiting to happen, Elizabeth is wrecked. But still you can’t help rubbernecking at her personal horror show and all its gruesome revelations, or miss the feeling that the book is saying something important almost in spite of itself.

    It’s not hard to see why feminists have problems with Roche. Even if you accept all the sex as having a positive, liberating message, her heroines remain mental and emotional cripples. Elizabeth isn’t just a basket case, she’s a borderline psychopath, and it’s unclear whether Roche finds her at all exceptional in this. The madwoman on the couch has become our contemporary Everywoman, a pure product of her culture who has gone crazy.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star July 14, 2013.

  • Foundation

    Peter Ackroyd

    “The history of England cannot be written without a careful account of its sovereigns.” Unfortunately. All but the most advanced readers will find the Anglo-Saxon kings, and the contending houses in the Wars of the Roses, a bit of a blur. But they still matter. The “best” kings were ruthless predators, the worst weaklings who made a mess of things. Still, Acrkroyd argues that they nearly all left their personal imprint on the foundations of the nation. The peasants just didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. You know all this, and Ackroyd tells the old story well enough. Where he does allow himself to stray from the path I had doubts (it doesn’t seem likely to me that Henry IV died of syphilis, and it is not a “popular superstition” that the Black Death was carried by rats – at least one form of it almost certainly was), but for a general overview this will suffice.

  • A Beautiful Truth

    By Colin McAdam

    In the best known line from this best loved film, The Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir has one of his characters (played by himself) declare that “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.”

    What Renoir meant by “reasons” was love, and in Colin McAdam’s third novel this same beautiful and terrible truth is at work, proving that the road to hell can be paved with good intentions.

    When Walt and Judy, a childless Vermont couple with love to spare open their hearts and home to a baby chimpanzee named Looee we all know they’re making a big mistake even though we can sympathize with their decision. They are well-off and committed to one another, but lonely. Their lives are missing something. In a moment full of foreshadowing we see Judy yearning “like a prisoner yearns for friends beyond the wall.”

    Meanwhile, in a parallel narrative about a special institute in Florida set up to study chimpanzees, the lead scientist reflects that perhaps all “his work boiled down to an attempt to redress the unspeakable loneliness of humans.” Temporarily living apart from his wife and daughter he ponders what “solitude does to a social animal.” Later, a vet at the institute drifts into a similar sense of isolation and alienation, not only from his co-workers and fellow humans but even himself. Unable to tell anyone about his work, barely able to talk to his colleagues, “sent to a dark continent to exploit and find information, he fell in love with the natives and became a man without a country.”

    It gets to be that when you hear the word “love” in this book a warning siren starts to sound.

    Through characters like Walt and Judy, the scientist and the vet, A Beautiful Truth lays bare the “unspeakable loneliness of humans” both as individuals and as members of a lonely species. The beautiful truth, however, is empathy, that imaginative sense of connection that binds us to spouses, children, strangers, larger social groups, and other apes. Without its saving grace we are only sad, helpless, isolated individuals trapped in fragile bodies.

    If loneliness and isolation are what define the humans we meet, the main characters in the novel suffer many of the same ailments. These are the chimpanzees, chief among them being Looee. Looee is yet another loner (his name is even misspelled Lonee at one point), an orphan whose mother was shot for food by soldiers, her skull ground into paste for Chinese medicine. Adopted by Walt and Judy and raised as a human child, Looee eventually goes wild and ends up the subject of medical testing at the Florida institute. After a round of horrors at the hands of more lonely, caring, well-meaning types (they have their reasons), he is then transferred to the institute’s zoo-like enclosure where, body and spirit shattered, he finally joins a troop of his fellows.

    Anyone who has ever watched a nature documentary on chimpanzees or seen them at the zoo will have noticed our close family resemblance. McAdam’s chimps are like humans in many ways — we recognize their dysfunctional relationships and need to connect somehow to one another — but he’s written something more complex than the usual literary animal fable. The frequent comparisons he makes between chimps and humans, putting the feelings of the one in terms of the other, both connect and distance the two species, as does some of the familiar yet alien vocabulary of the chimp language. In a recurring motif hands reach out to hold other hands, but they don’t always touch.

    In his previous novel, the Scotiabank Giller Prize-shortlisted Fall, McAdam showed himself willing to experiment and take chances with style and narrative technique, leading to some striking if not always successful results. A Beautiful Truth is just as edgy but is a more sure-handed and mature work, expertly weaving together shifts in voice and point of view and making use of a poetic language full of direct, sensual metaphors.

    It would be easy for subject matter like this to sink into pathos, but McAdam avoids this by leading us to recognize in Looee’s fate not just the results of high-handed human meddling but a reflection of our own unbearable condition. There are no platitudes about the power of love and our need to feel for one another, but rather an understanding of how sad and damaging a business love frequently is. For social animals it’s a tragic instinct, even if we always have our reasons.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star March 24, 2013.

  • Thomas Paine

    Thomas Paine
    Craig Nelson

    It may be, as Craig Nelson suggests, that Thomas Paine was bipolar. Certainly his public reputation was. But were his personal highs and low a clinical condition, or just the fallout from being an idealist serially mugged by reality? More to the point, as perhaps the most successful political propagandist in history – his sales are almost unimaginable today, and his impact profound – was he only a useful idiot for the revolutions (American and French)? He was disposed of soon after the ejection of the old regimes, as the new bosses didn’t care much for him or his services rendered. This led to some understandable bitterness in his unhappy final years, but as Nelson nicely points out, the revolution betrayed quite a few of its children. It’s still hard to see Paine as a great mind, but he was in many ways ahead of his time, and in most of what he said correct. It’s just that even after the passage of two centuries he has a character that still, somehow, makes one uncomfortable. You don’t have to be traditionalist to expect people to behave by certain rules, and Paine was just too much his own man for his own good.

  • Farmageddon

    By Philip Lymbery with Isabel Oakeshott

    Farmageddon is one of a number of recent investigations into the food industry. That an investigation is necessary into something as intimate and essential as the food we eat is news in itself. Revealing the “truth” behind our daily bread (and meat) is hard work for two reasons. In the first place, there’s a lot that the industry doesn’t want consumers to know: about the environmental impact of what they do, about how unhealthy their products are, and in particular how disgusting and cruel their treatment of animals is. Most industrial farms have security only a little less tight than that surrounding nuclear power facilities, and in some jurisdictions there are even “ag-gag” laws preventing journalists from reporting on such matters. But making the task of speaking out even harder is the fact that most people don’t want to know. The dark side of food is just another one of those deliberate blind spots of twenty-first century life: we know that something is wrong, and that the situation is only getting worse, but we’re also pretty sure there’s nothing we can do about it. Easier, if not best, to turn a blind eye.

    As a result, while (perhaps more than ever) we are still what we eat, the dissociation is now nearly complete. There are occasional scandals that catch the public eye – horse meat in burgers in England, the abuse of dairy cattle in Canada, E. coli outbreaks here and there and everywhere – but as the authors of Farmageddon point out, such events only serve

    to underline for many how little we know about our food: what’s in it and how it is produced. There are fears of a gulf in understanding about the food on our plate; more than a third of young adults in Britain don’t know that bacon comes from a pig, milk from a cow or eggs from a hen.

    We might think of this as a sort of mental farmageddon, or farmicide: one where the reality of farming has been erased or mentally cleansed, in part by industry propaganda (the myth of Old Macdonald’s all-natural rural paradise), but mostly by sheer ignorance. An ignorance that all parties feel is bliss.

    The problem, as with so many problems we face relating to the environment and the global economy, is that the current model is unsustainable. As industrial farming became a treadmill, producing “more and more with less and less, so often for diminishing rewards,” soil was exhausted, diversity diminished, natural systems broke down, and all the time the food got worse and worse (both in term of taste and nutritional value) while farms became mega-polluting torture centers.

    If we open our eyes just a little it becomes clear that capitalism in our time is making less and less sense. Take, for example, the matter of disappearing bees. Bees, as everyone used to know, play an invaluable role in the pollination of fruit and vegetable crops. In recent years there have been numerous news reports of trucks overturning and spilling out clouds of these buzzing migrant workers. What’s going on? We need only look at the employment of bees in the production of a single (inessential) crop:

    Every year, in late winter or early spring, some 3,000 trucks drive across the United States carrying around 40 billion bees to California’s Central Valley, which houses more than 60 million almond trees. The orchards cover around 240,000 hectares of land, stretching the best part of 600 kilometre and producing 80 per cent of the world’s almond crop – the largest pollination event in history. Buying in these services is costly: Californian growers now spend $250 million a year on bees. It is yet another sign of how nature’s support systems are breaking down in the wake of unsustainable farming techniques.

    What will happen when nature’s support systems break down entirely is explained in the next paragraph where the authors describe what they are doing to deal with the same problem in China. There, work teams of villagers perform the task themselves, using pollination sticks made of chicken feathers and cigarette filters. “They climb the trees and dip their sticks into plastic bottles of pollen, then dab the pollen onto each individual blossom.”

    Welcome to the twenty-first century.

    The bottom line, which we are fast approaching, is that the current system of global food production is bad for everyone, and indeed pretty much every living thing on the planet. The good news is that we are nowhere near the Earth’s carrying capacity. The present system is actually horrendously inefficient and wasteful. As the authors report, “North America and Europe waste up to half their food – enough to satisfy the hunger of the world’s billion undernourished people between three and seven times over.”

    The bad news is that there’s no profit in any of that. Furthermore, moving from industrial to local farming, and farming “as though tomorrow matters,” would be very difficult even if there were incentives in place to make it happen. So much irreversible damage has already been done we may never find our way back to the garden.

    Review first published online June 30, 2014.