• Plague

    By C. C. Humphreys

    England in the seventeenth century was a wild and dangerous place, making it a perfect setting for the latest historical thriller from C. C. Humphreys.

    The year is 1665 and the story opens with gentleman-thief and ex-cavalier Captain Coke being pursued by bounty hunter and ex-roundhead Pitman. Pitman, a former member of the Ranter sect turned Quaker, has a growing family to feed, and the price on Coke’s head goes up considerably after one of the highwayman’s robberies is derailed by the intervention of a bloody-minded religious fanatic with a fixation on the end of days. Meanwhile, back in London, actress Sarah Chalker (a friend of a friend of Coke’s) is drawn into a web of violence that eventually extends all the way up to the royal family. She will need the assistance of both Coke and Pitman it she wants to survive.

    The novel comes on like a theatre piece, complete with prefatory Dramatic Personae. Among these, Captain Coke is well cast as the hero, his flamboyant dress and habit of smoothing his moustache making him appear like “something off the stage.” Even more than this, however, Plague feels like the screenplay for a buddy picture: one that has thief and thief-taker joining forces to take down a vicious serial killer in the atmospheric setting of London’s dirty, plague-stricken streets.

    Humphreys does a great job evoking the sights, sounds, and smells of a labyrinthine London, and makes good practical use of history throughout. That is to say, it’s not a novel that feels thick with research but one that wears its reading lightly, employing history for dramatic effect. Particularly well handled is the fallout from the religious diversity that sprouted up during the Civil War.

    There are some improbabilities in the plot, but the action-packed pace is such that they scarcely have time to register, and the finale comes with a nicely executed twist. Overall, the mix of plague and puritans with the flavour of popcorn makes for an entertaining treat.

    Review first published in Quill & Quire, July 2014.

  • Thinking Medieval

    Thinking Medieval
    Marcus Bull

    The “Middle Ages” is one of those historical labels that was invented to be debated over by historians. The only other period I can think of to compare it with is the Enlightenment, and even that wasn’t nearly as messy. Marcus Bull’s little book offers a good introduction to the study of the Middle Ages, highlighting some of the various ways there have been of responding to the medieval world, of interpreting, reinterpreting, and misinterpreting its meaning. In so far as Bull has a particular angle to play up it’s that the people of the Middle Ages were “not like us at all” — the principle of “alterity.” I have my doubts, as I do with the assertion that it’s this very otherness and diversity of the past that makes the study of it particularly relevant to our own time. But then I’m disposed toward seeing coherence and consistency, and I still grant Bull has a valid point. It’s hard to think who, outside of the university, such a book is aimed at, but for aspiring students of any historical period it will be of interest.

  • Carsick

    By John Waters

    John Waters knows that hitchhiking across the United States, which means in his case taking the I-70 from Baltimore to San Francisco, is an old-fashioned sort of idea. Before setting out, one of his friends even warns him that “No one picks up hitchhikers these days . . . no one!”

    And that’s probably not far from the truth. But the 66-year-old Waters is nothing if not a retro kind of guy – a proto-hipster spiritually attached to old movies, old songs, and old cars – and so being a throwback to the twentieth century makes him a perfect candidate for this archaic form of going “on the road.”

    Even more helpful is the fact that he is a bona fide celebrity, the director of such cult films as Pink Flamingos and Hairspray. A lot of the drivers he meets recognize him, and indeed this is why they stop to pick him up. Without a Q rating he might still be standing by an on ramp somewhere in Kansas.

    Like its author, Carsick is funny, entertaining, and odd in a genial sort of way. It begins with two fictional novellas that have Waters envisioning the very best and then the very worst that could happen. In the good scenarios everyone loves him, and the sex is great. In the bad version the people who pick him up are psychos, and the sex is profoundly damaging.

    These preliminary imaginings tell us a lot about what to expect when the rubber hits the road in the final section, “the real thing.” Waters isn’t thumbing his away across the continent as a form of immersive journalism, an investigation into some hidden, authentic America. He is on an ego trip and looking for adventure, or at the very least enough material to make a book out of.

    The irony, then, is that the “real” journey is a mediated event. Of course he is being tracked by GPS throughout by his staff back in Baltimore, and it isn’t long before his journey goes viral on the Internet, attracting blog posts, tweets, and mainstream news coverage. He even picks up a groupie he dubs the Corvette Kid who shadows him almost the entire way.

    Nearing the end of this “irrational vacation” he realizes that he’s “just appearing on a reality show that’s not being filmed.” And we all know how real that is.

    There is, in other words, something artificial and unreal about the expedition. Carsick is a reality-TV vision of the simple life with Waters cast as Paris Hilton: an ironic, slumming celeb, worried about gaining weight on a diet of junk food and keeping an alert eye out for cute boys.

    Though Waters would probably object to that use of the word “slumming.” If there’s one thing he feels his journey has taught him it’s that the “flyover people” of Middle America, so often derided by “elitist jerks,” really are the salt of the earth.

    Except his trip also reinforces his feeling that he has nothing in common with the common folk. Their most impressive virtue, in his eyes, is spousal fidelity, which is something he respects but is surprised by. Meanwhile, travelers of the I-70 work and shop at places like Wal-Mart, a store he has never entered, and the “normal people” he sees in Taco Bell (the only fast-food he will eat) seem like “aliens” to him. Watching them feed he feels “almost jealous of their lives.”

    Like any entertainer what Waters really wants out of other people is an audience. His trip isn’t a journey of discovery but a roadshow. As such, it’s a joy ride, full of the sort of infectious enthusiasm that has him breaking into choruses of “Yay!”, “Whee!”, “What a great ride!”, and “Wow!”

    But at the same time you can’t help feeling he’s missing a lot. Picked up mainly by fans and followed all the while on Facebook, he crosses the country without ever leaving a bubble.

    He is all the way to Colorado before he and the Corvette Kid pass another hitchhiker, the first one he has seen on the entire trip. They don’t stop.

    “I know,” Waters says. “I know.” No one picks up hitchhikers these days.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star July 2, 2014.

  • Dark Entries

    Dark Entries
    Robert Aickman

    The writers of genre fiction may be the truest antennae of the race. The “strange stories” of Robert Aickman (this first volume of which came out in 1964) are set in an asocial, if not drastically depopulated, world. Houses and even whole towns are empty and abandoned, and when we do see people around they are singularly unhelpful. Even those employed in the service industry — administrators, concierges, porters — are falling down on the job. Good help is impossible to find. The social order has broken down. We are reminded by one of the people we meet that hell is other people. When concerned about the health and safety of an old chum, the best advice that the endangered narrator of the first story, “The School Friend,” receives comes from her father: stop worrying about what’s none of your business. The only community left is a community of the dead, like the orgy of witche (or whatever) in “Bind Your Hair,” or the crowd of zombies, a “communal phantasmagoria” climbing out of the sea in “Ringing the Changes.” You don’t want to join up with that lot, do you? Over twenty years later Margaret Thatcher would famously announce that “there is no such thing as society.” Aickman had already sensed and said as much.

  • The Stonehenge Letters

    By Harry Karlinsky

    The Stonehenge Letters is the second novel from Harry Karlinsky, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, and it’s very much a companion to his first, The Evolution of Inanimate Objects. That earlier novel was a speculative blend of fact and fiction presented as a scholarly exploration of the theories of Thomas Darwin, constructed out of old texts, letters, photos, and other exhibits. In The Stonehenge Letters the same basic set-up is used, with an investigator (a retired psychiatrist) heading into various archives to try and answer the question of why Sigmund Freud never received the Nobel Prize.

    That question leads him down another alley entirely, as he uncovers a hidden history of the Nobel Prize. It seems that as the result of a late-life love affair, Alfred Nobel had left as part of his will the establishment of a further prize, open only to previous winners, for the Laureate who could best “solve the mystery of Stonehenge.”

    Candidates are sent invitations to respond, resulting in letters from an all-star line-up of period intellectuals: Ivan Pavlov, Rudyard Kipling, Theodore Roosevelt, and Marie Curie. None of their efforts is entirely satisfying to the jury (and in attempting to understand Curie’s reply – involving an early application of radiocarbon dating – they are forced to employ the services of Albert Einstein). Each contestant, however, is, as the saying goes, “on to something.” Meanwhile, another letter, discovered in the Prize’s “crackpot” file, turns out to be perhaps the most insightful of all.

    The whole thing is a shaggy-dog story, the final point of which can be seen as provocative and profound or deflating and tongue-in-cheek. It turns out that imaginative genius and scientific progress are near allied, and, to return to the question that got everything rolling in the first place, perhaps this was the problem the Nobel people had with Freud: that he was too far ahead of his time.

    As it takes the form of a clinical report or study, complete with appendixes and biographical notes, one won’t want to read The Stonehenge Letters for the quality of its writing, or its drama or narrative pulse. It is, instead, a light scientific fantasy presented in a minor key, and a curious entertainment about the mysteries of creation.

    Review first published in Quill and Quire, June 2014.

  • Raven

    Tim Reiterman with John Jacobs

    The Jonestown tragedy (to take a word that fudges its status as mass suicide or murder) has become one of the very few ineradicable landmarks in America’s historical consciousness, polling only behind Pearl Harbor and the assassination of JFK in cultural awareness. Since those polls were taken we might add 9/11 to the mix, but that’s all. Truly this was a significant event, though its full meaning is still being argued over. Jones himself was a conventional megalomaniac with a spot of charisma who apparently learned how to be a despot by studying the lives of Stalin and Mao. Jonestown was a squalid empire, but he presumably found it better to reign there than to have a seat on a municipal board in San Francisco. We are left with a question: how much can, or should, we blame the victims of Jim Jones? What responsibility does the state, or do any of us individually, have to save people from themselves?

  • Fourth of July Creek

    By Smith Henderson

    A title like Fourth of July Creek suggests another run at the Great American Novel, and the fact that it’s the debut novel of Smith Henderson, whose best-known credit previous to this is writing the egregious, and truly unforgiveable, Super Bowl commercial “Halftime in America” (starring Clint Eastwood), may make the casual reader take a step back.

    But hopefully not too far back. Henderson bears comparison to Jonathan Franzen as a dramatic chronicler of contemporary American life, and though he’s more remote in his subject matter – backwoods and hardscrabble where Franzen is bourgeois and suburban – he has the same intense readability and feel for modern states of mind.

    Fourth of July Creek is set in the early 1980s in Montana, a rather barren place that seems dominated by the colour brown. We drive through “hills the color of toast,” and an “ugly scrubscrape the color of dirty pennies” with its “stubbled fields in five kinds of brown.” Even one of the minor characters is described as smelling “like brown. Like whiskey, tobacco, and river water.”

    The residents of this harsh brown landscape are a hard workin’, hard drinkin’, hard fightin’ and hard lovin’ bunch. Our hero is Pete Snow, a divorced, semi-alcoholic social worker with the Department of Family Services operating out of the town of Tenmile, a place where biology throbs and churns.

    Pete’s own life is a mess, with a brother wanted by the law and a runaway daughter, but he still has to do his best to help others in even more trouble, including a young boy named Benjamin Pearl who is being raised in the woods by his father Jeremiah, a demented, conspiracy-nut survivalist.

    It’s life on the wrong side of the tracks, to be sure, but Pete (on one of his better days) has a vision of it as a calling to minister to fallen humanity, dreaming of how “all of life can be understood as casework,” with the DFS being “a kind of priesthood.”

    In a novel so structured around the theme of people as damaged goods it’s no surprise that dysfunctional parent-child relationships become a refrain. Children are abandoned, neglected, physically abused, and worse, by parents who are absent, intoxicated, stoned, or just plain crazy.

    Their homes may be a trailer, a shack in the woods without electricity, or even a tent or lean-to. A lot of time is spent by Pete, and others, just trying to find people. We are among a class with no permanent residence.

    Henderson’s multi-track, almost gothic plot is smoothly paced and his language has a rural, earth-tone feel to it, right down to the “howdy” greetings and the use of redundant locutions like “might could” (as in we “might could have a freeze coming”). And while many of his characters are types – the religious wing-nuts, the pot farmers, the brutal cops, the good ol’ boys and hillbillies – he usually stays just this side of making them caricatures. They all have his sympathy.

    It’s ironic, and the irony is a big part of the book’s message, that Jeremiah Pearl is both a believer in the Rapture as well as a representative of the damned Left Behind. This is a novel about the human wreckage left behind by personal failures, not to mention a part of the United States – the so-called “fly-over” portion – about to be left even further behind by the changing economy of the twenty-first century.

    This is less halftime in America then it is the End Times, as much for the downwardly mobile as for the rapture-ready. Families have broken down completely, with mistrust and the fallout from violence being passed on to every new generation. And the only thing preventing the chickens coming home to roost is the fact that they no longer have any fixed address.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star June 9, 2014.

  • The Black Death

    The Black Death
    Robert S. Gottfried

    A lot of people died from the Black Death, perhaps up to half of the population of Europe, but there were too many people anyway. Things got bad, but even during the worst of the plague years the wheels never came off entirely. Markets and courts stayed open, and the next century and a half would be known as a golden age of labour. Indeed some scholars think real wages weren’t as high again until the twentieth century. As our current global population goes sailing over seven billion it’s worth considering this history and asking what an optimum population today would be, especially given our far less labour-intensive economy.

  • The Carbon Bubble

    By Jeff Rubin

    In previous books like Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller, economist Jeff Rubin has talked at length about the impact climate change is likely to have on the global economy. In The Carbon Bubble he specifically addresses the situation in this country: what is happening now and what will is likely to happen in the near future.

    The story thus far: Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Alberta-centric mission to turn Canada into an energy superpower now lies in ruins. Slower economic growth in the U.S., environmental concerns, political roadblocks, and the development of new energy alternatives, have combined to make Alberta’s bitumen, which is one of the dirtiest and most expensive sources of oil on the planet, a pariah industry. The bubble of the carbon economy has burst, and Rubin doubts it will ever fully recover.

    This is, however, not a bad thing (unless you own oil stock, or are an Alberta Tory). Eventually, we were going to have to wean ourselves off of carbon anyway if we’re to save the planet, and while the carbon bubble may have burst there are still lots of other opportunities out there to make money out of climate change.

    Since this is, at heart, a book on investing, Rubin concludes by suggesting some steps you can take to “save your portfolio before you save the world.” In particular, he sees a lot of upside for Canadians in agriculture (climate change will lead to longer growing seasons), water (we have a lot of it), and arctic shipping (the Northwest Passage becoming increasingly ice free).

    Time will tell the value of this advice. A couple of counterpoints, however, spring to mind.

    In the first place, while feeding a crowded planet will probably lead to growth in the agricultural sector, the fact is that today’s industrial farming is a highly carbon-intensive business. And with more of the world’s population than ever living in megacities, the idea that we can all turn into locavores is a non-starter.

    Then there is the larger question of whether we can really trust the market to be self-correcting when it comes to such matters as saving the planet. The advice to “save your portfolio before you save the world” suggests by its short-sighted sense of priorities that there is ultimately no conflict between these two positions: the one will lead to the other, as though being guided by an invisible hand.

    However, in Naomi Klein’s recent bestseller, This Changes Everything, capitalism and environmentalism were seen as utterly incompatible. In her analysis, it’s not just the fossil fuel industry that’s the problem, but the whole idea of mass production, mass consumption, and the pursuit of short-term profits. For Rubin, the only thing that has changed is that carbon stocks are experiencing a fast sunset and new sectors of the market will now rise to take their place.

    Will climate change lead to an adjustment in the market, or will it change everything? Investors have to be optimists, but at the very least we are entering an age of extremes.

    Review first published May 23, 2015.

  • The Ice Storm

    The Ice Storm
    Rick Moody

    I get it that Rick Moody hates the decade he grew up in. His mocking of the Duraflame Log and his outright disgust at shag carpets (they are serially degraded until their final appearance as simply “fungal”) are all the cultural markers of the ’70s you need. I also get it that he despises suburban WASP culture. But his evocation of that grotesque and mendacious culture seems to me dishonest. I suspect key parties were only an urban legend, and almost certainly unavailable among the circles Moody describes. Also, to argue for the centrality of sex in modern life is not the same as to define life as this obsessed by it. I assume the rhetoric of tragedy in this book is meant to be ironic, given the emptiness of the proceedings, and the writing generally is choppy and unbalanced. And yet, it all has a kind of trash appeal to it, like a dirty soap.