• Capone: The Man and the Era

    Capone: The Man and the Era
    Laurence Bergreen

    What can explain celebrity? Al Capone was a famous Chicago gangster, but had a short career at the top and was never the titan of crime he was made out to be. Both earlier and later Chicago bosses would have more power and success. So why has Capone’s name continued to ring down the years, to the point where an entire prime-time television special in 1986 could be based around the opening of an (empty) vault said to belong to him? The short answer is the media. Capone was a snappy dresser, had a catchy nickname, and handled the press like a pro. He was the first Public Enemy Number 1 (in fact, the list was originally made for him). He was the model for the crime bosses depicted in the golden age of gangster films: Little Caesar, Scarface, and Public Enemy. He was further mythologized in a later, hyperbolical “memoir” by the man who aspired to be his nemesis, Eliot Ness. The real Capone was a less sensational figure than all this, but the media chose to go with the legend. Laurence Bergreen’s account of Capone’s life and dramatic times helps set the record straight, and still tells a great story by sticking to the facts.

  • Enlightenment 2.0

    By Joseph Heath

    A lot of people think, not without reason, that the world has gone crazy. Our political system is unable to respond to looming economic and environmental crises that present a clear and present danger to our way of life, and instead of thoughtful planning and responsible leadership we get demagoguery, posturing, and theatre.

    It has reached a point where a mass rally headed by a comedian, Jon Stewart, was held in Washington D.C. dubbed the “Rally to Restore Sanity.”

    University of Toronto philosophy professor Joseph Heath takes his lead (and his subtitle) from Stewart’s rally, and has an explanation for what he thinks the problem is. In short, being rational is hard, time-consuming work. It’s easier, and indeed more “natural,” for us to get by without thinking too much or planning too far ahead. This is how our old, dawn-of-man minds worked. But as the environment we live in becomes more and more unnatural, reason (the province of our evolutionarily new minds) has become increasingly essential to our survival.

    What we need is an Enlightenment 2.0, one less individualistic than the eighteenth-century model and more geared toward social and political forms of rationality. And if we don’t act soon we’ll be faced with the prospect of losing many of the hard-won benefits of our advanced civilization as we slip into a new dark age of “truthiness,” instinct, tribalism, and barbarity.

    Heath’s analysis of the challenges we face covers a lot of ground, and is full of food for thought. Within the general framework of his argument a number of current political issues are discussed in illuminating new ways. Particularly good is his description of the cultural evolution and ecology of various memes dubbed “deceptors” that have been designed (often by marketers) to make us stupid. Once introduced into the social bloodstream these deceptors spread like a virus, creating an environment increasingly hostile to human rationality.

    There are a few caveats to be registered. In the first place, Heath doesn’t have much to say about the first Enlightenment beyond using it as shorthand for the age of reason. But the political thinkers and philosophes of the period were broader minded than this, and one suspects there is little in the latest findings of today’s social psychologists that would surprise them. The debate between reason and instinct (or the passions) was one that Enlightenment 1.0 fully engaged with, and many of the conclusions they reached weren’t far from Heath’s own.

    There is also a tendency to draw a frankly partisan sane-insane line between left and right, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican. But while there’s some general validity to the argument that today’s conservatives are the party of intuition, gut feeling, and heart-over-head, Heath recognizes that the obstacles to restoring sanity are far more foundational and systemic than these labels get at.

    As a political polemic, Enlightenment 2.0 shares the usual strengths and weaknesses of what has become a popular genre. The diagnosis of the problem is excellent, the prognosis gloomy, and the suggested course of treatment a rather weak fudge.

    In Heath’s defense, his whole point is that restoring sanity won’t be easy, and will involve a lot of hard work, counterintuitive thinking, and bucking of prevalent trends. He also understands that for social change to be effective the rule is to go big or go home, and that at best only incremental changes are on the radar.

    This is realistic, but it’s very hard to get excited or inspired by conclusions that only suggest “a few tweaks that are not entirely outside the realm of possibility that could lead to a slight increase in the sanity of public discourse in America.”

    Meanwhile, the agenda of the Slow Politics Manifesto, with its “firm defense of quiet, rational deliberation” sounds mushy, and Heath’s defense of the Canadian Senate, on the grounds that even if it does nothing but slow the legislative process down that still counts as an “important purpose,” is painful to read.

    One of the few classic social psychology experiments Heath doesn’t mention is the one that examined being sane in insane places. And yet if the world is a madhouse now it might have some relevance. Especially the conclusion, which was that it is much easier to get into such places than it is to get out.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star April 22, 2014.

  • The Great Divergence

    The Great Divergence
    Timothy Noah

    More facts and figures seeking to explain the rise in economic inequality since the collapse of the post-WW2 golden age of capitalism. Immigration, technology, globalization, the decline of unionism, and government policy have all, to varying degrees, contributed to what is a now familiar story. The only interesting question left is whether there’s a tipping point. Given the accelerating trends, some limit has to be approaching. On the other hand, Americans have been “waiting for lefty” for a long time. I don’t expect him to arrive anytime soon, or soon enough.

  • Emberton

    By Peter Norman

    In the Introduction to their recent anthology of supernatural fiction, The Weird, editors Ann and Jeff VanderMeer make a brave attempt to define the undefinable.

    In a nutshell, they see the weird as a mood more than a mode: one characterized by terror, unease, dread, a suspension of the rational, and “some indefinable and perhaps maddeningly unreachable understanding of the world beyond the mundane.”

    Emberton, the debut novel by Toronto-based poet Peter Norman, is weird. Very weird.

    It is set, almost entirely, within a single building: Emberton Tower. This forbidding limestone edifice, which stands in some unnamed city’s downtown business district, is the home of the Emberton Dictionary. But the dictionary, like the tower, and like the Emberton family itself, has seen better days.

    Everything about the Tower seems rooted in an earlier time. It is a little word unto itself where “age and immobility” reign: only a few of the offices are equipped with computers, and cellphone signals are suppressed. The furniture is antique and the carpets are worn, “a stolid dankness” infuses the air and there are growing cracks in the building’s foundations. It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to work in such a shabby, claustrophobic, and pitiful environment.

    Lance Blunt comes to work at Emberton for two very good reasons: he’s been offered a personal invitation and he has no other options. He is, after all, totally illiterate — which may make his being hired by a dictionary seem strange, even if he is only working in sales and marketing.

    Concealing his handicap from his co-workers, however, turns out to be the least of Lance’s problems. The cafeteria food is disgusting. The tower is being intermittently shaken by what seem to be earthquakes. Employees are disappearing. One of Lance’s superiors has an addiction to sucking radiator pipes. And the basement houses a vast reservoir of malevolent golden salad dressing.

    This dark pot-pourri of weird ingredients make Emberton an impossible book to classify. It is perhaps first and foremost a tale of gothic horror, with a contemporary digression into the field of medical terror. But it is also a slacker-style workplace satire, a crazy allegory, and a comic fantasy with a sub-plot involving a demure lexicographical romance.

    You can see how these different genres and strategies play out in the various ways the Tower can be interpreted.

    At the most basic level Emberton Tower is the archetypal corporate HQ; a soul-stealing, life-sucking beehive where human “resources” are just that. Workers are, literally, meat.

    But the decrepit office building is also something more: an ivory tower and cultural institution whose heritage is the life blood of civilization. That is, language itself. And so the Fall of the House of Emberton is also the Death of the Book.

    The mouthpiece for this point of view is the pedantic scholar Mr. Tradd (short for “tradition,” one assumes), who complains of how the degeneration of language will lead to the end of everything. He delivers the following howl in the midst of the biblio-apocalypse:

    “Barbarisms in the lexicon! Errors canonized! No structure, no sense, no scheme. Why should buildings stand or traffic flow, or the beautiful idea survive? I embrace this. I endorse the destruction. Let the Tower fall!”

    In the face of all this, the illiterate Lance represents the man of the future, perfectly adapted to survive the coming end of reading because he is better aware than most that reading is a drug, and a potentially dangerous one at that.

    Finally, the Tower is imagined as a diseased body, with a polluted circulatory system and failing organs surrendering to age and corruption. But it is not exactly mortal. The selfish genes, or memes, of its DNA constitute the code of language, which is somehow bound up with both the origin and destiny of the species.

    The best fantasy novels engage with us in a range of ways, and Emberton, like the Tower itself, has many different levels to explore. And, true to its weirdness, it suggests various ways of understanding a world beyond the literal and mundane.

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

  • After the Fall

    After the Fall
    Walter Laqueur

    The “fall” here is the decline and fall of Europe, which Laqueur sees as pretty much inevitable (though he always hedges any bets on the future). Indeed, he sees Europe as having already fallen into political and economic irrelevance, so post mortem makes up the main part of the discussion. The key contributors given are psychological collapse (a lack of will and dynamism) and the fact that economic union was a lot easier to achieve than political union. Shadowing the argument throughout is a demographic shift, with Europe’s population aging and Muslim immigration on the rise. On the latter point Laqueur struggles to remain objective, but it’s clear he really doesn’t think much of Europe’s new immigrants and his analysis is too broad and insistent on accentuating the negative.

  • Fire in the Unnameable Country

    By Ghalib Islam

    In a now famous review of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, the literary critic James Wood described what he saw as the birth of a new genre of literary fiction: “hysterical realism.” The label, and his definition of the term, have since stuck:

    The big contemporary novel is a perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence — as it were, a criminal running endless charity marathons. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, as these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion. Inseparable from this culture of permanent storytelling is the pursuit of vitality at all costs.

    Wood’s review ran in 2000, which suggests that Ghalib Islam’s debut novel, the high-speed and manically constructed magic-carpet ride Fire in the Unnameable Country, is coming to the party a bit late. Undeterred, the Toronto author has hit the ground running, intent on vaulting into fiction’s avant garde.

    As with other examples of hysterical realism, the book’s roots go back to an earlier tradition of “magic realism” and classic works like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Like Marquez, Islam tells the epic, intertwined story of a family and a nation in a way that mixes realistic with supernatural elements.

    Flying carpets and nationwide outbreaks of sleeping sickness would not be out of place in Marquez or Rushdie, while never-ending television program that can’t be distinguished from life itself and the transcribing of entire individual minds onto canned “thoughtreels” can be seen as traditional evocations of the simulacrum of postmodernity. Indeed, Islam’s endless reality-TV show “Mirrors” has a role similar to the prophecies of family history in One Hundred Years of Solitude, and makes for one of the book’s neatest acts of homage.

    But these are hysterical times, and Islam is less tethered to the ground than his great precursors.

    The unnameable country, for example, is not a specific place like Colombia, India, or Bangladesh (where Ghalib Islam was born).

    At first glance it appears to be a generic Third World location, complete with a repressive history that is dominated in turn by colonial, Cold War, and finally war-on-terror politics. Then, as things go along, we discover we are in a country where the laws of physics haven’t “yet settled into regular course” and the geography is “unfathomable.” Throughout the novel we see the place sliding in and out of focus: It is both a state and not, missing from maps and then reappearing on them like some kind of Rorschach blot.

    Adding to the confusion is the jumbled plot, really a collection of loosely-connected stories, and Islam’s odd, impressionistic voice.

    The narrator Hedayat is a “glossolalist,” and is given to speaking in tongues. The results can be disorienting, with freestyle punctuation, exotic vocabulary, and garbled syntax. You have to work some of the sentences around in your mouth for a while just to sort them out. A sample:

    Come on, I coaxed, plucked the buzzing sky caught her a firefly fluttering noctilucent palm.


    I howled knife wounded as morning wind blew bedroom through window.


    I remember shivering T-shirt in air conditioning light antiseptic odour fresh washed floors wonder walking distance to Mogadishu.

    One can imagine editors throwing their hands up at this. And more than one reader will too. Obviously a book this eccentric won’t appeal to everyone.

    As the flying-carpet pilot tells his passengers, “after a certain distance from the earth you feel no fear because it no longer seems real.” That’s a fair warning. Some readers may suffer from altitude sickness in the thin air over the unnameable country while others will enjoy the view and recognize in their distance from earth something of our own alienated, postmillennial condition.

    Either way, expect a bumpy, exhilarating ride.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star March 11, 2014.

  • Portrait of a Monster

    Portrait of a Monster
    Lisa Pulitzer and Cole Thompson

    One of the most overused pop-psychological labels of our day is that of the “alpha male.” Mass murderer Elliot Rodger wanted to be one, and his frustration at not being able to live this dream had disastrous results. For Rodger, and indeed for many, being alpha meant getting a lot of girls. But for people who study these things it means something a bit different. The alpha male is a selfish egotist given to excessive thrill-seeking and risk-taking (the dark side of which is usually substance abuse or some form of criminal behaviour). The popular conception of the alpha male is that of a top athlete or CEO, but this is a fantasy. I’ve known a few such types and they have been, to a man, the biggest losers I’ve ever met: alcoholics stuck in dead-end jobs or downwardly mobile, unable to stay in relationships for much longer than a year, and inevitably friendless. Joran van der Sloot fancied himself, and was regarded by some of his mates, as one of Aruba’s alpha males (leader of a group that dubbed itself the “Pimpology Crew”). He was tall, good-looking, and could pick up girls. But his alpha nature began asserting itself in predictable ways as a teenager. He started to drink and gamble. He was a pathological liar. He couldn’t stay focused on anything, and was a failure at school and at work. He could meet girls, but when they didn’t go along with what he wanted them to do he killed them. That, at least, is what is widely assumed happened to Natalee Holloway and Stephany Flores. For the murder of Flores he was sentenced to 28 years in prison. A Peruvian woman married him in prison and had his child. And so the dream lives on.

  • Joan of Arc and The Secret Life of Wonder Woman

    By Kathryn Harrison
    By Jill Lepore

    The nation of women warriors known as the Amazons were a myth. Nevertheless, their legend has survived from its first appearance in ancient sources all the way down to present times. It seems they fill a niche in the collective unconscious.

    Joan of Arc is an example of a real historical figure who stepped into the Amazon role, becoming, in the words of Kathryn Harrison, “a living myth.” During the dark days of the Hundred Years War there had been prophecies that France would be saved by a virgin. Enter Joan, hearing angelic voices that commanded her to drive out the English and restore the rightful king. Unfortunately, that meant Charles VII, a less than mythic figure who mainly saw Joan as a means to an end.

    If you think you already know all there is to know about Joan of Arc, you’re probably right. Her public career only lasted a couple of years, from raising the siege of Orleans to being captured, tried on trumped up charges, and burned at the stake when she was only 19.

    Joan came out of prophecy and was immediately absorbed into legend: a “life transfigured.” Harrison’s account underscores this process by choosing to tell Joan’s story with the help of the numerous poets, novelists, and dramatists who have taken it up. Mixed in with the standard historical sources are drawings from Charles Péguy, Bertolt Brecht, George Bernard Shaw, Jean Anouilh, Carl Dreyer, and Cecil B. DeMille.

    It’s an approach that purists might object to, though it helps make the point that there’s very little “real” Joan to hold on to, and what was real was not necessarily what was most important.

    Less convincing, however, are the constant parallels Harrison makes between Joan’s life and that of Jesus. “More than that of any other Catholic martyr,” she writes, “Joan of Arc’s career aligns with Christ’s.” This is a dubious assertion, and Harrison works it too hard. Unfortunately, aside from this there is nothing in her book that is new, or that adds much to our understanding either of the historical Joan or the legend.

    Another woman warrior, this time entirely fictional, is the subject of Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman. This comic creation hailed from a tribe of Amazons living on Paradise Island, but in real life was the brainchild of a bizarre character named William Moulton Marston.

    Lepore’s book is really about Marston, who started out as a psychologist (he invented an early version of lie detector test), but had trouble holding a steady job. Writing a comic book was in many ways the end of the line.

    He came up with the idea for Wonder Woman as “psychological propaganda” for the new type of woman he thought should rule the world. Yet despite this radical feminist message he lived semi-openly as a bigamist, seems to have had a bondage fetish, and used all the women in his life as a kind of human resource department.

    It’s hard to understand what these women saw in Marston. At best he was an eccentric, at worst a creep. And when you get down to it, his original Wonder Woman comics were crude delivery vehicles for a heavy-handed political message.

    Despite this crudeness, or maybe in part because of it, long after her first appearance in 1941 Wonder Woman is still with us, even surviving a cheesy “boob tube” television series in the late ‘70s. You can’t keep a good Amazon down.

    Lepore does a professional job with the material she’s uncovered, and has a big advantage over Kathryn Harrison in that Wonder Woman’s curious origins will be an unfamiliar story to most people. It’s interesting to set the two books side by side, however, for what they have to say about the manufacture of such mythic figures. Whatever true or hidden history lies behind them, their legends were made, not born.

    Review first published February 7, 2015.

  • Ten Billion

    Ten Billion
    Stephen Emmott

    With the world’s population set to climb to 10 billion, or even higher, before the end of the century, Microsoft scientist Stephen Emmott has some tough talk about what that number means. With fierce analysis delivered in a punchy format – lots of graphs and pictures breaking up pages with minimal text — this brief book lays out the basic elements of the coming crisis: growing population leading to environmental breakdown and increased conflict over food and energy resources. Is there any good news? No. This is not a problem that new technologies will fix, and there is little political or popular will for the kind of radical change required to stave off disaster. Grim but essential reading for anyone still unaware of the mess we’re in.

  • The Science of Shakespeare

    By Dan Falk

    Popular science journalist Dan Falk combines his love of science, and in particular the history of science, with his fondness for Shakespeare in this intriguing attempt to answer the question of what the bard knew, when he knew it, and how he may have expressed that knowledge in his plays.

    A few caveats have to be entered right away. We don’t know a lot about Shakespeare’s life, and even less about what he “really” thought about anything. All we can do is make guesses about what was more or less likely based on the evidence of what he wrote.

    Falk understands this, as well as the fact that what constituted “science” in Shakespeare’s day was sometimes fuzzy. And so he spends a lot of time laying the groundwork for his investigation by detailing the transformation of our understanding of the cosmos in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries (his focus is almost exclusively limited to the field of astronomy, with only brief reference to subjects like medicine, atomism, and atheism at the end). He proceeds primarily through a semi-biographical examination of the work of Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Bruno, Galileo, along with some less well-known English investigators.

    There’s no question that some link between the discoveries these pioneers made and the Shakespearean canon exists. Indeed the connection has been made before. Still, the thesis that Shakespeare knew what was going on, and that this knowledge is reflected in his plays remains tenuous. Many of the scholars whose research Falk draws on are from the fringe of Shakespeare studies, and a few of their arguments are far-fetched.

    This is fine because Falk admits the speculative nature of his inquiry. He isn’t hammering a thesis so much as entertaining possibilities. In the end such a book succeeds in informing us about Renaissance science while at the same time enriching our understanding of Shakespeare’s achievement by providing it with a deeper intellectual context.

    Review first published in Quill & Quire, April 2014.