• The Zhivago Affair

    The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book
    Peter Finn and Petra Couvée

    In the twentieth century the Soviet Union was usually a bit behind the times, which helps explain why the poet Boris Pasternak’s only novel, Doctor Zhivago, caused such a stir when it was published (in Italy) in 1957. As this account of the
    controversy over Dr. Zhivago points out, “Pasternak lived in a society where novels, poems, an plays were hugely significant forms of communication,” not to mention one where art could still have real political impact. And so after the manuscript had been smuggled out of the country and published in translation the CIA took an interest in making the book “an important weapon of strategic (long-range) propaganda.” Their efforts led to Pasternak’s winning the Nobel Prize in 1958 (he had to refuse the award), and the ruffling of many Soviet feathers. For readers living after the collapse of the Soviet Union and in the twilight of the book, the authors admit this may all seem a bit quaint today. It does, but it still makes for a story with the conflict, complexity, and personal and political drama of a Russian novel.


  • Savage Love

    By Douglas Glover

    One hopes that all of the familiar reasons why more people don’t recognize Douglas Glover as being one of Canada’s best writers — chief among them being that he mainly writes experimental, short fiction published by small presses — won’t continue to dog his latest collection. Savage Love is an accomplished, funny, and inventive book that readers should rejoice in.

    The theme, announced in the title, is indeed a savage, perverse kind of desire — reminiscent, at times, of the stories in Barbara Gowdy’s We So Seldom Look On Love. One of Glover’s narrators describes a particularly torrid affair as being such a compulsive if not violent “wallow of resentment, hatred, lust, rage and envy . . . that to this day I think all of those emotions are love.” In another story we hear of the terror and “inhuman endlessness of desire, our inability to contain it, the dark tide on which we ride unwitting and unprepared.” Love as we find it here is ruinous, bestial, and passionate, with the full sense of “passion” involving not just emotional peaks but spiritual suffering.

    The emphasis on rutting and physical expressions of love (violence, dominance, agony and ecstasy) nicely complements Glover’s display of technical proficiency and formal experimentation, giving the stories a characteristically intellectual earthiness. A favourite word is “ineffable,” but his writing embodies a different spirit: full of cerebral grip and grit. He’s a smart writer of precisely measured effects, but he never seems like he’s showing off.

    He’s also a master of shifting between different moods and modes (he calls some of the stories here “fugues”), and the collection moves fluidly from a brilliant parody of Cormac McCarthy’s demonic early style in the opening story “Tristiana” (a parody that shows how gentle a nudge is required to tip some texts into the absurd) and the psychosexual terror of “Crown of Thorns,” to the spare microfictions of the book’s Intermezzo section and the bawdy humour of the concluding Comedies. Through it all, the timing (so essential to comic writing), calibration of point of view, and diversity of language is near perfect. Only one story, “A Flame, a Burst of Light,” seems out of place, but it’s still a good read. Overall, Savage Love deserves to be recognized as one of the best Canadian books published this year.

    Review first published in Quill & Quire, October 2013.

  • Newtown: An American Tragedy

    Newtown: An American Tragedy
    Matthew Lysiak

    Heaven knows the subtitle is perhaps the most overused in the entire history of publishing, but the heartbreaking mass killings at Sandy Hook Elementary were tragic indeed. It was an event so extreme it even seemed for a moment as if it might effect some change in America’s gun laws. That didn’t happen, and blame was instead spread around, a lot of it attaching to Nancy Lanza. And I think she’s what makes the story one of continued relevance and public fascination. Was she culpable in some way, or just another victim? I tilt toward the former position, seeing a classic case of codependency that resulted in a criminal act of enablement. The warning signals were there, and if someone like Nancy Lanza didn’t have the resources to cope with the situation then nobody has. I don’t know who else can throw on the brakes.

  • Difficult Men

    By Brett Martin

    In his latest book of musings on pop culture, I Wear the Black Hat, Chuck Klosterman allows that he’s been genuinely surprised by one recent media development. “A lot of unforeseen things happened to television at the end of the twenty-first century, the strangest being that it actually became good,” he writes. “In one ten-year span, high-end television usurped the cultural positions of film, rock, and literary fiction. The way people talked about TV radically changed, and so did the way we judged its quality.”

    One can usually argue with Klosterman’s take on just about everything, but in this case he’s on safe ground. Television did take off in this period, to the point where A-list film director Steven Soderbergh declared just this year that he was giving up on movies and switching to television. And he even his reasons:

    American movie audiences now just don’t seem to be very interested in any kind of ambiguity or any kind of real complexity of character or narrative . . . I think those qualities are now being seen on television and that people who want to see stories that have those kinds of qualities are watching television.

    Brett Martin’s Difficult Men tells the inside, behind-the-scenes story of this “Third Golden Age” of television, one that has seen the “open-ended, twelve- or thirteen-episode [per season] serialized drama” become “the signature Ameican art form of the first decade of the twenty-first century.” His focus is on the development of the major cable series that have defined what he calls the New TV (shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad), as well as the personalities of their creators and principal “showrunners.”

    If that makes it sound like it’s going to be a similar book to Peter Biskind’s account of the creative renaissance in American movies a generation earlier, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, that’s not by accident. Many of the showrunners, chief among them The Sopranos‘ David Chase, idolized that period in American film, and Martin sees them as direct inheritors, their work being “the equivalent of what the films of Scorsese, Altman, Coppola, and others had been to the 1970s or the novels of Updike, Roth and Mailer had been to the 1960s.”

    As a series companion and general backgrounder on shows that are now household names and watercooler material, Martin’s book covers the field nicely and even fans will find it informative. But as a cultural history of this period it is even more intriguing.

    How, we have to ask, did such a seismic creative shift happen in the first place?

    There were many reasons. Starting with the technology, televisions themselves were bigger and better, making watching TV a preferable alternative to going out to see a movie. Then the splintering of the television audience into smaller segments made it possible to take risks with edgier, darker material because there wasn’t such a need to pander to advertisers. It’s noteworthy that the networks all passed on The Sopranos when it was offered to them.

    Another development that immediately paid huge dividends was that the demand for large amounts of original content on the cable networks put writers, at least temporarily, in the driver’s seat.

    As the saying goes, if you have a good script you’ll always have an at least decent film, but if you have a lousy script you’re only ever going to have garbage. But by the late 1990s television was moving away from scripted programming altogether with “reality TV,” and in Hollywood the screenwriter had long since ceased to matter. For the New TV, however, the writers (Martin’s “difficult men”) were masters of their domain.

    But in the end the main reason cable drama took off is a negative one: these shows filled a vacuum. Both network television and mainstream moviemaking had become a vast wasteland of juvenile, formulaic entertainment in the ’90s. For adults, there was literally nothing to watch either at home or at the local multiplex.

    The New TV’s adult-oriented, morally ambiguous, long-form storytelling saved the day. Yes, these shows could sometimes stray into soap opera territory (I still think of The Walking Dead as essentially a soap opera with zombies lumbering around in the background), but at their best they really were, as Martin argues, the best and most interesting filmmaking being done anywhere. And all of this with limited budgets and largely unknown casts. James Gandolfini’s recent death was major news, but before The Sopranos he was only a minor supporting actor. As for the rest, all of those who had heard of Dominic West, Jon Hamm, or Bryan Cranston before their series took off, please raise your hands.

    How long will the good times last? Martin isn’t sure, and no one else is either. Some veteran big-name talent has been drawn in to the game (Scorsese’s Boardwalk Empire, Jessica Lange in American Horror Story, Dustin Hoffman in Luck) but with mixed results. As with any artistic form or medium you have to expect peaks and troughs. Of the giants Martin discusses, The Sopranos, The Wire, and Six Feet Under have come and gone, and Mad Men and Breaking Bad are down to their final seasons. Surfing channels today reveals no clear inheritors, and there is even some early evidence that success is spoiling the cable networks, with a tendency for some of the newer programs to slip into now established formulas. Meanwhile, the environment continues to change at a rapid pace, leading to different creative opportunities and perhaps creating the conditions for another revolution. In his conclusion, Martin points to the “ever-multiplying, ever more fragmented platforms and systems used to deliver media,” and singles out Netflix (not previously thought of as a content producer) as an example. As if to prove his point, House of Cards, which premiered on Netflix, recently became the first Internet show to be nominated for an Emmy (gathering nine nominations in all, including outstanding drama).

    My only fear is that in order for another real revolution to happen we’re going to first have to enter another wasteland. Until then, the best advice is to sit back and enjoy the shows.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star, July 12 2013.

  • Agostino

    Alberto Moravia

    If not an outright hormonal hell, puberty is at the very least an awkward and uncomfortable age. Nevertheless, it is out of this familiar coming-of-age that Alberto Moravia crafts a graceful and sensual short novel and modern parable. The Freudian myth is placed up front, as well as the nasty hierarchies of class, power, and beauty that have such an impact on us when they first force themselves, usually quite rudely, upon our awareness. The boy Agostino will be the father to the man, just as love turns into a hard carapace to protect his innocent childhood sensibility. New identities are tried on, none of them particularly attractive. Agostino’s father is dead and his other role models are poor if not downright degenerate. I find this such a tragic story. After thirteen it’s all downhill.

  • Boiling Mad

    By Kate Zernike

    The Tea Party has for over five years now been a label in search of a definition, a search made more difficult by the multiple and contradictory nature of the movement.

    The best place to begin is with demographics. Tea Party members tend to be white people (men and women), of middle age or older, and of above average wealth and education. Though strictly independent of any party, they are a Republican sect, and one that has probably caused more electoral damage to the GOP than to the Democrats. Economic rather than cultural conservatives, their main issues are taxes and fiscal policy.

    In brief, they are yesterday’s winners: in an enviable position, but not comfortable. They are anxious people. Anxious because, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, when you’ve got something, you’ve got something to lose.

    And so, above all, they are afraid of “change.” The government is the enemy, always threatening to take things away from those that have: either their money, in the form of taxes, or cuts to the programs they enjoy (which are paid for by their taxes). “KEEP THE CHANGE,” their rally signs say, in response to President Obama’s campaign slogan. “Obama had been elected on a promise of change, and change can be scary.” Especially to older members of what has been dubbed “the precariat.” “We’re tired of hearing them talk about change,” one Partier quoted here exclaims. “We don’t need change. We need to keep what’s working in America and keep it working.” Which, in his particular instance, meant more coal mining. Climate change is considered a shibboleth, a change not to be believed in.

    If there is any change the Tea Party does like, it’s one that will return them to the past, which is a known quantity. The Tea Party is a reactionary movement, looking to set the clock back to an earlier and (this part is key) imaginary time. Hence the fetish for the founding fathers, most of whom were in fact not at all opposed to taxes (fairly administered) or big government. Or to a time when global warming, or globalization, had yet to be heard of.

    This explains some of the contradictions or cognitive dissonance of the Tea Party faithful. Though they may seem at times to be pursuing ends not in their own interests (a libertarian government would be a cruel master), they are not cutting off their nose to spite their face but choosing the devil they know to the devil they don’t. Change is scary, and so they are willing to give up a bit of something in order to avoid losing it all. They want security, not freedom. “Government was put here for certain reasons,” one elderly Tea Party organizer opines, “they were not put here to run banks, insurance companies, and health care, and automobile companies. They were put here to keep us safe.” Safe in our persons and in our property.

    And so we have the schizophrenic attitude toward the federal government. It is an object of hatred mainly because Tea Partiers see the Feds as stealing their money and giving it to others less worthy by way of various socialistic programs. Again the emphasis is on holding on to what you’ve got. In addition, at a time of lowering expectations, when the only employment security appears to be that held by government workers (the last bastion of unionism), it’s only natural to find in that a source of resentment. A cry goes out to make them feel the pinch. But at the same time, government continues to grow, in large part in order to keep people and their property “safe.”

    You can break the movement down in this fashion and see how it makes at least some sense. But it is still fueled by an irrational base. It’s a point Thomas Frank struggled with at some length in What’s the Matter With Kansas?, trying to describe a populist movement fighting against its own interests. But we should not be surprised by this. One of the most enduring of all political and economic myths is that people are rational creatures. This is nonsense, and the Tea Party is just one more example of a movement “driven more by outrage than ideology, more by pique than policy.” Passions drive polls, and the free-floating anger in America has reached a certain critical mass. At least one Tea Partier quoted in Zernike’s book is aware of this and tries to explain the break with reason by responding thusly to an Obama letter headed “Five Things That the Other Side Is Saying That Are Totally Untrue”:

    “I said, ‘I don’t care if they’re untrue. It doesn’t make any difference. The problem is, you guys are trying to sell this on the facts, but if you don’t trust the mind-set or the value system of the people involved, you can’t even look at the facts any more.’”

    It’s a difficult quote to parse but seems to recall the now famous (or is that viral?) broadside made by a member of the George W. Bush administration against the “reality-based community.” The Tea Party is a faith-based community, devoted to the self-evident truths pronounced by the founders and Ayn Rand. They operate, quite consciously, in a mental space free of reality, facts, and rationalism. But there is nothing odd or perverse in this. What people care the most about are less tangible, more emotional needs: comfort, and freedom from anxiety about the future.

    Review first published online September 15, 2014.

  • Lost Christianities

    Lost Christianities
    Bart Ehrman

    Early Christianity was a chaos of different texts and doctrines that, if the faith was to survive, were going to have to be winnowed and consolidated. This stage effectively concluded in 381 when the Emperor Theodosius I declared the Nicene creed to be the orthodox position of the church, and made all other beliefs heretical. As the prolific popular historian of these developments, Bart Ehrman, tells the story, the other Christianities of the early churches were consigned to the dustbin of history (or archaeological digs). Things might have worked out differently, and Ehrman looks at some of the more interesting counterfactuals, but what was it about the “proto-orthodox” line that led to its success? Probably its very adaptability. What became orthodoxy was a big tent, a set of doctrine that tried to be all things to all people. The Nicene creed is logical and theological mush, but that’s what the age demanded. The lost Christianities weren’t lost or abandoned so much as papered over. In later centuries some cracks would show, but for a quick fix the Nicene paste of orthodoxy has proved to be remarkably resilient.

  • I Wear the Black Hat

    By Chuck Klosterman

    Are villains people we hate, or love (to hate)? Either way, our response is irrational. I hate Tom Hanks, even though (or perhaps because) he’s played the hero in every movie I’ve seen him in. I also hate Tom Brady, though I’ll admit he’s one of the greatest quarterbacks who’s ever played in the NFL. It’s just that I’m a Bills fan.

    Of course the way we speak of “hating” celebrities we’ve never met and don’t know the first thing about, and whom we’ll likely never meet or ever know the first thing about, is a colloquial idiocy. But according to the prolific music-sports-culture essayist Chuck Klosterman, who wrote a 2004 column for Esquire headlined “The Importance of Being Hated” about his own hatred of a major league baseball pitcher, these pop hates tell us not only a lot about ourselves but something about villainy (real and imagined) in our time.

    As things turn out, it’s all about us.

    Hating public figures is a subject that Klosterman is well positioned to speak on, since a lot of people hate Chuck Klosterman. Some years ago I wrote a review of his rock-n-roll pseudo-memoir Killing Yourself to Live that began by saying how “it would be hard to imagine a worse book.” In the next two sentences I went on to call it “deplorable,” a “disaster,” and “very, very bad.”

    I later found out that this was one of the nicer reviews it received.

    So yes, Klosterman is one of those pop-culture journalists who can really get under your skin. He’s a self-deprecating narcissist, and a glib but inarticulate journalist. It’s as though a lifetime of mass-media consumption has (to borrow a phrase from Apocalypse Now) really put the zap on his head.

    A singer he is, whose only song is of himself. On this point he is forthright and unashamed (if a little depressed and befuddled at his lonely consciousness). “Writing about other people is a form of writing about oneself,” he warns us. “This isn’t true for everyone, but it’s true for me. Why pretend?” What if, he goes on to wonder, this whole book is “just an uninteresting person, thinking about himself because there’s nothing else to think about?” Now that’s staring into the abyss! Alas, “there is no way around myself unless I become somebody else.”

    You see what I mean.

    That said, I Wear the Black Hat shows signs that Klosterman is on the road to recovery. Not, however, because his thesis — that villainy is subjective and situational — is very profound or original. After all, as he admits, “I’ve never had an idea that a hundred other people didn’t have before me.” And not because his koan-like definition of a villain — “the person who knows the most but cares the least” — is all that clear or meaningful.

    No, if you’re looking for big ideas this isn’t the place. But Klosterman does have some interesting things to say, and while he’s still grating, he can also occasionally entertain and inform.

    He is best in the sections that highlight the way villains are made not born, and un-made as well. Not only is villainy a matter of personal taste, it is fleeting as fame. A chapter on vigilantes real and imagined (Bernard Goetz, Charles Bronson, and Batman) is good on the construction of villainy in the media, and the value shift that takes place when moving from reality to fiction (a hero in one can be a villain in the other). And the chapter on different species of digital villains (Perez Hilton, Kim Dotcom, Julian Assange) is also excellent. Internet villains get under our skin, in part, because we are their enablers. We scare ourselves when we go online.

    This being Klosterman, there’s a lot of disjointed and downright confusing blab as well. How someone who seems to know nothing about music or sports has built a career out of writing fans’s notes on music and sports is hard to figure out.

    But if Klosterman was a publishing villain in the past, at least he’s not as big a one now. He’s traded in his black hat this time for one that’s plaid.

    I’m just worried that since I don’t hate him any more, I’ll stop loving him as well. Maybe he was better at just being bad.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star July 12, 2013.

  • Thomas Becket

    Thomas Becket
    John Guy

    The lives of the saints don’t always make for edifying reading. A case in point is Thomas Becket. A relentless social climber, Becket’s pride led him into a prolonged medieval pissing match with Henry II, which he lost. John Guy does his best to plead the defence, and there is much to be said for Becket being no worse than his sovereign, but in the end there could be only one sovereign, which is something Becket should have known. Even at this distance there’s still something unpleasantly jumped-up about Thomas. We recognize the type: the kind of person who puts on airs with unseemly haste when he wins the lottery. Finally, he died in stubborn defence of principles that are now obsolete (that is, not individual conscience but papal authority). A political saint, and a player who lost the game. There’s not much more to say.

  • From Literature to Biterature and The Edge of the Precipice

    By Peter Swirski
    Ed. by Paul Socken

    There is general agreement that the Internet is changing the way we think of literacy. It is also agreed that such change is inevitable. But the nature of the transformation we are now undergoing, and the balance of profit and loss, is harder to judge.

    In The Edge of the Precipice, Paul Socken, professor emeritus in the University of Waterloo’s French studies department, is primarily concerned with what we stand to lose. One point is worth flagging at the start: all of Socken’s contributors – who include Sven Birkerts, Alberto Manguel, Katia Grubisic, and Mark Kingwell – are academics (mainly professors of various literatures), writers, translators, or editors. That is, they are people with a vested interest in ensuring that people continue reading. And they know they are playing defence. Though the title is meant to contain some ambiguity, suggesting a leap of imagination into unknown worlds, the edge of a precipice is usually a place you don’t want to be: staring into an abyss.

    Since the future of reading is a topic that has been exercising commentators intensively for at least a decade, many of the arguments seem familiar. The virtues of solitary contemplation and reflection in an age of compulsory sharing and endless connectivity are canvassed, along with the way reading builds empathy, develops focus and concentration, and encourages critical thinking. All of this seems at least plausible, but hard evidence for the value of reading tends to come from a handful of studies boasting rather thin results. This leaves most of the essays here informed mainly by autobiography and anecdote, grounded in accounts of how the authors have found reading to be meaningful and transformative, both professionally and personally. They are testaments of faith in an atheistic age.

    All of this is preaching to the choir, since, if you’ve come this far (even in a review), you’re already counted among those who have made the choice to keep on reading. It’s less clear how convincing or persuasive these essays would seem to non-readers (whom we never hear from). One suspects not very. With this caveat in mind, The Edge of the Precipice is an impressive contribution to an important ongoing conversation, offering an inspiring and informative collection of well-expressed, non-technical perspectives on the importance of reading even as we stare into the bookless abyss.

    Of course, the way we read and write is already changing as we march further into the digital age. Might it also be the case that the very nature of authorship will change, too? In From Literature to Biterature, Peter Swirski, a professor of American literature, thinks this is inevitable, arguing that “at a certain point in the already foreseeable future, computers will be able to create works of literature in and of themselves.” To describe this new dispensation, Swirski borrows, from Stanislaw Lem, the term “biterature,” used to describe any writing of non-human origin. The authors of biterature are designated “computhors.”

    The philosophical, cultural, and aesthetic ramifications of Swirski’s thesis are fascinating and provocative. Biterature will call into question – both prospectively and retrospectively – traditional ways of thinking about art, genius, creativity, and imagination. These matters are covered in the first of the book’s three sections. From there, Swirski moves into a long second section on artificial intelligence and the philosophy of mind (the guiding figure here is Alan Turing), before concluding with some thoughts on the future of digital evolution. While composed in the same engaging (though sometimes overly glib) style, these parts of the book are only indirectly concerned with lit/biterature and tend to tread more familiar, if still intriguing, speculative ground.

    Brisk, playful, and paradoxical, Swirski presents the reader with a buffet of food for thought. Even bigger questions loom outside the terms of his discussion. For one thing, human history is full of sudden and severe cultural and technological reverses, which may set back or totally undermine some of Swirski’s prognostications. There is also the problem – which the author is well aware of – that any book like this can expect a limited shelf life. Not because its predicitons will turn out to be wrong, but because many of the questions will have changed. The death of the computhor may not lag far behind that of the author and the book.

    Review first published in Quill & Quire, September 2013.