Book Review: The Weather Inside

September 17, 2016 10:40 am

It’s summer in Toronto, and the snow and ice are relentless. Too bad no one but Avery can see it.

Avery Gauthier can’t get far enough away from her past: the death of her beloved father, the abuse she suffered as a teen, and the religion that tore her parents apart. A reality-refugee, she’s managed to keep the chaos of her former life at bay… until now.

When her husband returns to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, her estranged mother wants back in, and the snow—invisible to everyone but Avery—piles up and up and up, Avery is forced to face her greatest fears. She looks to the outside for help, to her mysterious superintendent and the comforts of a local weatherman, only to realize that the solutions lie where the problem does: within.

A twisted, darkly funny and redemptive tale, The Weather Inside will leave you wondering where the line is drawn between what’s real and what’s imagined, and why Armageddon isn’t always the end of the world.

Advance praise for The Weather Inside

The Weather Inside is a mighty examination of faith and love. Saso masterfully shows why these are two different words. Gritty and heartfelt and hilarious in all the right places, this book is a gift for readers who are looking for something fresh.”
– Bradley Somer, author of Fishbowl

“A debut novel that is both heartbreaking and hilarious. Emily Saso is a unique and daring new voice.”
– Rebecca Rosenblum, author of The Big Dream

Freehand Books
Kelsey Attard

Book Review: The Worthington Wife

September 12, 2016 11:36 am

New York Times bestselling author Sharon Page returns to the aristocratic world of lords and ladies in a gripping new novel

After the death of her beloved fiancé, the Earl of Worthington, in the Great War, Lady Julia Hazelton is no longer interested in marriage. Instead she is devoting herself to the struggling people on her own family’s land and at Worthington Park- the sprawling estate of her former fiancé- which was left without a male heir… until now.

Americal Calvin Carstairs finds his life as a bohemian painter in Paris interrupted when he learns that he is the new Earl of Worthington- head of the family that once thought Cal wasn’t good enough to lick their boots. Cal still blames his elitist relatives for their deaths of his mother and father, because after disowning his father for marrying a poor commoner, the Worthingtons refused his parents aid on their deathbeds.

Now, Cal can exact the revenge he’s long craved- by selling off the estate, turning his snobbish relatives out of their home and destroying Worthington Park forever.

When Julia meets the brash new heir to Worthington, however, she supects he is not vengeful monster he claims to be. As the new earl, Cal is responsible for everyone on his estate, including the underprivileged tenants Julia has vowed to protect. She is determined to help them by proving to Cal that Worthington Park is actually worth saving.

At first, Cal believes Lady Julia represents all that he hates- privilege, snobbery, entitlement- but he soon sees that her selfless action and caring nature belie everything he’s always assumed about aristocrats. Then Cal realizes that behind Julia’s ladylike exterior lies a woman of fiery passions, much like his own, who hungers everything her upbringing has denied her.

Julia is determined to show Cal how much good he can do by preserving Worthington Park and assuming the title; Cal is equally focused on introducing Julia to everything life has to offer beyond her English gardens and aristocratic duties.

When a series of ghastly murders and an old, fabled spell- known as the Curse of the Worthington Wife- threaten their lives, Cal and Julia must choose between the things they once thought were all they ever wanted.. or a future together that will require them to make the greatest sacrifices of their lives…

Sharon Page is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author who has written erotic romance, historical erotic romance and historical romance. Sharon’s books have won many awards, including two RT Reviewers’ Choice Awards, the Colorado Award of Romance and a Golden Quill. Sharon was nominated by RT Book Reviews in 2013 for Career Achievement in Erotic Romance.

Harlequin- Harper Collins Publisher
Lisa Wray
(416) 445-2732

Book Review: Saving Her

September 11, 2016 3:07 pm

Christian McPherson’s exciting new novel is a portrait of a woman coming unglued after devastating events send her spiraling out of control. Between popping pills and drinking vodka, Julie Cooper tries her best to do what she has always done: carry on. But when the line between what is real and what is imaginary becomes blurred, a psychotic breakdown lands her in a mental hospital. She desperately needs to get out if she has any hope of saving herself.

Author of the poetry collections The Sun Has Forgotten Where I Live and My Life in Pictures, as well as the novels The Cube People and Cube Squared, Christian McPherson lives in Ottawa with his wife and two children.
“Like the protagonist herself, Christian McPherson’s powerful new novel Saving Her hits the ground running and never lets up. As a reader, you find yourself running right alongside the indomitable Julie Cooper, eager to find out what happens next. It takes a craftsman to compel the reader like that, and as a writer Mr. McPherson is just that.” ~ R.W Dunlop,  author of A Clap for Cadence.


Now Or Never Publishing 
#313, 1255 Seymour Street, Vancouver
phone: 604.992.9960

Book Review: Free Fall

September 10, 2016 2:28 pm

With nearly two million books in print in over seventeen countries, internationally bestselling author Rick Mofina’s specialized thrillers are “scary in all the right places” (James Patterson). Mofina’s novels have received high praise from Penthouse, The Globe and Mail, National Post and other respected international news outlets. His stand-alone debut, Six Seconds (MIRA Books, 2009), was a U.K. and Canadian bestseller success and received starred reviews from Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly. In Free Fall, the fourth installment in the edgy Kate Page series, readers are thrust into a heart-stopping ride replete with unpredictable twists.

Reporter Kate Page is fed up with the office politics at Newslead, the once-esteemed newswire service. While other employees skate by on the prestige of their last name, Kate keeps her nose to the grindstone and works tirelessly to redeem Newslead’s once pristine reputation. While wrapping up a story one Saturday, Kate overhears alarming news regarding a malfunctioning New York commuter flight over the scanner. Determined not to miss a breaking story, Kate races to LaGuardia to hunt down this promising lead.

Despite the NTSB’s claims that the crash was a result of human error, the veteran pilot insists that he was unable to control the aircraft’s advanced operating system.  As Kate attempts to wrap her mind around the details, another jetliner crashes into the runway in London. The investigation reveals that both planes have the same flight management system, leading to the possibility of a third party remotely controlling the aircraft. Soon after, Kate receives a mysterious email from Zarathustra, a terrorist organization claiming responsibility for both attacks, and threatening an even more deadly third. With a mounting body count, Kate races to the FBI with the information. But as time winds down, a disastrous end for more than more than a thousand lives, including Kate’s, seems inevitable.

Rick Mofina has been heralded as a writer whose prose “reads like short bursts of gunfire”

(Publisher’s Weekly), earning him comparisons to Frederick Forsyth, Michael Crichton and Robert Ludlum. In free fall, Mofina leans on his powerful experiences as an international reporter to provide authentic fodder “guaranteed to keep readers flipping the pages” (The Toronto Sun).

Praise for Rick Mofina

free-fall-morfina“Moves like a tornado”
James Patterson, #1 New York Times, Bestselling Author, on Six Seconds

“Mofina is one of the best thriller writers in the business.”
Library Journal

“Everything we need from a great thriller.”
Lee Child, New York Times Bestselling Author, on Six Seconds



Christi Sheehan,
Publicity Assistant
(212) 207-7494

Book Review: Backs to the Wall

12:13 pm

Backs to the Wall: The Battle of Sainte-Foy and the Conquest of Canada

The dramatic battle of 1760 is a timely reminder of the fragile nature of Canadian history.

The 1759 Battle of the Plains of Abraham and subsequent capitulation of Quebec set the stage for an equally significant FrenchBritish engagement in the struggle for northeastern North America, the Battle of Sainte-Foy. That 1760 conflict—perhaps the hardestfought, most intense Canadian battle until Second Ypres in 1915 – came close to over-turning the previous year’s victory by the British.

In the spring of 1760, after having suffered a brutal winter, Quebec garrison Commander James Murray’s troops were vulnerable and reduced to an army of skeletal invalids due to malnutrition and scurvy. Trapped in hostile territory and lacking confidence in the fortifications of Quebec, Murray planned to confront French attackers outside the walls. Instead of waiting at Montreal for the British to attack, Montcalm’s successor, François-Gaston de Lévis, returned to the plains for a rematch accompanied by every combatant available–French regulars, Canadian militia and First Peoples warriors. The ensuing Battle of Sainte-Foy was less a battle for territory than a struggle for survival between two equally desperate adversaries. If the British lost the battle, they would lose Quebec. If the French lost the battle, they would very likely lose Canada–both the French and the British had their backs to the wall.

MacLeod presents this historical event in riveting detail, from the preparation and day-by-day actions during the engagement to the compelling siege of Quebec by land and ship. Backs to the Wall is an accessible and engaging account of an important episode in Canadian history.

is the pre-Confederation historian at the Canadian

War Museum, where he curated the permanent exhibits on the Seven Years’ War and The Battle of the Plains of Abraham. He is currently working as English language style editor for the Canadian History Hall at the Canadian War Museum’s partner institution, the Canadian Museum of History. His previous books include The Canadian Iroquois and the Seven Years’ War (Dundurn, 2012), and Northern Armageddon (Douglas & McIntyre, 2008). He lives in Ottawa, ON.


Corina Eberle, Toronto & National Publicity Director
(tel) 416 531 4254
(cell) 416 660 1166

Book Review: Of Myths and Sticks

12:12 pm

Hockey Facts, Fictions and Coincidences

TSN stats archaeologist Kevin Gibson, whose book Of Myths and Sticks blows the whistle on all hockey matters from the mainstream to the obscure.

Fascinating, and at times unbelievable, the stories behind the National Hockey League are as engaging as the great game itself.

Yet when it comes to hockey trivia, erroneous facts emerge from urban legends, conspiracy theories and coincidences, leaving sports fans to debate what’s real and what’s not. In Of Myths and Sticks, stats expert and radio personality Kevin Gibson stickhandles the truth to uncover the real facts of hockey including its much-disputed origins.

When was the first NHL game? Who scored the first ever goal? Did Gordie Howe actually achieve a “Gordie Howe hat trick”? The book answers the game’s biggest questions, and offers little-known facts such as the details of a dubious contract dispute; the worst and best nicknames in the sport; a certain goalie’s 24 children; and a flu epidemic that killed two players and cancelled the 1919 Stanley Cup Final.

From hall-of-famers, to hall-of-shamers, to an extensive “On This Date” chapter containing 366 trivia-worthy moments from nearly 100 years, Of Myths and Sticks combines extensive research and humour with a fresh perspective on the game. Hockey’s version of MythBusters, the book’s exploration of myth and legend is as fast-paced as a puck on ice.

Kevin Gibson is TSN’s one-man Research, Stats and Information of Myths and Sticks Department. He is a regular on Mike Richards’ In the Morning show on TSN Radio 1050 and a popular presence on Twitter (@

Published by Douglas & McIntyre

Book Review: Forgotten Victory

September 8, 2016 12:12 pm

First canadian Army and the cruel Winter of 1944–45

During the winter of 1944–45, the western allies desperately sought a strategy that would lead to Germany’s quick defeat. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers in trenches and dugouts suffered through the bitterest European winter in fifty years.

The Allied high command decided that First Canadian Army would launch the pivotal offensive to win the war—an attack against the Rhineland, an area of Germany on the west bank of the Rhine. Winning this land would give them a launching point for crossing the river and driving into Germany’s heartland.

But before the Allies could strike, Hitler launched a massive offensive towards Antwerp, the Battle of the Bulge. By the time the Germans were driven back to their start lines, the first thaws had begun. Previously frozen ground, ideal for mobile warfare, had turned to quagmire. Anticipating the Allied attack, the Germans broke dams and dykes to inundate great swaths of the Rhine’s floodplain.

On February 8, 1945, First Canadian Army launched Operation Veritable. Advancing on the heels of the greatest artillery bombardment yet fired by the western Allies, thousands of Canadian and British troops advanced into an inferno of battle under orders to surrender not an inch of German soil. Infantrymen were forced to fight relentlessly, with little support and often in close quarters, for thirty-eight gruelling and costly days.

Mark Zuehlke is the winner of the 2014 Pierre Berton Award: the Governor

General’s History Award for Popular Media. In 2006, his Canadian Battle Series book Holding Juno won the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize. He has also written six historical works outside of the series, including For Honour’s Sake (Knopf Canada), which won the 2007 Canadian Author’s Association Lela Common Award for Canadian History. He lives in Victoria, BC.


Book Review: Torp

12:12 pm

The landlord, the husband, the wife, and the lover.

Giulio di Orio, an assistant lecturer in Philosophy, brings one of his students, known as Torp to the Vancouver flat he shares with his wife Nicole. Soon their landlord is convinced that Torp is the devil incarnate, and the police have arrested him for the street bombings that have been plaguing the city. A sexually-charged tale bubbling with lust, suspected murder, and the twilight of the flower children—all set against the backdrop of martial law in 1970 Vancouver.


“I,” Torp said, standing up and beating his chest, “am a mad bomber!” He jumped up onto one of the metal shelves that lined the side of the warehouse. “I am going to blow this whole city to kingdom come.” He started climbing. “I will create a new nation built on the principles of nihilism and anarchy.”


Born in Italy and raised in Montreal, Michael Mirolla is the award-winning author of the novel Berlin (2010 Bressani Prize); The Giulio Metaphysics III; and the poetry collection The House on 14th Avenue (2014 Bressani Prize). He lives in Oakville, Ontario.




“With Torp, Michael Mirolla once again demonstrates that he can be considered one of the finest prose writers in this country. This is a love story that reads like a mystery novel set in Vancouver in 1970. A fable, almost a swan song of the flower-power days.” — Antonio D’Alfonso

“Michael Mirolla continues to cut a distinct path in literature. His writing, fluid and relaxed over tight and well considered structures, goes where few dare. From Berlin to The Facility and now Torp, his works are fun to read while leaving stubborn, haunting afterglows, The result is both disturbingly sad and very funny.” – Michael Springate


Linda Leith Publishing
Founded in 2011, LLP is proud to have introduced new voices to Canadian literature by publishing acclaimed first—and second—novels that have won or been nominated for literary awards and other honours. The publisher of the Singles series of essays and of work by multiple award-winning Canadian cartoonist Terry Mosher (aka Aislin), LLP is dedicated to changing the world, one book at a time. Located in Montreal, LLP is also known as Linda Leith Éditions, which publishes books in French.



Book Review: Marion Dewar

September 7, 2016 2:49 pm


A Life of Action

A beloved mayor, Marion Dewar shaped not only the landscape of Canada’s capital city, she was a role-model for social activism for the whole country. Her work on behalf of refugees gives her accomplishments special resonance today.

August 11, 2016, Toronto–The desperation of refugees looking for a home and the politics of government responses would have been a familiar drama to Marion Dewar. We can only imagine how she would have stepped in to the fray if she were alive today and still advocating for those in need of help.

Marion Dewar could never ignore injustice. Mayor of Ottawa from 1978-1985, she worked tirelessly to bring about non-profit housing, better public transportation, support and encouragement for the arts, for peace, and for women’s rights. She advocated for visible minorities, gays and lesbians, and was the driving force behind the initiative to bring 4,000 boat people to Ottawa from Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. She was a prominent member of the New Democratic Party and sat as a Member of Parliament from 1987–1988. Added to this was the challenge and success of raising four children.

Women’s history scholar Deborah Gorham shows us a woman who took action when it counted most. Marion Dewar most likely never thought of herself as a radical, but she broke stereotypes in a radical way. Her legacy is a wonderful example of public life.

Deborah Gorham taught History and Women’s Studies at Carleton University for forty years, including setting up, planning and teaching the first women’s history course at the university – one of the first such courses in North America. She is the author of Vera Brittain: A Feminist Life, and others. Deborah lives in Ottawa.



Second Story Press
20 Maud Street Ste 401 • Toronto ON M5V 2M5 • 416-537-7850T • 416-537-0588F

Book Review: Time Out

September 6, 2016 3:00 pm

A teacher’s year of reading, fighting, and four-letter words

A book that asks the hard question: What has the education system done to help children suffering from mental health issues? What can we do? And how much spit can one person endure?

March 2014, TorontoTwenty-two years ago, Liane Shaw was a relatively inexperienced teacher who thought she had all the answers. Then she met them—a small group of boys, none of them past puberty, who would prove to be the biggest test of her working life, and change her attitude towards teaching forever.

When the neighboring classroom suddenly finds itself without a teacher, Liane was unexpectedly thrust into the dark underbelly of elementary school teaching. Walking into a classroom of cursing, spitting “behaviour boys” was certainly no picnic; let alone staying and teaching them for an entire year. Brilliantly told, by turns heartbreaking and hilariously funny, Liane holds nothing back as she recounts her year with the toughest and most troubled students—as she struggled to cope with only misinformation and limited resources as her guide.

Witty, touching, and truthful, Liane uses her gifts as a novelist to tell the often untold stories of the truly vulnerable amongst us. Readers will root for her to succeed, as invested in the success of these kids as she is. Liane Shaw’s wish in sharing her story is clear—that as adults we can help children with mental health issues heal and succeed, and that stories like this can be moved to the history shelf. Time Out is as relevant now as it was when Liane first started teaching.

Liane Shaw is the author of three novels for teens. Before becoming an author, Liane was an educator for more than 20 years, both in the classroom and as a special education resource teacher. She spent several years working with students with behavioral and emotional issues, and later became a consultant. Now retired from teaching, Liane lives with her family in the Ottawa Valley.

Second Story Press 
Emma Rodgers, (416) 537-7850,
20 Maud Street Ste 401 • Toronto ON M5V 2M5 • 416-537-7850T • 416-537-0588F


Book Review: Bill Reid Collected

12:13 pm

“Reid’s creative journey has been interpreted as a lifelong quest towards a deep understanding of his Haida heritage and identity…” 

 from Bill Reid: Deeply Carved

Bill Reid is one of Canadas’s most renowned and well-known first nations artists: the man who reinvigorated northwest Coast artwork and brought it fully into the public eye through his innovative works. These include the large bronze sculpture, The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, nicknamed The Jade Canoe and displayed at the Vancouver international Airport, and The Raven and the First Men, a yellow cedar carving, both of which have been featured on the Canadian $20 bill.

Reid’s massive artistic achievements went far beyond his large format bronze sculptures and wood carvings most often seen by the Canadian public. His work ranged from what he called “monumentally small” to “exquisitely huge”, and involved paintings, jewellery pieces and serigraphs.

Bill Reid Collected, the third book in the Collected series, features the largest chronological collection to date of memorable works of Reid’s career in full-colour photographs. This is brought together by an introduction by Dr. Martine J. Reid, “Bill Reid: Deeply Carved”, that outlines a completely new system of classifying Reid’s work into three periods: Pre-Haida (19481951), Haida (1951-1968) and Beyond Haida (1968-1998).

This classification provides a new way of looking at Reid’s work for those familiar with it and a handy guide for the uninitiated, detailing Reid’s mastery of the third dimension during his classic Western jewellery training (Pre-Haida), his intense study of the formal conventions of Haida art (Haida), and his fusion of the Western and Haida traditions, “expanding the range of possibilities beyond both traditions” (Beyond Haida).

Beautifully photographed, this addition to the Collected series has a small format and price ideal for giftbuyers and visitors to British Columbia as well as Canada to help introduce more people to this groundbreaking  artist’s work.

Martine J. Reid, PhD, is an author and an independent curator and scholar in indigenous northwest Coast art. she is Honourary Chair of the Bill Reid foundation, which created the Bill Reid Gallery of northwest Coast Art (BRG) in Vancouver, BC, in 2008. she was Director of Content and Research, and Curator at the BRG from 2008 until 2012. Dr. Reid is currently working on Bill Reid: Catalogue Raisonné and is a member of the CRsA (Catalogue Raisonné scholars Association). she was married to Bill Reid for nearly half of his creative life, during which most of his monumental works were created.

Book Review: Mothering Sunday

August 29, 2016 10:33 am

Graham Swift’s latest novel explores the mystery of a woman discovering herself

The premise of Graham Swift’s slim, new novel Mothering Sunday is familiar: the arc of a human life is sometimes altered by the most innocuous and unexpected of developments.

It’s March 1924 and Jane Fairchild is a maid living in Berkshire, England. Jane and her lover Paul are sharing their last day together before Paul marries another woman. It’s Mothering Sunday. Paul’s family and their servants are out of the house and Jane has been given the day off by her employer, Mr. Nivens. Their late morning liaison in Paul’s home must be of short duration. Paul has a luncheon to attend with his and his fiancé’s family. As it turns out, he will allow himself to run late, but not so late as to cast doubt in his fiancé’s mind about his desire to marry her. Everything Paul does on this day is carefully calibrated.  There is a small window of opportunity and both he and Jane seize it.

So too does Swift himself. His prose is masterful: it’s at once spare, concise, layered and sensual. This is the novel’s greatest attribute. The scene in question is straightforward enough: two lovers languorously passing a morning in bed on an atypically warm day in March. Nevertheless the reader is not sure of the nature of their connection. Is it inspired by love or convenience? Is it their contrasting places in the social order – he the son of an aristocrat, she a maid in the service of another aristocrat – that prevents them from making public their union? Or is Paul, like so many aristocrats before him, merely exploiting his privilege to satisfy his sexual needs? Paul maintains a measured distance even as they’re lying naked together, but Jane is seemingly at ease with their arrangement. Her expectations of Paul do not seem to exceed what he’s in a position to give.

29BOOK-facebookJumboPaul does not want Jane to rush off on account of his leaving. She has no intention of doing so. It’s her day off and, not having a mother, Jane has no one with whom to celebrate the special day. Besides, she’s not ready for this opportunity to bask in the afterglow of lovemaking to be over. She does not need to be back at her own home until much later in the afternoon. The best moments in the novel feature Jane walking around a large, empty house she’s in for the first and last time completely naked. She’s taking a big risk in doing so. What if someone living at the house was to suddenly return? What if Paul’s fiancé arrives at the house looking for him? What would she think as she approached and saw an unfamiliar bicycle parked out front? In more ways than one, Jane is exposed.

In various respects, Mothering Sunday is a novel about modernity. The Great War was, of course, the most brutal manifestation of this ushering in of something new. That four year exercise in barbarism casts a long shadow over the wealthy aristocrats in particular. Sons have been lost to fighting. Their grief renders them numb to changes swirling in the air, changes characterized by the gradual erosion of seemingly rigid hierarchies. As a maid Jane was aware of her place, not only in the Niven’s household but in the wider society. Swift crafts wonderfully revealing sentences highlighting the contradictory expectations employers had of their maids: to be at once present but invisible, knowledgeable but discreet. Everything they do is in the service of their employers. A maid’s inferior social standing by definition means she is intellectually inferior as well. But Jane has stirrings, emotional, physical and intellectual. She will eventually shatter the social expectations surrounding herself.


Author Graham Swift

Swift’s novel, however, is as much about chance as it is about modernity.  The afternoon spent first making love and then walking naked and alone in someone else’s house was not an experience Jane could have expected to have when she woke up that morning. Yet it initiates a process of self transformation and discovery that ultimately alters the trajectory of her life. For a time that afternoon she becomes like a ghost, at once familiar and unfamiliar to herself. At one moment she looks at herself in a large mirror, as if for the first time. She knows it’s her, but senses dimensions that she hitherto didn’t know she possessed. What she also senses is the prospect of liberty: in those moments spent gazing at her naked reflection she perceives the possibility of being something other than what she believed she’s destined to be. The prospect is at once exhilarating and terrifying. It’s hard to imagine that the same sort of transformation would have occurred had there never been this sort of detour in the familiar path of her everyday existence.

Related: An Imperfect Offering

Through Jane, Swift has struck a tone of optimism and possibility. She defies odds. However, Swift doesn’t pretend to render her life in its entirety. Nor is Jane’s transcendence merely attributable to modernity or chance. Her good fortune also flows, in a real sense, from other people’s shared tragedy. In the end, Swift seems to be suggesting there is a deeper mystery to  the direction a life takes. Mothering Sunday doesn’t so much explain the mystery as celebrate it.

An Imperfect Offering

July 13, 2016 3:11 pm

Some Rain Must Fall
By Karl Ove Knausgaard

Reviewed by Don MacLean

Why has Karl Ove Knausgaard’s 5 volume autobiography made him an international literary sensation?

Karl Ove Knausgaard begins the fifth volume of his autobiography Some Rain Must Fall with a surprising admission.  The volume will cover the part of his life spent in Bergen, Norway from 1988 – 2002. Yet, he declares, there are few remnants left of the time in question. He has burned his dairies from those years and only kept a few photographs. He concedes that his memories are fading, incomplete and tinged with shame. The reader is left with the impression that what follows will be a series of imprecise, sweeping reflections on an otherwise long forgotten phase of the man’s life.

91QYxIVrBjLInstead, Some Rain Must Fall is a meticulously detailed account of the formative years in Knausgaard’s development as a writer and a young man. He arrives in Bergen to attend a prestigious writing academy. He’s also in love with a young woman with whom he’s exchanged countless letters but who he has only met once. She too will be arriving in Bergen to attend school. His expectation is thus that he’s on the cusp of a literary break through and sexual and romantic bliss. Alas, his experience at the school does more to shatter his confidence as a writer than to build it. The love affair ends on a hurtful note before it even begins. And so, like so many nineteen and twenty year olds before him, he’s plunged into a sea of insecurity and despair. Will he ever be a good writer? Will he ever publish the sort of novels that have for so long fuelled his imagination and his ambition? Will he find love? These are the burning questions at the heart of the fifth instalment of Knausgaard’s autobiography.

This reader, meanwhile, has his own questions. Why has Knausgaard become an international literary sensation? Why have the first four volumes of his autobiography captured people’s imaginations they way they have? Based on Some Rain Must Fall the answers are not necessarily obvious, for a couple of significant reasons. The first is the book’s uneven prose. To be sure, there are wonderful stretches on almost every page. Knausgaard’s depictions of Bergen’s rain soaked streets perfectly match his own often melancholy temperament.  Nonetheless almost every other page is also marred by some unseemly prose. Knausgaard has a propensity for run on sentences. When well put together, there is nothing wrong with sentences that stretch out over 4 or 5 lines of a page. Knausgaard’s, however, suffer from a problem all too familiar to undergrad students and the professors who must grade their papers. That is to say, they are too often grammatically unsound. He seems to think a few well placed commas is all an unduly long sentence needs to render it grammatically correct. It almost pains me to write about something as tedious as poor sentence structure, but it must be pointed out. Some Rain Must Fall suffers for it.

The other reason has to do with the arc of Knausgaard’s development. He desperately wants to live and, equally desperately, wants to write. He’s a young man with seemingly boundless energy and insatiable yearnings: for music and alcohol, for literature, for women and for love. Moderation is not an idea with which he is familiar. Much of his life seems to have been spent in a drunken haze. He is constantly out with his brother Yngve and their mutual friends drinking and smoking. Too much alcohol, however, renders him unpredictable: he steals bikes for fun and is prone to angry outbursts. On one evening after too much to drink he hurls a beer mug at Yngve, hitting him in the face. He rushes out of the bar after seeing the blood stream down his brother’s cheek.

On other nights, his drunkenness leads to infidelity. On one such occasion he meets a woman at a bar and, within minutes, they step into a taxi, rush back to his place, tear their clothes off and have sex. He wakes up the next morning and sees a beautiful but unfamiliar face lying next to him. He’s horrified: what has he done? How could he possibly be unfaithful when he has such a wonderful girlfriend who loves him with all her heart? He’s consumed by regret and guilt. He demands that the woman dress, ushers her to the door and begs her to never say a word to anyone about what transpired. The reader detects a pattern which, in turn, prompts an expectation. At some stage, one feels, Knausgaard will start to drink less, grow less impulsive and act more responsibly  where women in his life are concerned.  In other words, he’ll grow up.

The reader waits and waits. Indeed, that Knausgaard writes so much about his incessant drinking, his perpetual preoccupation with women and the self loathing it inspires is precisely why he has been accused of narcissism. There is much truth in this charge. For his excessive preoccupation with himself is at the expense of a larger vision. He writes very little, for example, about Norway as a country – the politics or the history or the culture. There’s even less written about the wider world. There is a reference to 9/11, but precious little else.  What are his politics? Where does he see himself in the world? The reader ends the book none the wiser on these questions then when she started. Similarly, he’s a student of literature but the insights into the books he reads are few and far between. He refers to writers he has read without ever actually telling the reader why he loved or loathed so and so.

Yet for all his narcissism there is something about Knausgaard’s life story that draws in the reader. His appeal begins with his insatiable appetites and his love for life. But it goes deeper than that. It’s also his elevation of the utterly mundane as worthy of literary treatment. Knausgaard writes about his coffee in the morning or the dinner he had that evening.  He seemingly mentions every cigarette he’s smoked, which is many. (To paraphrase the Canadian comedian Ron James, Knausgaard smokes like its a cure for cancer.) He describes countless nights out with friends at bars. In some writer’s hands, the mundane becomes the tedious. In Knausgaard’s hands, the effect of elevating the mundane is to elevate a life. It’s one of his great gifts as a writer.

There is also his vulnerability and the frank, shameless way he reveals it to the reader. For all of his love of life, he’s also brooding and, as a young man, often awkward around women. Like most young men, he must find ways to compensate for a lack of physical intimacy. Knausgaard describes how he would hide books with pictures of beautiful women in his pants, go the washroom and masturbate. His tortured relationship with his father leaves him desperate for approval and forever insecure about his writing. He persuades himself that he isn’t smart or wise enough to ever be a literary writer.  When he’s at dinner parties with his writerly friends he is so intimidated that he often is suddenly quiet and withdrawn and plagued by dark thoughts. It’s this vulnerability with which many readers, despite the book’s recurring flaws, identify.

Related: A Good Life, A Flawed Novel.

He then meets Tonje. Like a school boy, he falls madly in love. By this point in his life, women are drawn to him and he is at ease around them. Tonje is different. He is at once tentative and awkward around her. He doesn’t lust after her, like he did so many other women. Such a feeling is too shallow; doesn’t come close to matching the depth of his love. So they instead get to know each other relatively slowly: they have a magical walk to her home on a cold, snowy night. They have tea as the day dawns. But when he leaves her home he can’t muster the courage to give her a hug, let alone a kiss. Intimacy would have to wait.

At this relatively late point in the book it appears as though Knausgaard is changing. He is less self absorbed. He is still writing exclusively about his life, his struggle, but his focus is more on the death of his father, the passage of time and his evolution as a writer. He finally establishes the discipline required to produce a novel. To spend an evening drinking would jeopardize a rhythm he struggled so hard to discover and which was so conducive to prose worthy of praise and publication. So he stays put days and evenings on end to the point that Tonje begins to suffer for it. She wants to be out with him, wants them to together experience the world outside of their little home. He promises that the endless nights spent writing would cease the moment his novel is finished and published. He keeps his word. The novel is published to great acclaim. Normalcy – and happiness – returns to their lives.

The reader’s expectation of Knausgaard’s growth is, at long last, realized. He’s an accomplished writer and happily in love.  Doubts, however, persist. Can his contentment possibly be sustained? Will he and Tonje still be together by the book’s end? Or will Knausgaard find a way to sabotage both his and Tonje’s happiness? Is it only a matter of time before he makes another horrible transgression? For all of his new found love and happiness the reader senses Knausgaard’s dark, brooding centre remains intact. For him at least, the light will never extinguish the darkness.

A Good Life, A Flawed Novel

June 3, 2016 3:17 pm
Email sent from: "Dundas, Deborah"  Subject: FW: God in Ruins Date: 6 May, 2015 4:26:41 PM EDT kate atkinson a god in ruinsEmail sent from: Iwasutiak, Adria [] Sent: Wednesday, May 06, 2015 11:42 AM To: Dundas, Deborah Subject: RE: God in Ruins Hi Deborah, Please see attached. Thanks AdriaEmail sent from: Dundas, Deborah [] 

Sent: Wednesday, May 06, 2015 11:41 AM

To: Iwasutiak, Adria

Subject: God in Ruins Hi, Adria, Would you please arrange to send the usual two .jpegs for this book - author photo and cover jacket? I'm running a review this weekend. Thanks so much, Deborah Deborah Dundas, Books Editor and Book Reporter 416-869-4502

A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson
Reviewed by Don MacLean
June 2016

Kate Atkinson likes to write about ordinary individuals swept up in extraordinary circumstances. In two separate but companion novels, Life After Life and A God In Ruins, Atkinson tells the stories of Isabel Todd and Teddy Todd, respectively. The Todds are an English family living in England through World War Two. Isabel and Teddy are sister and brother. In Life After Life the reader follows different variations on Ursula’s life. In so doing Atkinson explores the competing roles of choices and chance in shaping one’s fate. In a nod to the possibility of a brighter future, the novel closes with Ursula celebrating the war’s end with Teddy and his girlfriend Nancy in the most English of ways: over a beer at a pub. And why not? Peace has been restored and fascism defeated. Liberty to drink and be merry are among the rewards for those who survived the four plus years of barbarism.

Although Teddy figures prominently at the novel’s end, he was on the periphery of most of the action in Life After Life. In A God in Ruins, he is the main character and the protagonist. The novel assumes a sort of dual role. It explores the same war and the same family but through the eyes and experiences of Teddy instead of Ursula. Ursula experiences the war as a nurse tending to the injured and dying. Teddy experiences it from the perspective of a British fighter pilot engaged in bombing raids over enemy territory. But A God in Ruins also picks up where the previous novel ends. It takes the reader into the twenty first century. Its sweep is meant to allow for perspective: what did the liberty Teddy helped to win actually wrought?

The effects of war on those who fight are unpredictable. It can be profoundly debilitating for many, as the high number of veterans who are either suicidal or suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder will attest. Others might relish the danger and survive the experience relatively intact. For others, it can liberate the most generous of impulses and instill a sort of wisdom. Teddy is this type of pilot. Atkinson writes of him:

He had made a vow, a private promise to the world in the long watches of the night, that if he did survive then in the great afterward he would always try to kind, to live a good quiet life. Like Candide, he would cultivate his garden. Quietly. And that would be his redemption. Even if he could add only a feather to the balance it would be some kind of repayment for being spared.

Teddy, of course, does survive the war. Indeed much of the novel revolves around his life after the hostilities have ceased. To a large extent the promise he made to himself is kept. He settles down with Nancy, his childhood friend and neighbour growing up. They live a quiet life in the country. Teddy has various dalliances during the war. Women are easily attracted to him and circumstances give rise to fleeting romances. Why not have a night of passionate sex when you know your plane might be shot down over the North Sea the next day? Still after the war both he and Nancy feel as though getting married and sharing their lives together seems like the most natural thing in the world. What their relationship lacks in passion is made up for in a steady, deeply abiding affection. They have a single child, Viola.

Various themes run through A God in Ruins. The most explicit and recurring is summed up in a phrase repeated throughout the novel. Reap what you sow.  The present is pregnant with multiple possibilities. The choices one makes now will shape who you become. This theme, however, runs counter to another, more implicit one. Atkinson’s novel is as much about wartime experiences as it is those of peace time. Yet war is the example, par excellence, of how life can ruthlessly impose itself on individuals. War wrenches men and women from their peace time existences and thrusts them into scenarios over which they have scarcely any control and which are often too horrific to even contemplate, let alone endure. Indeed, not only do these themes conflict, the latter can make the former seem quaint, even trivial. What meaningful choices did World War Two soldiers actually have?  

These conflicting themes feed into another, namely, the challenging relationships between generations. Teddy is a salt of the earth type of guy: brave, honest, loyal and straightforward. The sort of father that any child would typically cherish. Yet, for reasons this review won’t divulge, Viola has a strained relationship with him from a young age. Even as time passes there is forever a gap between them, not only intellectually but emotionally as well. As a young woman Viola thinks of her father as a member of the type of world she fervently rejects. He’s of the generation that brought the world to the brink of ruin. She’s of a generation interested in peace and in cultivating a more sustainable relationship with the earth. The strain between them is rich with narrative possibility.

Alas, Viola as a character does not work. Even though she repeatedly transforms herself, in every version she strikes the reader as one dimensional. Her one dimension, moreover, renders her completely unlikable. As described by Atkinson, she has no redeeming features. She is a fraud and is usually acting selfishly, even cruelly. Her first husband is equally odious and one dimensional. Both are without a trace of nuance. Viola visits Teddy towards the end of his life. Her visits are always an act obligation or worse, never of love or affection. She regards him as little more than a burdensome, wasting piece of flesh who cannot die too soon.

Related: The Walk of Life

Neither the novel’s structure nor Atkinson’s prose compensates for the characters’ shortcomings. The playful, unpredictable element that made Life After Life so enjoyable is, regrettably, absent from A God in Ruins. Without it, moving back and forth in time, as Atkinson does, serves to stall the narrative as much as propel it. Almost all element of surprise is eliminated in later chapters when you discover in early chapters how and when various characters die. Similarly, there were no significant plot twists; no moments in the novel that pushed the story in an unanticipated direction, thereby making those earlier revelations seem less premature.  

As readers, we must be careful not to extrapolate. Teddy and Viola are surely not meant to be entirely representative of their respective generations. Nevertheless it’s hard to escape the idea that Atkinson is making a point about the generation that followed those who sacrificed themselves so as to stop fascism’s relentless advance. If so, what is the point? That one of the risks of liberty is that those who enjoy it may be shallow, selfish, destructive and ungrateful towards those who did so much to bestow it upon them. True enough. In Atkinson’s hands, however, this point too often feels like a sweeping judgement. This is the novel’s great weakness.

The Walk of Life

May 25, 2016 12:00 pm

Walking with Abel: Journeys with the Nomads of the African Savannah

Anna Badkhen
Riverhead Books, New York, 2015
Reviewed by Don MacLean

May 2016

Anna Badkhen’s wonderful book Walking with Abel: Journeys with the Nomads of the African Savannah documents her journeys with members of the nomadic Fulani, perhaps the largest group of nomads living today. The Mali based Fulani migrate across the Sahel with their cattle herd. They are moving from a dry season place to a rainy season place. Their particular destination is referred to as ‘the bourgou’ a stretch of swampland by the Niger River rich with grasses upon which the animals feed. For the Fulani’s cattle, hippo grass in particular is the great prize in the middle of a long journey. “Cows went wild for it,” writes Badkhen early in the book. In exchange for temporary grazing rights, the cattle do their part to fertilize the land owned by settled farmers. The Fulani sustain themselves, in large part, through agricultural bartering. Their cattle’s buttermilk and butter is exchanged for basic foodstuffs such as millet and fish. For centuries, this has been the typical sort of mutually beneficial arrangement that allows the Fulani and their cattle to survive their migration without having to trespass to do so.

Their journey, it almost goes without saying, is not for the faint of heart. The challenges of walking great distances across a desert-like landscape are considerable, especially for anyone not used to the experience. There is first the challenge of walking under a seething sun, the dangers of which are exacerbated during the Holy month of Ramadan when nothing can pass one’s lips between sunrise and sundown. For the Fulani, meeting the challenge has a purifying effect. One can only assume they are physically and spiritually equipped to deal with such a daunting prospect. For a non-Fulani and non-Muslim not used to the rigours of such a journey, the effect could at least potentially be much different. Badkhen, however, is up to the task. Still other dangers lurk. Islamic insurgents in Northern Mali are waging war with the government.  French warplanes encroach upon the desert. French soldiers are searching for the killers of two French journalists.

One obvious question to emerge from Walking with Abel is why? Why did a woman from Philadelphia want to undertake a journey so far from home and so fraught with peril? As it turns out, Badkhen is used to such dangerous undertakings. She spent years in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Chechnya — places where most would fear to tread — working as a reporter. She is a courageous woman with a passion for the marginalized. There is also a curiosity about a way of life under threat from a variety of forces, some human and some climate related. Part of Badkhen’s task is to, as she puts it, ‘gather stories’ and, in so doing, illuminate an approach to living that most of her readers would find remote.

There is another, more deeply personal reason for Badkhen wanting to embed herself in a community of nomads. The book is peppered with references to a lost love. A married man with whom Badkhen shared a passionate connection ended their affair, much to her deep regret.  The loss leaves her reeling. The decision to immerse herself in a radically different sort of community and engage in a walk across a semi arid landscape seems to be at once an attempt to escape a deep longing and discover an elusive inner peace. “The expanse around you unburdens the space within,” she writes. Yet by the end of the book, it’s not at all clear just how unburdened the experience has left her. “A year had passed since and I still missed him fiercely, every day anew,” she laments towards her journey’s end.

Despite — or perhaps due to — her personal pain, Badkhen is open to Fulani wisdom. Her openness, one feels, is the basis for the book’s many strengths. It serves to dispel suspicions, foster a mutual respect and create a space for heartfelt exchanges.  This is especially evident in her relationship with the Diakayates, the family who essentially adopts her during their journey. The family is led by Oumarou and his wife Fanta. They are travelling with their son Ousman and his wife Bobo as well as their two grandchildren.

Walking, the Diakayates teach Bandkhen, is central to the Fulani’s worldview. The act has an elemental force. “It is solved by walking” a Fulani tells her when discussing the challenge of survival. Walking engenders an intimate familiarity with place. It is also the source of promise. To walk is to move closer to a new source of water, or shade, or shelter. The promise of place, however, seamlessly feeds into the Fulani’s sense of impermanence. Those same sources of life, shade and shelter are the the places the Fulani will leave the next day. They are used to these sorts of acts of separation. It is the basis for their stoicism in the face of death. When a Fulani loses a child they will not cry or mourn in public.

 Intimately connected to the role of walking are the Fulani’s ways of knowing. The Diakayates do  not think of knowledge in the way that any reader of the book or this review would. They do not read or write. They may have heard of Badkhen’s native country America, but they most certainly have never visited or would be able to identity it on a map. This lack of a particular type of knowledge or experience, however, in no way suggests ignorance or ‘backwardness.’ To suggest so is to engage in the sort of chauvinism of which too many western writers have been guilty when writing about non Western peoples. Badkhen, to her credit, does not fall into this trap. On the contrary, she writes with deep respect of the Fulani ways of knowing. We learn, for instance, that Oumarou’s deep knowledge of place and timing is derived from his experience of using the landscape as a travel guide. Constellations are not only maps of stars; for the Fulani they are signifiers of rain, or wind or grinding heat.

Related: History of Medicine and Science

Related: Black in America

The Fulani traditions are ancient. The community’s capacity to cope is formidable. Yet one of the themes that weaves it way through Badkhen’s narrative are the decidedly modern threats to which they are increasingly subject. Their young men and women seem like young men and women everywhere else. They are tempted: by technology, by love and sex and by the possibilities associated with earning income and possibly settling down. The Fulani and the governments that surround them share a deep and mutual distrust. Moreover, as much of the surrounding area is transformed, there is a real risk the Fulani will be, in essence, boxed in.

More fundamentally,  according to Badkhen, the Fulani ways of knowing and living are increasingly compromised by a rapidly  changing climate. If there is one shortcoming in an otherwise thoughtful and beautifully written book, it’s that Badkhen’s scattered references to a changing climate do not do justice to the theme. To what extent are the shifting weather patterns attributable to climate change? How exactly is climate change altering the weather and the landscapes traversed by the Fulani? The answers are not self evident. Yes the Fulani lament the delayed start of the rainy season in June. Yet a shared anxiety about the weather runs like a current through their history. Famines, as the Diakayates themselves know, recur with predictable frequency. Every mention of the dearth of rain, or hardened ground, or ruined harvests, or the growing threat of hunger, or a cow’s withered and deflated udders is an opportunity for Badkhen to more deeply explore how a shifting climate is threatening a formidable yet vulnerable people. Alas, she never does fully seize that opportunity.

Fortunately for the reader, the book has many other compensations, particularly towards the end. The Fulani’s journey culminates in their respective cattle herds’ crossing of the Bani River. Badkhen is at her finest in telling this part of the Fulani’s story. It’s not simply due to being a gifted story teller. It’s that she describes the culmination with a near equal mix of joy and melancholy. The effect is to give the story an added poignancy.

There is first the great gathering of cattle by the river bank. As Badkhen conveys, their numbers are so large that the ground moves as they walk and a low rumbling can be heard from miles away.  The swim across is at once a time of joy and sorrow, anticipation and apprehension. On the one hand, the crossing occurs as the rainy season ends, thus signifying a time when the land is green and lush and the herd is collectively strong and well nourished. Life in full bloom. On the other, the young Fulani men – Fulani ‘cowboys’ as they’re called – must undertake the challenging task of swimming their animals across. It’s not unusual for some of the cowboys to perish before reaching the other side. Nor do all cattle successfully pass this crucial test. Indeed, Oumarou learns of one among his own herd who failed. The cow was thus taken from the water, skinned, it’s various parts separated for the purpose of selling, consuming and properly mourning its passing.  Their sadness, however, is tempered by relief: Ousman was otherwise successful in getting the herd to the other side. In short order they will start to prepare for the walk back. For as long as they’ve walked, the Fulani’s journey is only just beginning.

Book Review: A GOOD READ! Negotiating So Everyone Wins by David C. Dingwall

April 12, 2016 5:44 pm
David C. Dingwall

David Dingwall.

David Dingwall is a lawyer and former Member of Parliament who represented the riding of Cape Breton East Richmond for 17 years between 1979 and 1997. For a time, Dingwall was the most powerful and influential minister from Atlantic Canada in the Chrétien Liberal government of the 1990s. As Minister of Health, he brought in the most progressive anti-tobacco legislation in the western world, which was widely copied in other countries. As Minister of Public Works he helped navigate some of the largest structural changes that department had seen in a generation. After an unexpected election defeat in 1997, Dingwall had to reinvent himself and set up shop as a negotiator and lobbyist. Since then, he has participated in or facilitated numerous complex negotiations in the private, public and NGO sectors and has became one of Canada’s leading experts on negotiating. During this period, he also spent a couple of years as President of the Royal Canadian Mint, where he successfully implemented a labour efficiency and business growth program that lead  to an increase in earnings of over 100 million dollars in just 18 months.

Jean Chrétien used to famously say that the Liberal way is one “where everybody wins,” and it’s a theme Dingwall embraces as he  uses real examples of the strategies and tactics that he and more than 20 of the country’s best deal-makers have used to get a deal. The book provides insight into the things that went right, and more importantly, the mistakes he and others made and the takeaway lessons. This list of deal-makers and negotiators who share their experiences in the book includes Paul Zed, Chairman of Rogers, Janice Payne, Canada’s most revered labour lawyer, former Canadian Auto Workers President Buzz Hargrove, former Ontario Premiers David Peterson and Bob Rae, Don Fehr, President of the NHL Players Association, former Conservative Transport Minister Lisa Raitt, former TD Bank President Ed Clark, Gary Corbett, former President of the Professional Institute of the Public Service and former Deputy Minister Peter Harder (who most recently led the transition team for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau).

Dingwall’s  candor about his own mishaps is refreshing and at times funny, and will make anyone who has really screwed up at some point on the job feel better. Each chapter ends with a section called TAKEAWAYS which should be required reading for law students and MBA or MPA students.  At its core, Dingwall’s book looks at negotiations though the age-old premise that “a thing can be understood by breaking down its parts and understanding how each relates to the other.” He  provides  suggestions on how to hone negotiating skills and improve capacity to get an agreement.  His description of lessons he learned from the late great Canadian lawyer, scholar and businessman Gerry Godsoe,  legendary United Mine Workers of America Union Leader Bull Marsh and fisheries expert Herb Nash are worth the price of the book alone.

The book also comes with video links to an interview Dingwall did with some of these key negotiators. David C. Dingwall, is a Cape Bretoner who now practises law in Toronto and teaches negotiation at Ryerson University.

History of Medicine and Science

March 29, 2016 3:55 pm

Wounded British soldiers, 10 April 1918. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

Felix d’Herelle and the Discovery of Therapeutic Viruses

Felix d’Herelle was a Canadian scientist who co-discovered bacteriophages. Bacteriophages are viruses that thrive on and kill disease and infection causing bacteria. Why was phage therapy’s promise never realized in the West? The answers are varied, but intimately connected. D’Herelle conducted research in highly volatile political and social environments.  The science of phages was highly contested, particularly around the time d’Herelle was conducting his most important research. Eventually antibiotics displaced phage therapy completely. But antibiotic resistant bacteria points to the limits of antibiotics in the treatment of communicable disease. Scientists are thus reconsidering d’Herelle’s legacy and phage therapy’s promise.

Natural Cures

By Don MacLean and Alberto Martin

  1. The Ravages of War

France 1917.  Allied soldiers are sitting uncomfortably in a mile long trench designed to protect them from enemy fire. The sky assumes great importance for men who must otherwise stare at walls of mud. When they look up from their crouched position they see an expansive sky brightened by the sun or the evening stars. It acts as a reminder of the world of beauty, promise and mobility that war forced them to leave behind. For now they must struggle to survive in nightmare conditions for which they could not possibly be prepared. They do not raise their head above ground level for fear of being shot. Beyond the trench is a formerly verdant field transformed by war into a muddy wasteland lined with barbed wire and littered with dead soldiers. The once lush field, the soldiers understand, is now a death trap. As for the trench, soldiers are aware that it too can be a death trap, albeit of a different sort. Lice are a fact of life from which is no real escape. Rats too numerous to count infest the trench and feed on the dead.

An even more insidious threat is posed by the Shigella Bacillus, the pathogen that causes dysentery and thrives in precisely these sorts of settings. The bacteria typically enter the body orally through the ingestion of contaminated food and water. If the soldier is lucky, he will be stricken with a relatively mild case. He will have severe stomach pains and the persistent passage of stool. Within days the infection might pass and he will return to normal health. The more severe cases, by contrast, will produce sustained abdominal pain, delirium, fever and the vomiting of blood. Some soldiers will die of the disease.


British hospital at the First World War’s Western Front. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Indeed for soldiers fighting in the Great War, the spread of communicable disease was a constant threat against which there was often little defence. The greatest communicable disease episode came towards the end of the war. Between 1918-1920 twenty to fifty million people died from the Spanish influenza pandemic. It’s staggering toll and relentless spread was the twentieth century’s first example of a disease’s global potential.  But the virus responsible was hardly the only pathogen causing havoc on human beings. Other types of disease-causing microorganisms – bacteria, parasites and other viruses – were also distressingly prevalent. Scarlet fever, tuberculosis, diphtheria, small pox: all were common communicable diseases.  As for dysentery, by 1917 it had also exacted a heavy toll on Allied soldiers. As was true of other bacterial diseases, the gap was large between our understanding of the nature of dysentery and our ability to treat it. Scientists and doctors understood that the source of dysentery among soldiers was the Shigella Bacillus. Knowing this, however, did not translate into commensurate therapies. Treatment for dysentery involved a combination of administering castor oil, followed by repeated doses of saline. The diets of those suffering from the disease were reduced to a combination of gruels, rice water and barley water.[1] Such a change in diet would have had little therapeutic effect.

At the time, a Canadian scientist named Felix d’Herelle was working at the Pasteur Institute in France. Bridging the extraordinary gulf between our knowledge of disease causing pathogens and their effective treatment was among the Institute’s most important objectives.  D’Herelle was conducting research on dysentery in the hope of alleviating the suffering of Allied soldiers. When studying the stools of those infected he observed the presence of “invisible microbe antagonistic to the dysentery bacillus.”[2] The microbe in question would kill the bacteria causing the infection. If enough of the bacteria were killed, d’Herelle reasoned, the patient would return to good health. By 1919 he used the ‘invisible microbe’ to cure many children suffering from dysentery.[3]  As the scientist and writer William Summers remarks, “This invisible microbe he named the bacteriophage.”[4]  There were not, moreover, seemingly any deleterious side effects. The writer Carl Zimmer tells the story of how D’Herelle would consume phages to demonstrate how harmless they were to a healthy human being.[5] His therapeutic breakthrough came too late to help Allied soldiers suffering in the trenches. Nevertheless D’Herelle, it seemed, had made an important discovery in the struggle to understand and better treat bacteria based communicable disease and infections.

  1. A Restless Spirit, A Curious Mind


Felix d’Herelle. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Felix d’Herelle was born in Montreal on April 25, 1873. His father was a free thinker, his mother Roman Catholic. Felix’s father died when he was just a young boy. As Summers relates in his fine biography Felix d’Herelle and the Origins of Molecular Biology, d’Herelle’s mother either inculcated or merely did nothing to quell her son’s desire to explore the world. His love of travel was only matched by his love of learning. These twin passions would shape d’Herelle’s life. When he was sixteen years old, Felix’s mother gave him a bike and enough money to travel through the Rhine. In the year 1890 she gave him enough money for a trip through South America. While leaving Rio de Janeiro on a boat there was an outbreak of yellow fever. As was true of dysentery, yellow fever produces a range of symptoms.  Relatively mild cases ended in remission after bouts of muscle and joint pain, headaches and fever. Severe cases, however, were much direr. The infection would eventually produce organ failures. The heart, liver and kidney would all be subject to attack. There would be bleeding disorders, seizures and delirium. Many at this stage would then slip into a coma from which they would not emerge. Although the ship had a medical staff on board, there was little they could do to contain the spread and to save lives. In the end, 22 people perished. As Summers indicates, d’Herelle had a grim sort of fascination with the entire episode. “One morning seven bodies, one by one, slid into the sea,” the young d’Herelle writes in his diary. At the tender age of seventeen, d’Herelle also noticed that his reaction to the spread of disease was different from that of his fellow passengers. Most were understandably nervous and fearful, if not hysterical. D’Herelle, by contrast, remained cool, almost detached and stubbornly clung to the belief that he wouldn’t be infected with the disease that had stolen the lives of so many other passengers and crew members. It was one of many formative experiences for the young d’Herelle. It confirmed his love of travel and established both his fascination with disease and his readiness to immerse himself in various locales in order to understand and treat even the most dreaded infections.

Dysentery among French children was the first bacterial communicable disease d’Herelle successfully treated with phage therapy. Researching and refining his therapies, however, would take d’Herelle well beyond Europe’s borders and involve other types of bacterial infections.  The afflictions he chose to treat suggest a fascination with diseases with the grimmest reputations. A case in point is d’Herelle’s treatment with bacteriophages of patients in Alexandria, Egypt diagnosed with bubonic plague, a bacterial infection caused by Yersinia Pestis. For centuries, plague was a recurring problem in Egypt, as elsewhere in the Middle East and Europe. Disease incidence in Egypt was facilitated by its proximity to Black sea ports. The ports acted as a bridge allowing for the transport of bacteria carrying agents both to and from Europe. The plague was feared because its course was often swift and devastating.

The therapeutic potential of phages was sometimes striking to behold. Individuals on the threshold of death were sometimes not beyond saving. D’Herelle himself documents how an 18 year old male suffering from bubonic plague was experiencing “fever, lassitude, vertigo and bilateral tonsillitis.” His symptoms grew more severe over the next couple of days, following which he was hospitalized. After one day in the hospital his temperature was soaring, his pulse was 130, “the face was congested, the eyes were injected and drooping and prostration was extreme.” D’Herelle proceeded to inject bacteriophage into the center of the two buboes. The condition appeared to worsen over the course of the rest of the day but by next morning had improved dramatically. The young man’s symptoms hadn’t yet subsided, but he was in less pain and was more alert, and the buboes started to shrink. Within a couple of days they had shrunk further and the patient’s appetite returned. Within 15 days of his initial diagnosis, the buboes were removed painlessly and altogether. Two weeks later, as d’Herelle relates, “healing was complete.”[6]

Cholera was another scourge that drew d’Herelle’s attention. By that time – the early 1920s – the disease had become global in scope. In his book Plagues and Peoples William McNeill describes how shipping routes originating in India served to spread cholera to, among other hitherto unaffected places, China, Japan and Indonesia. Russian military adventures in the 1830s facilitated its entry into as far west as Poland. From there it traveled to first England and then Ireland before finally traveling across the Atlantic to Canada and then eventually America. By the time of d’Herelle’s arrival in India it was also understood that the vibrio cholerae was the bacterial source of the disease. So too was the connection between unsanitary conditions and its spread. Water contaminated with feces was the most important source fuelling its proliferation. Accordingly, securing clean water was crucial in any effort to curb its spread. In most western cities the installation of clean water infrastructure eliminated the threat cholera had hitherto posed.

Elsewhere, however, that sort of knowledge was not always acted upon. Indeed in India cholera remained common and a source of dread.  Full of confidence, d’Herelle arrived there in the 1920s to help contain its spread. His case studies, however, took place within a context hardly conducive to well funded and orderly medical investigations. To be sure, in some respects the conditions were ideal: cholera was rampant, morbidity and mortality rates high. Politically, economically and socially, however, there were many obstacles with which d’Herelle had to contend. In the 1920s there was growing opposition to British rule. Communal tensions were on the rise and the British medical establishment was notoriously conservative. Suffering Indians were not their first priority. Clinical trials were challenging to say the least. Yet the case studies did proceed, sometimes with remarkable results. For example, there were 198 cases of cholera from selected villages investigated. Of those 198 cases, 124 were not given “the antivibrio phages.” The other 74 cases were given the phage treatment. The mortality rate among the first and larger group was 63%. The mortality rate among the other group was 8%. That constitutes a remarkable difference.

This sort of therapeutic success was hardly unique. Nor was it always d’Herelle who was conducting trials. Abedon et al highlight the findings published in a 1936 issue of La Medicine of a trial in which phages were used to treat typhoid fever. Twenty one patients suffering from the fever caused by the salmonella typhi were administered phages for 3-5 days. This was in contrast to another sixty four patients administered the conventional therapy. The results were noteworthy. Mortality rates among those given the conventional therapy were 15.6%, as compared to 4.8% for those administered phages.[7]

The French scientist Suave was astounded by the ability of phages to effectively and painlessly eliminate breast and dental abscesses stemming from bacterial infections. It was simply a matter of time, he believed, before phage therapy would eliminate the need for anesthesia and surgery in the treatment of similar type infections.[8]

  1. A Contested Discovery

Bacteriophage therapy was emerging as a focal point of scientific study. Its promise appeared to be great.  D’Herelle was hardly the only scientist working with phages, but it was his name more than any other that was associated with phage therapy. His star was rising. He had thus seemingly made an important contribution in the struggle against communicable diseases, but what exactly had he discovered? What was the nature of the process that resulted in the elimination of pathogenic, disease and infection causing bacteria? Were bacteriophages autonomous, living organisms? If so, what was the nature of these organisms? Bacteriophages are viruses that thrive on bacteria. Bacteriophages destroy the bacteria by inserting themselves into the bacteria and assuming control of its machinery. In so doing, the bacteriophage reproduces and eventually bursts through the bacterial cell wall. More remarkably, the virus will then migrate to other areas of the body harbouring the infection and repeat the process.[9]

But little of this was known at the time of d’Herelle’s research and trials. Molecular biology was still in its infancy, the tools at the disposal of researchers relatively primitive by today’s standards. Something resembling the modern microscope, it’s worth recalling, was only invented in the 1800s. Not long before d’Herelle’s time, the prevailing orthodoxy was that cholera, plague and other scourges were caused by a noxious vapor emanating from things in the ground – dead bodies and decaying matter were the preferred culprits – that would target those who were ill or otherwise compromised. The miasma theory of disease transmission, as it was known, had been only recently been discarded for one more rooted in fact. That a world of microbes invisible to the naked eye was causing the spread of the most fearsome diseases was understood – but only dimly by today’s standards. Nothing of bacteria’s constituent parts was known. Science was decades away, for example, from the discovery of DNA and RNA. Similarly, bacteria’s dynamism – their ability to evolve in the face of threats – was not yet appreciated. Even less was known about viruses.

From the outset the nature of the bacteriophage was thus contested. Many of d’Herelle’s contemporaries were persuaded of the therapeutic promise of phages. Another scientist of the day, Tamezo Kabeshima, found “bacteriophages worked exactly as d’Herelle said they would in rabbits infected with shiga bacillus.” However, he went on to claim that phages were not “living beings….it is nothing but a sort of catalyzer.” This feeling was echoed by Bordet, another contemporary of d’Herelle. He countered d’Herelle with his theory of “transmissible bacterial lysis. “Lytic activity,” Bordet maintained, “was of bacterial origin….it’s production was provoked by an immune reaction in the infected animal.”[10]

D’Herelle was not persuaded by any argument that insisted bacteriophages were not autonomous from bacteria. His experiments demonstrated that enzymes would not act the way bacteriophages do. Yet his own understanding was incomplete. Thus, for example, d’Herelle initially conceived of bacteriophages as an ‘ultramicrobe’ and not specifically as a virus. But his sense of the process by which phages interacted with bacteria was essentially correct, albeit relatively unrefined. Referring to the ultramicrobes as ‘corpuscles’, d’Herelle recognized that their proliferation was at the expense of the bacteria. The ultramicrobe took over the bacterial cell’s machinery. The increase in their numbers, moreover, did not proceed in an incremental but rather exponential fashion.

D’Herelle was prepared to engage in debate with his scientific colleagues and laboratory experiments were crucial in the development of his own understanding of phages. His approach to science, however, demanded that he immerse himself in those settings that were themselves a contributing factor in the spread of disease. He was less interested in the abstract and more interested in applying science to pressing problems of human health. It was as though he knew his discovery was in advance of the current scientific understanding of disease. The science would follow so long as his trials had such promising outcomes. This is no doubt one reason why d’Herelle chose to go to Egypt and India – among other places – rather than letting the debate about the nature of phages remain confined to European laboratories.

  1. The Eclipse of Phage Therapy

D’Herelle possessed a restlessness that was well suited to his peripatetic approach to science. He was wholly committed to his research and to the best approaches to science, but he also seemed impatient and always prepared to uproot himself and his family. Thus, although d’Herelle took a position at Yale, his connection to the university and to the United States was always tentative. Those responsible for recruiting d’Herelle were impatient with his tendency to leave for extended stretches of time. He felt a similar ambivalence to his new home. D’Herelle was dismayed by the state of scientific research in America. The Great Depression had compromised funding, among other things. In the 1930s he received an invitation to conduct his research in the Soviet Union. Stalin’s purges hadn’t yet begun, nor had the persecution of scientists and other intellectuals. For those outside, the Soviet Union at the time represented an untested but promising alternative to western capitalism. D’Herelle believed that ‘scientific’ socialism promised the opportunity to conduct scientific research free of superstition and ‘mysticism.’ There was also a professed commitment to resolving practical problems. He was soon stationed at the Tiflis Bacteriological Institute in Tiflis, Georgia.

Georgiy Eliava was the person responsible for persuading d’Herelle to move from Yale to the Bacteriological Institute. According to Summers, they became close friends. Eliava was a committed scientist who did his best to remain removed from the increasingly toxic political environment dominating the Soviet Union. He was also impressed by the promise of phage therapy. But despite his best efforts to lead a quiet life of scientific discovery he was a victim of Stalinism. He and his wife – a Polish opera singer – were arrested and executed on the same day. It is not known why they were so ruthlessly targeted.

The death of his good friend and his wife was a blow to d’Herelle. They were not the only ones to arbitrarily suffer at the hands of the totalitarian state that had come to dominate the Soviet Union. Darkness had descended and no one living under Stalin could live free of his iron rule. D’Herelle knew this and thus did not return to the Soviet Union after a summer spent in France in 1937, as he had initially planned. He instead remained in France, even as Germany made its ominous advances.  The Nazis did eventually occupy France, but d’Herelle remained in the country’s southern region. His reputation seemed to afford him some protection. He thus continued to work on phages even as war swirled all around him.

Nevertheless by the end of the 1930s and early 1940s forces of change were conspiring to relegate phage therapy to the margins of Western scientific research. A report published by the American Medical Association in 1941 went to great lengths to undermine phage therapy’s credibility. The problem with the report, according to Abedon et al, was that it was error filled and hardly objective. Failed phage therapy trials were not properly contextualized. Proper dosage was essential if phage therapy was to be effective. Similarly, phages could be administered too late in an infection’s progression for them to do much good. The report was entirely unworthy of the impact it had on the scientific community.[11]

Western science, more importantly, was about to undergo a profound shift in direction with the introduction of antibiotics in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Although the development of antibiotics did not begin with Sir Alexander Fleming, it was his discovery of penicillin in 1928 that facilitated the eventual treatment with antibiotics of tuberculosis, gangrene and syphilis. The discovery of other antibiotics – streptomycin, chloramphenicol and tetracycline – fuelled the effective treatment of a long series of other bacterial based infections and diseases. Indeed antibiotics helped to initiate a profoundly steep decrease in the incidence of bacterial disease, particularly in the developed world.

D’Herelle, meanwhile, was getting older and his health would start to decline. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the early 1940s and would die of the disease in 1949.  Phage therapy’s most important proponent was thus removed from the scientific scene.

If phage therapy was relegated to the margins of western science it escaped the dustbin of history. D’Herelle’s time in Georgia ended in tragedy and he was forced to flee. Nevertheless he worked there long enough that the seeds for phage therapy’s continued development were planted. The result has been a historical development that has curiously unexplored: divergent approaches to the treatment of bacteria based communicable diseases and infections when comparing the West and the former Soviet Union.

To be sure, another aspect of d’Herelle’s legacy was the continued use of phages in parts of Europe for decades after his death. In France a phage research laboratory that d’Herelle himself opened was eventually run by his son- in-law. Their use was mostly confined to non-communicable bacterial infections. By the 1990s, however, phage production in France was phased out.  Like everywhere else in the western world, antibiotics seemingly eliminated the need for alternative approaches to treating bacteria based infections and communicable diseases.

Conversely, the Soviet Union used phages to, among other things, treat soldiers. During the cold war access to any data detailing the efficacy of phages was non-existent. We do know, however, that in 1963 the Eliava Institute conducted a study involving 30,769 children designed to test the efficacy of phages in reducing the incidence of dysentery. Among those who did not receive phages, the incidence of dysentery was 6.7/1000. Among those who did receive phages, the incidence of dysentery was 1.8/1000.[12] To an unknown extent, phage therapy was used with some success in the former Soviet Union.

Phage therapy’s apparent promise but uneven application hints at an issue often ignored in the history of science. Science unfolds within wider social, political and economic contexts. Elements of those wider milieus can both facilitate and compromise the conditions necessary for rigorous scientific study and discovery. D’Herelle went to where disease was rampant. When used appropriately, phage therapy was promising. However, that promise must have been partially stymied by the wider political and social upheaval in which d’Herelle often found himself. Would his success in treating cholera in India with phages have been more definitive or embraced if the British medical establishment had been less indifferent to the plight of sick Indians? Similarly, would the results of his work at the Tiflis Institute in Georgia have been better if the Soviet Union under Stalin had remained open to scientific inquiry? Would the Soviet Union’s partial embrace of phage therapy have exerted any influence on western medicine if not for the Cold War? The answers to such questions are impossible to know but still worth considering. For given its early promise it is inconceivable phage therapy would not have been more widely and seriously explored if d’Herelle’s research had taken place in different, more stable environments.

The issue of context is also important when considering the fate of phage therapy in an era characterized by the overuse of antibiotics. Is the relegation of phage therapy to the margins of science indicative of its therapeutic limitations?  Or did phage therapy’s promise become a moot point with the ascendance of antibiotics?  These sorts of questions are no longer simply academic. For all of our enhanced medical understanding, the threat of communicable diseases to human populations has only waned, not disappeared. Since their discovery and development, antibiotics have been regarded as the great equalizer. For a long time this has been true. It is less so today. Antibiotics, despite their impressive record in treating bacterial infections and diseases, are subject to a single profound limitation. They are static. Bacteria, by contrast, are dynamic; they evolve in response to threats. This elementary truth is the underlying source of the growing emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Phages, like their bacterial counterparts, are similarly dynamic and are thus not subject to the same limitation as antibiotics. Phage therapy, from this perspective, may yet prove to be crucial to stabilizing our relationship with disease causing organisms. If so, it will act as further proof that d’Herelle was a scientist well ahead of his time.

[1] A.A. Fletcher, “Notes on the Treatment of Bacillary Dysentery,” The Canadian Medical Association Journal, July 1917, p.1094

[2] Carl Zimmer, A Planet of Viruses, University of Chicago Press, p.36

[3] Abedon et al., “Phage Treatment of Human Infections,” p.67.

[4] William Summers, Felix d’Herelle and the Origins of Molecular Biology, p.48

[5] Carl Zimmer, op.cit,  p.36

[6] William Summers, pp.125-126.

[7] Abedon et al, “Phage Treatment of Human Infections,” p.67.

[8] Abedon et al, “Phage Treatment of Human Infections,” p.69.

[9] Abedon et al, “Phage Treatment of Human Infections,” p.66.

[10] See also Carl Zimmer, A Planet of Viruses, chp 4 for an extended discussion on the disagreement between Bordet and d’Herelle.

[11] See Abedon et al, “Phage Treatment of Human Infections.” The report in question is the 1941 JAMA Review by Krueger and Scribner. The report, according to Abedon et al, “reflected a singular lack of care in researching the available data, if not outright personal bias in the conclusions.” p.71. It’s worth noting that the damaging effects of this report were most acute in the US.

[12] Carl Zimmer, A Planet of Viruses, p.37.

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