John Ralston Saul’s Dark Return to Fiction

November 2, 2012 12:00 pm
John Ralston Saul

On October 28, Canadian author, essayist and public intellectual John Ralston Saul spoke to a full crowd at the Knox Presbyterian Church as part of the 2012 Ottawa Writers Festival fall line-up. Saul, who is known for his celebrated novels and essays, being twice elected as the President of PEN International, and his marriage to former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, came to the Writers Festival to speak about literature, Canadian and global politics, and his newest novel, Dark Diversions: A Traveller’s Tale (Viking Press Canada), his first fictional work in nearly two decades. After his appearance at the festival, Ottawa Life Magazine got a chance to talk with Saul about his new book and his thoughts on the role of the writer.

Speaking about his hiatus from the world of fiction, Saul said he’s “always had these ideas about Canada and I needed to write them,” but they could not be expressed in fictional form. Through his essays and non-fiction books, Saul found himself in a period of transition from “writing novels to influence people” to “explaining ideas” directly to his audience. Saul described his earlier non-fiction works, like Voltaire’s Bastards (1992) and Reflections of a Siamese Twin (1997) as “half critique and half proposition,” while his later works, like On Equilibrium (2001) and A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada (2008), offered him a chance to share more singular arguments about his own propositions for Canada and the world. Saul believes his essays and the open discussions he’s held have “opened a door for the return of the oral argument,” an art form that helped define Canada throughout its history, but has nearly been lost in the present day.

To Saul, fiction and non-fiction writings are part of the big puzzle. “Philosophy has always been like fiction . . . [because] novels contain the ultimate truth.” For this reason, Saul has always seen himself as a novelist first and foremost. “Every day of my life, I think that I need to be writing novels. Eventually, I felt it was the right time to come back to the novel, which unlike non-fiction, allows you to create this world that people can find themselves in.”

During his absence from the world of fiction, Saul became president of PEN International, a global community of writers who promote freedom of speech and help free imprisoned journalists and authors. Through his role as PEN president, Saul has travelled the world and worked with publicists, academics, prominent writers and world leaders to promote the organization’s cause and raise awareness and sympathy for unjustly incarcerated writers.

Through his travels, witnessing a wide variety of social spheres and community classes, Saul found the inspiration for many of the characters in Dark Diversions, his first fictional work in 15 years. The narrator, whose name and identity are left unknown through most of the book, chronicles a series of stories while he moves among aristocrats in America, elites in Europe, and dictators in the developing world. He chronicles the passion, malaise, depression and self-destruction of the upper classes as he witnesses murder, infidelity, attempted suicide, the double lives and broken lives of the privileged persons and plutocrats in the highest echelons of society.

Dark Diversions is in part a continuation of the themes of Saul’s last novel, De si bons Américains, a black comedy about elites. Saul didn’t think Dark Diversions “would be so dark” when he started writing it, but the book’s use of composite and pastiche characters based on real-life personalities Saul has encountered led to the dark comic and ironic tones that reflect the present era. “I like black comedy,” Saul said. “[Dark Diversions] is funnier and darker because this is an era for dark comedy. When you look at something like the recent financial crisis and how the very people who started the entire collapse were rewarded for what they did – that’s comedic in a very dark way.” Saul believes that while events like the economic crisis of 2008 are not funny in a serious way, they are in part “comically serious.”

Saul took many real-life individuals he had met and transformed them through the novel. “I used, and I don’t want to call it the ‘lens’ of fiction, but more of the ‘metamorphosis’ or transformation, if that makes any sense. You can tell stories about real people, but through the transformation of fiction, you can really see them. It’s hard to explain, but you can see things entirely differently in fiction.”

Dark Diversions is in many ways a call-back to the early days of modern fiction. “I’ve always believed that the beginning of modern fiction is (Joseph) Conrad. In Heart of Darkness and many of his other works, the narrator is caught… being the witness and not knowing what to do about it. Dark Diversions is in part a picaresque, as the narrator tumbles into disorder, wandering through the different events of the novel.” Yet Saul’s anonymous narrator struggles with his place among the desperate and melancholic people he encounters and what he chronicles starts to affect him in tangible ways. The trials of the narrator reflect Saul’s own thoughts on how the author and the novel should interact. “Novels are driven by something… very muscular in society. When you’re writing a novel, you can’t just rely on the character of the narrator driving the novel.” To Saul, “a good novel allows you to enter in and control a world,” while the novelist disappears to allow the reader to experience the reactions of the characters personally.

In Dark Diversions, Saul’s narrator attempts to stay distant from the people he encounters, taking the time to observe but rarely interfere with the lives of the rich and influential. Saul wrote his narrator to be more distanced partially in reaction to what he saw as a growing trend in contemporary fiction in which the narrator is presented as more important than the plot. Saul saw many instances where the author uses the character of the narrator for wish-fulfilment purposes, in both detective novels and serious fiction. To Saul, this trend of the authors confusing themselves with their narrators and personally intervening in the events of the novel is very “pornographic.”

“I never liked novels where the author gets in the way… the author takes readers to a place to peek in on the action, without any consequences. I believe the author should take the reader to a place to go in and feel those consequences.”

Saul thinks authors invade their works in fiction and non-fiction. “There is a big confusion about how do you establish what truth is, and in non-fiction, many authors try to marshal facts to prove things; this doesn’t answer the real, big questions because you can prove almost anything with facts.” Saul believes that in relying solely on facts, writers create what he calls a “false neutrality,” where the author attempts to look unbiased, but still displays a prejudice through the information that is presented. “I believe an argument has to hold its own. Facts are just illustrations. I don’t rely on facts in my writing, but I still use them. In writing non-fiction, you have a role of getting the reader to think about how ideas work, not just telling them how to think.

To Saul, fiction and non-fiction writing is an important part of being human. “I don’t think novels and essays are that different. (A book) is the most powerful weapon. The first time a child discovers he or she is an individual is by reading a novel.” The biggest threat to a person’s identity is the removal of those works and the silencing of the freedom of expression that comes through writing.

As President of PEN International, Saul has been working tirelessly to promote freedom of expression on a global scale. PEN is currently working on the Declaration on Free Expression and Digital Technology, which will be released shortly. The Declaration is an attempt to generate a consensus among writers and governments about restrictions imposed on online interactions. “The digital world has created all sorts of opportunities, but we’ve seen an explosion in government security forces observing people through the digital domain.” In many countries, governments do not need judicial permission to obtain private information online and use it to convict and imprison their own people. “Governments are now getting an enormous amount of detail without this permission. We’re seeing this all the time with people constantly prosecuted over what is digitally published.”

Saul and PEN are very concerned about the dangers that could arise if the restraints on what governments should have access to go unchecked. “If you look at the victories that have been won for freedom of expression in the last 100 years, most of them have been lost in the past 20. The question needs to be asked, ‘Do we have to have rules to define what is acceptable and unacceptable?’ and [the Declaration] is an attempt to do that.”

Saul cited the example of Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 for his defence of human rights in China and was imprisoned for his activism. The defence of his cause on the internet, as well as any online mentions of him or his work, have been entirely censored in China. Xiaobo’s imprisonment is not only an example of the repression of free speech, but of the failure of the Chinese government to address the nature of digital publication. “You need to read the case [against Xiaobo] to see how the Chinese government interprets what it thinks the internet is,” Saul noted. “We aren’t just defending journalists, authors and members of PEN anymore. Whether you’re a Nobel Prize winner or a volunteer announcer at a community radio station, and everything in between, we are here to defend your rights.” One of the most important things is for PEN to “not be divided by authorities attempting to make judgments on what a bona fide writer is.”

Saul firmly believes that free expression is not simply exercised by writers. “Freedom of expression belongs partly to the writer and partly to the reader. When you read something out loud or share it with friends, that is an example of freedom of expression.”

John Ralston Saul’s new book, Dark Diversions: A Traveller’s Tale, is available now in bookstores everywhere.



Well, That’s The Kind of Life It’s Been — Lloyd Robertson at the Ottawa Writers Festival

October 30, 2012 11:20 am
Lloyd - Featured image

On October 26, Knox Presbyterian was filled with people excited to once again hear the familiar voice of former CTV News chief anchor Lloyd Robertson. Robertson appeared to do a talk about his impressive career as the longest-serving news anchor in Canadian and international history. Over his 59-year career in broadcasting, Robertson has covered Expo 67, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the death of Princess Dianna, Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope, the September 11th World Trade Centre attacks and the War in Afghanistan, as well as numerous elections, referendums and Olympic events. Robertson has also won the Order of Canada and was the first journalist to be inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame.

In spite of his impressive accolades, Robertson focused his talk on his own personal journey. He joked about being in a church as a “slightly lapsed Presbyterian.” Robertson then read an excerpt from his new book, The Kind of Life It’s Been (HarperCollins Canada), which is about the trials of growing up with a mother who suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness and a father who had severe stomach disorders. Robertson shared personal anecdotes about his “dreary home life” and the images of hospitals “forever etched in [his] mind.”

Despite the morose aspects of his upbringing, Robertson explained that his early life experiences gave him a deep compassion for the sick and unhealthy, and a “lifelong commitment to help those with mental illnesses.” On stage, he recalled one of the most memorable things his father said to him about the mentally ill: “You’ve got to learn, boy, that these people deserve a life too.” Those words have stuck with Robertson to this day, influencing him throughout his lengthy career to approach all those he encounters with sympathy and compassion, regardless of their physical or mental predispositions. Robertson’s book is dedicated to his father, who taught him the importance of wisdom and compassion.

Early on in his life, Robertson felt a pull towards broadcasting. “News was always an interest of mine,” he told the audience. “As a child, I knew the names of all the local radio personalities.” In school, Robertson asked his teachers if he could read the public announcements every day, and later became the narrator for a number of school plays to work on his voice projection. He started his broadcasting career working for his local Stratford radio station, CJCS, but quickly moved up to CJOY in Guelph. He started working for the CBC in Windsor, but was eager to move to Toronto, which was “the apex of quality in [the] industry at the time. One you’d got there, you’d made it.”

Robertson worked as an announcer for CBC in Toronto until he began encountering difficulties with the corporation. Not being allowed to edit his articles, Robertson became frustrated because he “could report, but couldn’t write.” Eventually, he was offered a new position at CTV, but was still conflicted over leaving, due to his loyalty to CBC and its broadcasting mission. However, CTV gave him his first opportunity to go out in the field to write and broadcast his own reports, and Robertson stuck with CTV for 35 years.

Robertson talked about the challenges of maintaining a “public personality” while on the air, which sometimes conflicted with his true feelings on a subject. Robertson talked about the difficulty of reporting on 9/11, which was one of the most memorable days of his career. Robertson recalled being woken up early in the morning by a call from his boss, saying “Get your pants on, Robertson, turn on the TV and see what’s going on.” He rushed to work and got on the air to report on the attack, trying to channel what Peter Jennings described to him as “an absence of emotion” in order to keep composed. “There are some moments when you have to remain composed,” Robertson said, “but you instinctively know when you reach your audience emotionally.” Robertson remained emotionally stoic in public until three days later, when he attended the memorial service on Parliament Hill. Robertson described the absolute silence of the crowd and how it caused him to weep for the first time since the attack.

After a lengthy career working in radio and television, Robertson retired in 2011. As he described it: “I wanted to get out while the voice was intact and the looks were relatively still intact.” Robertson described feeling simultaneously grateful and saddened on his last day at CTV. “There was a sense of emptiness during my last broadcast, but I certainly don’t miss being there at 11 o’clock every night.”

Reflecting on his career, Robertson concluded that there was very little he would change. He regrets never attending university, yet “working in news, in a lot of ways, was like getting a Liberal Arts Degree. I was never held back in my career because I continued to learn on the job.” He always felt at home in broadcasting, and turned down the offer of a Senate seat. “I had fought so hard to be this newsperson who spoke from outside all the political parties… I wanted to maintain the independent voice of the service.”

For Robertson, the independence that comes from journalism is essential. He briefly discussed the problems of the all-news channels in the US and how they confuse people by intermingling talk shows with news broadcasts. According to Robertson, politicians and pundits are given “the bias of their choice,” leading to polarization full of “rants, but no talking.” Despite this growing trend, Robertson maintains hope in the tradition of the professional news broadcast. “There will always be room for the professionals. People always need reliable sources to know what is really going on. People are smart enough to know that what they get [on all news channels and the internet] is just gossip.”

 Robertson’s memoir, The Kind of Life It’s Been, is now available in bookstores everywhere.



New Children’s Book Takes Readers on Arctic Adventure to Discover Polar Bears

October 5, 2012 6:08 pm
Michelle Valberg

A one-of-a-kind children’s book takes readers on a captivating adventure to Canada’s Arctic.

Ben and Nuki Discover Polar Bears, written by nationally renowned photographer Michelle Valberg, tells the story of two boys – one from the south, the other from the north – as they learn about each other’s culture, embark on a northern adventure, and discover one of Canada’s most majestic animals – the polar bear.

Photographs of the Arctic, taken by Valberg, provide a stunning backdrop to Ben and Nuki Discover Polar Bears.

“I wanted to bring the beauty of Canada’s north to life for children across Canada, and abroad,” said Valberg. “The landscape, its people, and its animals are all absolutely breathtaking. I wanted to share this with children in a way that captivated their attention and took them on an exciting adventure.”

Already, the charming tale of the two young boys and their northern adventure is gaining traction in Canada’s literary world.

“Unique, spectacular photos of polar bears, Arctic life, and the true friendship between young Inuit Nuki and southern boy Ben… this is a delightfully informative story for children around the world,” said Dorris Heffron, the Canadian-based author of City Wolves.

This is Valberg’s first children’s book. She has previously self-published two books, Look Beyond… The Faces & Stories of People with HIV/AIDS and Dare to Dream… A Celebration of Canadian Women.

Proceeds from the sale of the book will support Project North – a not-for-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the lives of Inuit children by providing sporting equipment and educational opportunities to youth in northern communities.

Founded by Valberg in 2009, Project North has successfully delivered more than $350,000 of hockey equipment to 14 Nunavut communities, with nationwide support and recognition. Chris Phillips of the Ottawa Senators has acted as the organization’s Honourary Captain since its inception, and earlier this year, Project North was thrilled to welcome Laureen Harper as its Honourary Co-Chair.

Valberg’s book was released October 16th, 2012 and can be found at the locations listed here:

For more information about Ben and Nuki Discover Polar Bears, contact: Jennifer Stewart at; 613.401.1097 or visit and


The Facts About Writing Fiction

August 10, 2012 4:05 pm
BigStock OnceUponATime

A good writer creates a short story or novel based on what he knows – what he has experienced. Something in his past or present state of affairs affects him deeply. The story he writes may be about a person that has made some kind of impact on him – not just a family member or friend but a stranger, as well.

Sometimes, writers see a face and create a character behind that person. For example, a woman I once saw standing at a bus stop interested me. My imagination went into full gear, and out popped a short story. It was called The Powder Case. This story introduced a woman in her eighties, who while applying her makeup in the bathroom, passes out for reasons not told – until the end of the story. The reader may think she has died – until her husband gets to her in time. It is a study in character that expands into themes of love and devotion. There is a fair bit of suspense and irony.

This character was named Mrs. Jilasi. The simple act of seeing this little old lady at the bus stop triggered a story that resonates with readers. When I read it at a writer’s club two months ago, we discussed its impact. How could a piece of fiction be so real, and why did it hold interest for listeners? After much discussion, we concluded the story involved health, a near-tragic incident, relief and love. These are themes that come into everyone’s life sooner or later. These listeners felt emotionally invested in Mrs. Jilasi. They also wanted to hear what the outcome would be and how the plot twists would resolve.

A piece of fiction must include more surprise than predictability, and create believable characters we understand and embrace.

A piece of fiction must include more surprise than predictability, and create believable characters we understand and embrace. We may love or hate these characters, but it is crucial that as character development occurs, we recognize their humanity. They must seem real. We react to their emotions and experiences, even cry, as one listener did during my reading of The Powder Case. This listener empathized with the situation, along with the vanity, anguish and love that defined the actions in the story. She said it was so real. Yet, it was pure fiction.

This can often run a writer into danger. If the novel is about characters or events within a family context, a reader can assume it is biographical in nature; a family member or friend can take the story to be about them. They are right in so far as some aspects of their lives may have provided the story seed.

I have written a story based in a real setting and on a relationship about siblings. Only one element in the story is true; the rest is fiction, formed by a multitude of brain synapses throwing up mental images and emotions that live in a writer. A writer can reinvent reality as real events and people known to him become morphed into a new reality – shaped anew by the mysterious talents and ideas percolating in his brain. Mixed into a boiling pot, these disconnected fragments are formed into a fluid piece of poignant fiction. But here is the real truth: most writers wing it as they write. The characters take on a life of their own as do the events.

Writing is not for control freaks.

Writing is not for control freaks. You have to let it all happen; you are the conduit through which the story is created. You are the stylist and ‘plot chaser’, for often the plot runs away on you, guiding you, and that is magical.

Some writers have no idea how the story will end. The creative thread of words flows to create a tapestry of truths that are all fictional. So, if someone ever tells you he is in the novel you have written, you can reply by saying: “Thank you for inspiring me to mutate you into something you never were or will be with events that never happened or will happen.”

The fact is great fiction confounds; fact and fiction blur into one.

To the Sea, a Book Review

August 8, 2012 5:54 pm

Beyond the Blue Horizon: How the Earliest Mariners Unlocked the Secrets of the Oceans

By Brian Fagan

Bloomsbury Press, 2012, 313pp.

Newfoundland and Labrador 1700: in the morning dawn, boat crews are setting off the southeastern coast for another day of cod fishing. The water is calm, the skies clear. The fishermen travel steadily out to sea before bringing their vessels to rest. Hand lines are tossed into the water, the tips covered with squid or capelin, the favorite bait used to draw cod close to their boats. The fish are plentiful, which is why these sailors originally made the long voyage across the Atlantic to the shores of Newfoundland. Towards the day’s end, storm clouds drift across the sky. Before long the winds pick up, the sky darkens and the ocean swells rise to formidable heights. A dense fog falls like a curtain over a stage. The landscape, previously visible in the distance, is now impossible to see through the thickening mist. Boats are filled with cod, but the journey back to shore will be difficult to navigate through the gathering gloom. A single wave could topple a boat. Most will make it back, but some will perish at sea.

This is the sort of story Brian Fagan likes to tell in his latest in a long line of remarkable books, Beyond the Blue Horizon: How the Earliest Mariners Unlocked the Secrets of the Oceans. The stories are more often than not imagined. Fagan masterfully paints scenes depicting life thousands of years ago. Other stories are of his personal adventures on the high seas, which he’s experienced in seemingly every part of the globe. Whatever the type of story, Fagan’s telling of it is always infused with a sense of joyful discovery and is designed to transport the reader to a particular time and place. Once there he draws on his encyclopedic knowledge of history, climate and anthropology to explore the questions and themes at the heart of the book. How and why did the earliest human civilizations engage with the oceans? To use Fagan’s own terminology, how did ancient civilizations ‘decode’ the oceans’ secrets? How did communities learn to travel enormous distances on water with nothing remotely resembling modern technology? Fagan’s answers are fascinating and very much in keeping with the underlying theme of so much of his work. Climate is the key to understanding the nature of a civilization’s relationship to the sea. Indeed, perhaps better than any other living writer, Fagan makes the case for climate as a vital and sometimes decisive factor in human history.

Climate is the key to understanding the nature of a civilization’s relationship to the sea.

The monsoon system dictating weather patterns off the Indian coast provides a dramatic example of how climate shaped early civilizations’ ability to engage with the sea.  Fagan demonstrates how predictable monsoon generated trade winds made traveling to distant shores possible. Understanding the monsoon winds meant the ability to time the length of return journeys. By 2000 B.C.E. travel originating on India’s west coast was common, but was largely in response to Mesopotamia’s demand for vital commodities. Mesopotamia was without the sort of timber required for the construction of vessels capable of long distance travel. Timber as well as gold and certain foodstuffs were thus among the commodities arriving on ships sailing from the Indus Valley. The strength and the predictability of the monsoon winds also meant ships traveling from India reached far down the East African coast, otherwise known as Azania. Contact would typically lead to trading relationships. Africa was rich with commodities – ivory, timber and iron ore among them. Timber was especially valuable to peoples inhabiting semi arid and often treeless regions. Another effect of ocean based trading was to better connect interior and coastal areas and to foster density in coastal towns. Fagan refers to Shanga, Manda and Ungwana as Azania based coastal towns that might have had as many as 10,000 inhabitants. As he remarks, they acted as “ports of call for oceangoing dhows engaged in the monsoon trade.”

The type of conditions that drive the monsoon winds are in stark contrast to those that prevail in the north west Pacific, where the Aleutian islands are to be found off the coast of the Alaskan Peninsula. The islands are often characterized by their gray, austere beauty. Water this far north is frigid, wind and storm patterns unpredictable. Distant travel like that facilitated by the monsoon winds in the Indian Ocean would be precarious and unadvisable in these waters. Such conditions dictated the manner in which the communities living in the region engaged with the sea. Aleutian crews rarely went too far off shore. Exploratory voyages were uncommon. Yet, as Fagan wonderfully illuminates, it is here that the earliest mariner communities were to be found. Fresh water lakes in the area featured plentiful marine life. Boats were ingeniously crafted out of available raw materials and were designed to accommodate the ice laden waters. These were largely treeless environments, with the exception of driftwood. But even driftwood was in short supply, which meant it had to be slowly collected over time. The hulls of the vessels were made of sea lion hide and sea mammal bones. The vessels were thus flexible enough to absorb collisions with ice and light enough that they could be easily transported on land. Fagan tells the story of the Aleutians beautifully.

Author Brian Fagan

For all of Fagan’s remarkable learning, however, there was a curious omission from his analysis. He promises to describe “how the earliest mariners uncovered the secrets of the oceans.”  Yet much of what he writes describes why mariners uncovered those secrets. In many cases, the reasons were to meet the human needs for commodities and food and to satisfy the basic human impulse to explore. But answering the question why is not the same as answering the question how. To be sure, Fagan does address this basic question by documenting the types of vessels used on the high waters.  But what about those systems of knowledge that allowed mariners to navigate treacherous waters over vast distances? Fagan himself, for example, refers to the incredibly elaborate and subtle knowledge system the Polynesians developed to travel enormous distances on the Pacific. The swell of waves would yield vital information about approaching weather. The night sky was a map used to guide them to distant shores. Bird flight patterns were used to gage distances. Fagan’s passing reference is not, however, the prelude to any sort of detailed overview. Nevertheless, this omission hardly detracts from the quality of the book.

In the end, adaptability is the theme that binds together the vast array of human communities Fagan investigates in Beyond the Blue Horizon. Even in the most severe environments, these communities and civilizations were able to skillfully and ingeniously engage with the sea. In the book’s final chapter Fagan ruminates on a potential paradox relevant to our own time. Does our relentless drive to master the oceans ultimately compromise our ability to understand the sea? The question seems counterintuitive. Fagan’s point is that supertankers and cruise ships are designed to distract and disengage passengers from the sea. But like those on the Titanic, feeling totally immune from the sea’s unpredictable and unforgiving nature puts us at risk of underestimating its extraordinary powers. Although fascinating, this question strikes me as less important than others that might be posed, especially given Fagan’s subtle understanding of climate. For it is the potentially accelerated pace of climate change that may render us unable to adapt to the sea’s changing conditions. How, for example, will coastal communities adapt to an accelerated rise in sea levels? The question highlights an elementary truth: land and sea are intimately interconnected and thus changes to one will have echoing effects on the other. Fagan makes clear that many ancient civilizations treated the oceans as another part of the landscape they inhabited. It is a lesson we would be wise to remember.

Living In the Past: Review of The Chemistry of Tears By Peter Carey

July 4, 2012 9:00 am
Chemistry of Tears

In an interview at this year’s Toronto Luminato Festival the author Peter Carey suggested that in many ways we’re still living in the 19th century.

The remarkable technological advances that were cause and consequence of the industrial revolution did not, in the 19th century, produce any real awareness of their long term implications for the planet’s health. On the contrary, technology combined with the facile promise of endless economic growth was to be our salvation. Carey went on to remark that most writers at the Wall Street Journal today still think this way. For the benefit of his Canadian audience, he could have said the same of The National Post and The Globe and Mail. There is still little sense, in other words, that our ceaseless preoccupation with technology and growth is today producing potentially dire consequences for the planet.

The climate crisis is among the themes in Carey’s latest novel, The Chemistry of Tears. The peril in which the planet finds itself serves as a backdrop to the story of the novel’s two main characters, one from the 19th century and the other living in the present.

The peril in which the planet finds itself serves as a backdrop to the story of the novel’s two main characters.

Henry Brandling is a 19th century Englishman whose daughter has died from illness and whose son may suffer the same fate. His marriage is buckling under the strain of their shared loss. In a desperate bid to save both his son and his marriage, Henry sets off for Germany in the somewhat strange hope of finding a German clockmaker who will build an automaton in the form of a duck. He is convinced the duck will help to restore his son’s health and redeem his wife’s love for him.

Catherine Gehrig is the novel’s other main character. The story begins with her grim discovery that her married lover and colleague of many years has died suddenly. She is overwhelmed with despair and an unanticipated loneliness. No one, or so she thought, knew of their affair. So she is left to endure the pain of his sudden departure alone. She cannot even attend his funeral. But one sensitive colleague at the museum at which she works knows of their relationship and understands the depth of her grief. He takes it upon himself to ensure she will have a productive distraction to help get her through the dark days ahead. The distraction is in the form of a project: reconstruct the automaton that Henry endeavored to have made for his sick son so many years ago. The past and the present are thus linked and much of the novel is an attempt to explore their complex connection.

The discovery of the automaton includes Henry’s detailed account of his travels. He kept a diary, documenting not only his progress, but his love for his son and his hopes to renew his wife’s love for him. There is something quietly heroic in the way Henry carries himself. The notion that an automated duck would do much to save an ailing child might, at first glance, appear Quixote like. But Carey’s aim does not appear to have been to create a delusional character. On the contrary, he strikes the reader as well grounded even as he encounters a strange, unpredictable and occasionally threatening array of Germans in whom he must place his trust. In any case, Catherine grows obsessed with Henry and to a lesser extent, his ailing son.

It is on this level that the novel works best. The written word is a source of mysterious power connecting the two characters over space and time. Henry’s diary – written more than a century earlier – not only survives the past but acts like a bridge to it. Reading of Henry’s lonely quest stirs to life a complicated set of emotions in Catherine. The diary doesn’t relieve Catherine’s pain: she remains distraught, vulnerable and irritable throughout the entire novel. Nor does it always inspire noble impulses: Catherine jealously guards the diary from other inquiring minds. But it somehow leaves her feeling less isolated in the world. “I sought Henry, Henry alive, good-hearted Henry. How essential was his company in this endless night. I read. He wrote.”

That the written word is a source of mysterious power is to be expected in a Carey novel. He is regarded by many as one of the greatest living novelists in part because of his inventiveness with language. He writes concisely, but playfully and often beautifully.

 Their door might spring open, slamming rudely against the wall, and next would appear that wheaten-haired child, laughing, hippity hoppity. I confess it hurt my heart. Soon I would observe him from a window, leaping across the fallen stooks, like a lucky hare recovered from the trap, speeding strangely across the harvest stubble, on his way to places I could not pronounce. He was surely an immensely clever, little fidget, returning with his oily secrets wrapped in handkerchiefs or rags.

Lovers of Carey’s prose will not be disappointed with his latest offering.

Lovers of Carey’s prose will not be disappointed with his latest offering.

In other ways, the connections Carey establishes between the past and present are less satisfying, at least for this reader. The death of Catherine’s lover occurs on the same day as oil begins to spread like a cancer in the Gulf of Mexico. Catherine occasionally refers to London’s blistering late April heat. In another passing reference, the reader learns drought is threatening parts of Africa. To be sure, in works of fiction no explanation is required for these sorts of oblique references. Yet one feels that there is a point Carey is attempting to convey, but what is far from clear. Is it that we are still living in the 19th century insofar as we still don’t appreciate the extent to which the climate is in peril? Or is that the technological boon that took off in the late 19th century has led us to the point of crisis today? Others will insist Carey deliberately and necessarily leaves any such questions unresolved. They too would have a point. It would be in keeping with one of the character’s embrace of ambiguity. We must learn to live with ambiguity, Catherine’s boss Henry Croft, reminds her as she struggles to make sense of her life. Not every question can be answered, not every mystery is meant to be solved.

Covering Humanity at War

May 15, 2012 9:05 am
Nahlah Ayed Penguin/Jet Belgraver

Nahlah Ayed will never forget the day she looked into the eyes of death.

She stood still, the gun pointed at her. The man was ready to shoot her. She stood on a street in Iraq and kept repeating that she was just a journalist, she was just doing her job. A foreign correspondent with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Manitoba-born Ayed says if journalists claim they are not scared to report from war zones – they are lying.

One has to be brave, Ayed says, to report from the front line. She still can’t forget the stories she has covered, the images she has seen: mass graves of people who were lined up and shot, Iraqis digging amid piles of dead bodies, hoping to find their loved ones.
And that day when the suicide bomb exploded, the day when amidst panic and people dying, Ayed and her cameraman were beaten and separated in the crowd; the day when Ayed luckily escaped her death from the gunman. These memories still haunt her.

That day, CBC News called her and asked if she would go on the air to tell her story. Ayed, beaten and bloody, refused to go on the air. Ayed says the tragic event was not about her – the story was about Iraqis who died and were wounded: as was the case on a regular basis, ever since the war started.
“Because around me, I saw hundreds of people die on this day – and I got a bloody nose and some bruises… so what?,” Ayed says.

Thousands Farewells

Journalists – who travel around the world and witness wars, death, poverty, injustice and corruption – are reluctant to insert themselves into the story. Yet, after seeing so much blood and horror, Ayed discovered that writing a memoir became her revelation, a form of therapy to help her cope with her horrible experiences as a foreign correspondent reporting from hot spots for over a decade: Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Israel, Palestinian territories, Haiti and Pakistan. The book has surprised her family and friends, because Ayed kept so much to herself for many years.

“While I was writing this book, I realized that it affected me far more than I admitted to myself, writing helped me to deal with that,” Ayed says. “In a memoir, it is appropriate to talk about your story, but it’s still uncomfortable. I didn’t even want my picture on the front cover.”

In the book, she could tell a more profound story than just hard news. Ayed wanted her readers to understand that politics and people are separate. This book is about her life and about people for whom war is not an evening news item, but reality.

By writing a book, she also wanted to break a common stereotype that the Middle East is just a violent part of the world, Ayed says. It is also a region with beautiful nature, and with welcoming people who want nothing but peace.

“People over here are unaware of it, partly because of the way the media covers it. When you see Arabs on the news, it’s usually [mobs] denouncing the West,” Ayed says. “Extremists and politicians get all the attention. Regular people are lost in the shuffle. So, I think, there is a misunderstanding. Arab people are very warm.”

As Ayed recalls the Arab uprisings, her eyes shine. She says it was one of the best stories she ever covered – the opportunity that comes “once in a lifetime.” She was “so lucky” to be there “because I watched the Middle East that was so stagnant show signs of change. It gave me goose bumps the whole time I was there.”

There is still a long way to stability for the troubled region. But seeing hope in the eyes of protesters who have been repressed for many years under authoritarian regimes as they find courage to voice their dissatisfaction and show their resistance, inspires Ayed to keep doing what she does well – to report from the front lines.

Many people who watch news broadcasts from the comfort of their couches don’t realize how hard it is to be a journalist nowadays. Sometimes a journalist is a reporter, a translator and a cameraperson. Yet, despite everything, Ayed says she is destined to be a foreign correspondent.

“It’s an addiction to be on the road, it’s a way of life.”

Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery, and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age

May 3, 2012 5:40 pm
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Today Vincent Van Gogh is everywhere. Prints of the Dutch master’s most famous paintings adorn student dormitories, living rooms and cafes.  Many paintings feature the moon and stars or the sun hovering over landscapes. Van Gogh’s ubiquity, however, has undermined our appreciation of his role in helping us understand some of the last century’s most painful chapters. Why then did a painter who died in 1870 exert such a profound influence on our understanding of the 20th century? What accounts for the enormous appeal of his work? These are among the questions that run through Modris Eksteins’s wonderful new book, Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age. In exploring them, Eksteins tells the story of not only Van Gogh but Otto Wacker as well, a German who in 1932 was tried and convicted for peddling Van Gogh forgeries. Both men in their own way yield profound insights into the zeitgeist of Europe in the opening decades of the last century.

Solar Dance is interesting in part because it’s so hard to classify. The book is part biography, part cultural history and even part mystery. Of the two men at the heart of Eksteins’s study, Van Gogh’s story is the more compelling. As Eksteins wonderfully makes clear, Van Gogh’s life was characterized by poverty, isolation, estrangement and eventually madness. He fell in love with different women, only to be rebuffed at each turn. Friendships were volatile. As the story goes, he cut off his own ear. Although why he did so or how exactly it happened remains in question, the incident is clearly rich with symbolic possibilities. The most interesting offered by Eksteins is that Van Gogh’s successful attempt at self mutilation reflected his identification with victims of Jack the Ripper, who at the time was terrorizing London. Jack the Ripper mutilated his victims, many of whom were prostitutes. In keeping with his life as an outsider, Van Gogh sought intimacy through his relationships with prostitutes at a local brothel.

Modris Eksteins

Outside of that local brothel, Van Gogh’s art became his refuge. He writes to his brother about only feeling alive when he was engrossed in his work. He relished the opportunity to walk seemingly endlessly with his paint brush and easel. Some of his most famous paintings feature exaggerated images of landscapes bursting with colour. Yet his immersion in his art might also have accelerated his descent into madness. He not only allowed his health to deteriorate, he believed that doing so heightened his experience of painting and ultimately the quality of his work. Moreover, although his art is priceless now, it brought little re-numeration to him while he was alive. Van Gogh died poor, his work only dimly appreciated by a precious few.  Why was this so? Ekstein locates the Expressionist school – of which Van Gogh was its most vital member – as a response to the perceived limitations of Impressionism.  The impressionists put a premium on ‘precision and detail.’ Van Gogh and other Expressionists were less interested in faithful depictions of the natural world and more committed to exaggerated images as a way of the “mind exercising its autonomy over the experience of nature.” His art also constituted a form of ‘spiritual rebellion’ against the growing dominance of science, law and other sources of authority. Van Gogh, according to Eksteins, both personally and through his art anticipated the storms gathering over Europe.

Otto Wacker, for his part, was somewhat of a chameleon. He dabbled in dance and art and was gay. He created a sensation when he claimed to have in his possession an extensive series of hitherto undiscovered Van Gogh paintings. A Russian fled Bolshevik Russia with his treasure trove, or so told Wacker to the rest of the art world. The mysterious Russian entrusted Wacker with the paintings on the condition that his identity never be revealed. Throughout his trial and the rest of his life, Wacker insisted his story was true and that he would never reveal the identity of the Russian in question. It was thus impossible to verify. Various experts had sharply conflicting opinion as to the authenticity of the paintings Wacker sold to unwitting buyers. In the end, he was convicted of fraud and sentenced to two years in prison. But the origin of the forgeries has never been definitively determined. Who painted them?

Van Gogh's Self Portrait

Has Eksteins stretched too far the apparent connections between this case and the turbulent times in which it unfolded? He insists it is symptomatic of the much wider malaise characteristic of the times. Wacker’s scheme typifies, according to Eksteins, a crisis of authenticity. But we are talking about forgery in the pursuit of money – a type of crime that surely didn’t begin in the aftermath of the Great War. As far as criminal activity goes, it seems relatively benign. That various connoisseurs of the art world were confounded by Wacker’s claims may suggest more about the undeveloped science of forgery detection than it does about the crisis of truth in post World War Europe.  Moreover, Eksteins stretches the connection between art and society even further: Wacker’s attempt at forgery anticipates our own culture’s fascination with celebrity and stardom.

Nevertheless Eksteins skillfully creates a sense of dread when he places Van Gogh’s work and appeal and Wacker’s attempt to profit from it in the context of the day. Van Gogh was Dutch, but his initial rise in influence and popularity happened most dramatically in 1920s Germany. According to Eksteins, his appeal had as much to do with his lonely, marginalized existence as it did with his art. Germany was suffering through the aftermath of the Great War and the Treaty of Versailles that was its most consequential outcome. The economy was in tatters, much of the country in ruins.  People increasingly identified with those living their lives on the margins of society. Otto Wacker – among countless others no doubt – was prepared to find innovative and shadowy ways to survive. Apparent truths were shattering all around. Authority was collapsing. The climate was one of uncertainty and foreboding. As Hitler’s rise makes clear, people were susceptible to messages of hate and intolerance as a way of restoring a lost order. In telling this part of the story, Eksteins shows he’s a master at tracing the connections between culture and the political currents that led to some of the previous century’s darkest episodes.

Van Gogh's Sower

Although the world is now a much different place, the modern condition remains one of flux and impermanency. In many key respects, truth remains elusive.  There are countless numbers of people, like Van Gogh, who suffer from loneliness, estrangement and mental illness. Unlike Van Gogh, their art isn’t something in which they can take refuge. Similarly, Otto Wacker’s willingness to redefine himself anticipates the very common inclination today to do the same. But that prospect no longer inspires existential dread. Both men, from this perspective,   anticipated the future, but it’s Van Gogh’s ghost that haunts us still.   

Book Review: Behind The Bank Counter

May 2, 2012 8:55 am
You Can Bank on That

Brian L. Coventry’s You Can Bank on That: The Early Years, a second sequel to the author’s first book Adopted at Age Four, will give its readers a perspective on how the credit business operates inside and out.

In this book, the main character Leslie Swartman – – who was previously bounced between foster families, at last adopted by a good family – – starts working in the Canadian banking system.

It’s late 1960’s. Leslie is just out of high school, works as a sales representative for the shoe company. But for Leslie, it isn’t the job he dreamt about. At last, he sees a job ad for a credit trainee, and encouraged by his friend, he applies for the job. Without any higher education, but being able to relate to his previous experience,  Leslie gets the job.

As Leslie climbs his career ladder, he becomes friends with the managers of big Canadian banks. They share with him stories that will make you laugh and think. With Leslie, the reader will witness conversation at the workplace; and even more – those that are held behind the closed doors.

You Can Bank on That: The Early Years was released in February.

Coventry is a Canadian author, a retired bank manager with over 40-years experience in the banking system. He owns a mortgage consulting business and is actively involved in the community. Now, Coventry is  writing a third book for this sequence.

192 pages, ISBN  9781467849333, AuthorHouse 

Sin: The Russia You Never Knew

April 24, 2012 9:17 am

Book Review by: Damira Davletyarova 

Zahar Prilepin’s  book Sin is a collection of short stories written in non-chronological order. Yet, by the end, they merge into a full complex picture, giving the novel its unique form. The main character of the stories is Zahar, who incidentally, has the same name as the author. Zahar lives in the post-Soviet Russia – in a broken country, one involved in the war with Chechnya and struggling to keep its unity. People are impoverished, unemployed and angry.

Amid chaos, instead of complaining or joining criminals, Zahar keeps his human dignity and integrity. He enjoys what he has and life as it is. He loves and is being loved. For Zahar, under the veil of male toughness and physical strength, there is also a caring and tender heart.

SIN. Photo from Amazon

Sin builds Zahar’s compassion right from the beginning. In the first chapter, for instance, Zahar takes out the last remaining egg, some milk from the empty fridge, finds flour in the kitchen cabinet and makes pancakes in order to feed four abandoned puppies that live outside of his apartment.

In the various stories throughout the book, readers will journey with Zahar from his childhood to his eventual adulthood, which helps to both shape the character and endear him  to his readers. In the last story, however, Prilepin’s character is unable to escape grim reality, and sadly he embarks on a journey as a soldier in the Chechen war.

The book has shaken the Russian literary world with a bold and honest description of post-communist Russia’s past, becoming a national bestseller. Sin, has already earned multiple literary awards. This April, Canadians will be able to discover the Russia that they never knew existed.

Prilepin is a renowned Russian author, a publisher, a journalist and a political activist. In the past, he served as a soldier in the Russian Special Forces in the anti-terror campaign in Chechnya. Prilepin is happily married and a father of three sons. He lives in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia.

Sin is now available on Amazon; the Russian version of the book can be ordered from the author’s website  at zaharprilepin.r

A True Story of Marriage Fraud and Justice Found

April 6, 2012 8:35 am
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Lainie Towell’s new book How to Catch an African Chicken – A Canadian Woman’s Outrageous but True Story of Marriage Fraud could be making history. Towell’s ordeal prompted Immigration Minister Jason Kenney to get cracking with new marriage fraud laws.

The story begins in 2004, when Ottawa dance artist Lainie Towell traveled to Guinea West Africa and fell in love twice. First with the country’s dance, and then with a Guinean drummer named Fodé Mohamed “Akra” Soumah. After several trips to Conakry, a few bouts of malaria, countless hours apprenticing in an African ballet, and some visits to a witch doctor, Towell and Akra got married. She then sponsored him to come to Canada. Twenty-nine days after he arrived in Canada, Akra disappeared. It seemed he had gotten what he wanted from the marriage – his Canadian permanent residency status.

Lainie Towell

Refusing to remain a victim, Towell took matters into her own hands. She launched what would become an international media campaign and exposed her broken heart – along with Canada’s lax immigration laws – to the public. When a Canadian Border Services Agency enforcement officer saw her story in the news and launched an investigation, Towell discovered first-hand that one woman’s courage and tenacity can help change the system.

Towell’s book reveals the painful human story behind immigration marriage fraud. It has been suggested that Towell’s efforts to bring attention to the issue may have contributed to tighter laws currently being introduced in Parliament by Minister Kenney. The proposed changes would require spouses to live with their sponsor for two years after receipt of their permanent residence status. Failure to do so could result in losing that status, and possible removal from Canada.

How to Catch an African Chicken is now available electronically on Amazon for Kindle, and at Smashwords in several popular e-book reading formats including for IPad, Kobo, Sony, Nook, PC’s and most e-reading apps.

Visit for links to where you can buy the book.

Book Review – Civilization: The West and the Rest

February 10, 2012 9:23 am

The combination of economic stagnation and political paralysis in both America and among European Union member countries makes any book about the fate of the West timely reading. The potential for western civilization’s slow demise is one of the themes of Niall Ferguson’s latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest. But Ferguson is a historian and so before he explores the West’s future fate he sets out to explain western dominance over the past 500 years or so. Why was it, Ferguson asks, that a continent comprised of small, conflict-ridden states was able to spread its dominion over the entire planet? His thesis is that western power can be traced back to a set of advantages, competition, science, property, medicine, consumption and the work ethic.

Ferguson’s analysis is occasionally compelling, especially when he discusses the important differences between 15th century China and Europe. As he explains, following centuries of innovation, China ceased sea voyages of exploration and instead sought to establish ‘internal harmony.’ A centralized authority combined with the absence of external threats eliminated the sort of incentives that might have propelled further exploration and innovation. In Europe, by contrast, it was precisely the lack of political unity and the constant threat of war that created the conditions for military, scientific and navigational advances. China stood still. Europe set out to see the world and this, Ferguson contends, made all the difference.

Author Niall Ferguson

For all his learning, there are some serious flaws with Ferguson’s analysis. The most obvious is that western dominance would have been impossible without conquest. Any credible historian wouldn’t dare deny that imperial Europe conquered and brutally subjugated different peoples. Ferguson is no different, but he underestimates colonialism’s importance and repeatedly comes perilously close to rationalizing this endeavour. He does so overtly when he suggests that colonization inspired vital advances in the understanding and treatment of various communicable diseases and therefore improved health among colonized peoples. But he does so in a more subtle way by not really engaging with the history of those continents – North America and Africa especially – prior to their first contacts with the West. Ferguson’s story is therefore more than a little one-sided and is reminiscent of those history books that treat European-discovered continents as little more than blank slates. Yet so much recent historical writing is meant to correct this misperception. Basil Davidson, the great historian of Africa, made it his life’s work to reclaim the continent’s history before its initial contact with Portugal and the long history of colonization and dispossession that followed. As Davidson’s scholarship makes clear, when Portuguese ex-plorers first set foot on Africa’s west coast, the continent was comprised of kings and kingdoms and featured trading relationships between different countries. Egypt was one of the cradles of civilization. Yet Europeans essentially removed Egypt from their understanding of the rest of the continent. The effect was to enable European claims that Africa was “without civilization” prior to their arrival and therefore hardly worthy of independence. Ferguson’s analysis of Africa demonstrates no such nuance.

Is Western civilization in a process of decline?

Is Western civilization, Ferguson wonders in the book’s final chapter, in a process of decline? Here too, Ferguson’s answer is interesting but incomplete. He correctly takes issues with those theories of collapse that insist on a predictable trajectory of rise and fall. Nevertheless, he insists we are witnessing the erosion of the institutions and the ideas that served to give rise to western dominance in the first place. Western governments are bankrupt and fiscally irresponsible. Western consumers are so indebted that there may be little capacity to sustain continued economic growth. The western capacity for hard work and thrift celebrated by the German sociologist Max Weber is waning. Asian peoples, by contrast, demonstrate an unrelenting drive to work hard and save money. Asian students consistently score higher than their western counterparts on science and math literacy tests. Most Asian governments are awash in revenue.

Also available as in audio book format.

Yet Ferguson again underestimates the more fundamental sources of, say, China’s ascendency and the West’s relative economic stagnation. China’s rise and the West’s decline cannot be properly understood outside of the context of globalization. Western governments are heavily indebted, to be sure, but that has much more to do with eroding tax bases and rising costs as with poor fiscal management. China’s workforce does indeed display a heroic capacity to work and save, but China’s sustained growth has as much to do with western industry’s perpe-tual search for cheaper labour. What’s more, conceiving of globalization as an ongoing process allows one to anticipate China’s future challenges. Indeed the country is beginning to contend with some of the same tensions that are more characteristic of western democracies. Workers’ demands for increased wages and better working conditions have started to facilitate the flight of capital out of regions of the country. What happens to China’s export model of growth when the country’s currency rises in value, as it some day must? China, for all of its current advantages, will soon discover more of globalization’s discontents.

Civilization: the West and the Rest by:Niall Ferguson is available through The Penguin Press, 2011, 402PP.


A Dragon’s Persuasion: Book Review

January 25, 2012 4:30 pm
Arlene Dickinson

Back in November, Arlene Dickinson was in Ottawa to launch her new book, Persuasion: A New Approach to Changing Minds. Although I unfortunately missed the book signing event, I did rush out to buy a copy and devoured each page.

A mother of four who values family above all else, Dickinson is better known as the CEO of Venture Communications and is the only female entrepreneur on CBC’s Dragon’s Den. It is in this role of co-host that she has won over many Canadians who now revere her as a business icon and a national treasure.

The book explores Arlene’s theory that success is a direct result of your ability to persuade an audience, whoever that may be. Despite her lack of formal education, the evidence throughout the publication is tangible and convincing because it is based on her own life, business experiences and overall success, which certainly speaks for itself. Arlene embodies motivation and perseverance. At the age of thirty-one, she was newly divorced, battling for custody of her children while living on her father’s couch. One year later she was a partner at Venture Communications, one of Canada’s most successful marketing and communications firms.

Book Cover

Dickinson advocates authenticity and integrity, whether you are a homemaker or a CEO, and shows how principled persuasion can help get you where you want to be in your professional and personal life. She admits that her unwillingness to stray from her core values may translate into some lost opportunities to make more money, but is proud that the success she does relish has been achieved honestly and without compromising her integrity.

The first part of the book is based in common sense theories and the advice seems somewhat self-evident to any reader who respects basic ethics. However, as you progress into the second half, this female dragon shares concrete tips and methods to: approach an employer about a raise or promotion; pique the interest of prospective business investors; seize the possibilities put before you; learn from your mistakes; and, achieve success.

My favourite parts of the book were Arlene’s personal experiences (she shares many); especially her father’s teachings recounted through the narrative, referred to as ‘commercials’. For instance, he reminds her to appreciate where she is at any given moment instead of always having her mind set on the future. A profound teaching imparted during their move from South Africa to Canada when she was only three years old. Clearly these nuggets of wisdom were well-integrated into her intellectual makeup and have contributed to her own prosperity.

Dickinson advocates authenticity and integrity.

Despite the book’s lack of ground-breaking revelations, what makes Arlene Dickinson’s approach to business attractive is her belief that as in business, so in life. There exists no false front when it comes to Arlene and she advocates the same authenticity for her readers.  Many lessons in the book are those we could benefit to learn as individual parts of a societal whole, such as reciprocity. Meaning, you must not solely focus on what you have to gain from any given situation, but instead should present an argument in a way that proves advantageous to others. Other teachings are as simple as listening to (and truly hearing) what people have to say and using each encounter as an opportunity to learn and grow.

Overall, Persuasion is an inspiring book that will teach you that success in business is within your reach because it has so much to do with common sense. Dickinson’s writing and tone are familiar and comfortable and deliver a clear message to her readers: your dreams are within your grasp if you can master the art of principled persuasion. We are all capable of that.

Persuasion: A New Approach to Changing Minds, Dickinson, Arlene, Collins. 2011.

Adrienne Clarkson: Room for All of Us

January 10, 2012 9:29 am
room for all of us

In her latest book, Room for all of Us, Canada’s former Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson, shares her poignant views on immigration, displacement and belonging. The novel follows the lives of ten extraordinary individuals, revealing some of the most harrowing experiences in their journey to get to Canada.  The book shares their arrival and ultimately their success. An immigrant herself, Clarkson provides encouraging and optimistic stories of struggle and survival from the perspective of some remarkable people who have come to transform our nation despite their hardships. Room for All of Us is an intimate and insightful narrative, reflective of Canada’s rich immigration past and present.

Adrienne Clarkson. Photo: Calgary Herald

Recently I had the chance to sit down with Ms. Clarkson and discuss the motivation behind her work. When asked what inspired her to write a novel about the Canadian immigration experience from the perspective of others, Ms. Clarkson revealed two specific reasons for writing Room for all of Us. First, after writing her autobiography, many people approached the author about the extraordinary nature of her life story. “I thought right away, well no, it’s not that extraordinary but there are people who have had the most extraordinary experiences in our country and I wanted to tell some of them!” she claims. Seeing as Clarkson knew most of the people already, she decided to put together a collective of the most unusual and inspiring tales from some of these remarkable individuals.  Moreover, Clarkson felt identification with these people, that on many levels they were not only just like her but their lives somehow overlapped.

The second inspiration for her book came out of her identification with loss, shock and brutality. As Clarkson points out, “I lived through a war, where we lived we were afraid. All of those were common things I really understood.”  She goes on to note that without the stories of people’s struggles it is hard to understand the peace of Canada, which we are so fortunate to have. What’s more, with so many overlapping immigrant experiences, there is a sense of commonality between the people that help shape and transform the Canadian landscape. When asked why she chose the specific group of individuals who appear in her book, Clarkson didn’t hesitate and responded: “as you know I’ve had a long career in television, then I did a lot of public service, then I was Governor General so I wanted to cover certain events in the world that had brought us immigrants, but these people all had to be living.” Essentially, her book details specific world events that brought people to the Canadian shores.

“I wanted the readers to feel as if I was telling them a story.”

Throughout the book, the author makes references to various tragic events, including the Holocaust, the Vietnam War and the Exodus from East Africa. When asked about these, Clarkson points out that these events were especially important not only in transforming the world but shaping Canada as a nation.  She states,  “at one point, I said to myself, ‘well I have got to cover this’ because I noticed how they (immigrant communities) are adding so much to our Canadian communities.” More importantly, however is the fact that each of these individuals comes out of a situation where Canada has had some sort of involvement, as a result, the author’s main goal was to try and “show the human side of each of these altercations.”

Although the book does a great job in providing a comprehensive sample of individuals from varying backgrounds, I wanted to know who was missing from the narrative. Clarkson felt that there were many voices she could have included, for example survivors of the Rwanda genocide, but she “wanted to make the book very readable to people, something that you could pick up and you would understand.” What she really wanted was for her readers to feel as though she was “telling you their story.” She is adamant about the fact that the book is not a history book, or an academic look at immigration but rather it is about an extraordinary group of people and “how they opened their lives to me (Clarkson) and I was able to tell their story.” And that certainly comes across in the book.

Room for All of Us is available at all major bookstores across Canada.

Book Review: Winter ~ Five Windows on the Season

November 24, 2011 4:35 pm

Winter: Five Windows on the Season, by Adam Gopnik • Anansi Press, 2011, 256 pgs.

Some of the finest days occur in the month of October. Warm, golden days are typically followed by cool nights. Green landscapes are transformed into beautiful combinations of red, orange and yellow. But the beauty of fall brings with it the promise of an infinitely more challenging season, winter. Not long after the leaves have fallen and the trees are bare, much of Canada will be contending with winter’s deep freeze. The further north, the more bitter the cold, the shorter the days and longer the nights. Another flu season will render many sick and listless and longing for the warmth of summer. Yet for all of winter’s challenges, there will be compensatory pleasures. The hockey season will be in full swing. As we move into the heart of the season, kids will not only play the game in indoor rinks, but on frozen ponds under clear skies. Others will find joy in skiing down a snow-covered mountain or across snow-filled trails. Families flock to the Rideau Canal, stopping their skate only to line up for a hot chocolate or a beaver tail.


As Adam Gopnik’s book Winter (and this year’s CBC/Massey Lectures) makes clear, winter is at once a season of struggle and joy. Yes winter is a period of sustained darkness and biting cold. But for Gopnik, who was born in Philadelphia but raised in Montreal, few images resonate more strongly than of kids playing hockey on frozen ponds as dusk falls on a cold December day or of scenes of families huddling by the fire, while frost builds on the windows. The images are familiar but call to mind separate pleasures. There is the experience of winter outdoors – playing hockey on the outdoor rink or trudging through the snow – and the joy of warmth when outside is freezing and streets are covered in ice. We relish both kinds of winter experience.

But if this were all Gopnik celebrates, the choice of winter as the theme of this year’s CBC/Massey Lectures would have been odd. Indeed, Gopnik’s aim in part is to delve more deeply into our experience and understanding of the coldest season. In doing so, he moves back and forth through time and examines winter through the lens of poets, painters, novelists and musicians. Many of the ideas and images we associate with the season are familiar, even to those who don’t live in a cold climate. Others are not obvious at all and it is these that give the book a depth and intellectual heftiness that we expect from a writer of Gopnik’s calibre. He writes, for example, of winter’s connection to German art and the country’s nationalist ambitions in the 18th century. Embracing winter’s severity, we are told, was part of Germany’s response to the exaggerated promise of the Enlightenment emanating from France.

Moreover, our experience of winter is perpetually changing, sometimes subtly but occasionally in a truly profound manner. The combination of urbanization and technological change has allowed more of us to remain removed from the cold. As Gopnik explains, Montreal is increasingly comprised of two cities, one above ground and the other subterranean. People can walk nearly twenty miles underground, access hundreds of shops and most of the city’s business area and the Metro without having to walk outside. As much as we may love winter, in big cities especially, we are constantly and often ingeniously searching for ways to experience it from a position of warmth and comfort. Such efforts are understandable but still may leave us nostalgic for a time in which winter was more deeply experienced and fully embraced.

"I wish I had a river that I could skate away on."

Indeed the connection between memory and winter is a theme that winds its way through the entire book. Occasionally, the insights this connection yields strike the reader as arbitrary or forced. Is winter really, as Gopnik contends, the season we most readily associate with memory? Nevertheless, that connection seems strikingly prescient in the book’s final chapter, in which Gopnik discusses the growing threat of global warming. Winter, he suggests, is a season from which we often attempt to escape. But for many of those that find refuge in the south, the memory of winter often reveals an unexpected attachment to the season. Gopnik occasionally refers to Joni Mitchell’s classic song “River,” in which she sings in a voice rich with longing and melancholy. “I wish I had a river that I could skate away on.” As the planet warms, winter will increasingly become the season for which we long. To be sure, it’s premature to speak of winter’s disappearance, but hardly premature at all to insist anthropogenic-induced climate change threatens winter as we know it now. Glaciers are melting, the ozone layer above the Arctic Circle is disappearing and winter temperatures are gradually inching their way higher. No one knows for certain the long-term implications of unsustainably high green house gas emissions, particularly for a country as big and geographically varied as Canada. But by anticipating the potentially dire consequences of global warming, Gopnik’s ode to winter is, by the book’s end, a beautiful lament for that which is slowly being lost.

Evolutionary History: Uniting History and Biology to Understand Life on Earth By Edmund Russell

September 13, 2011 11:09 am

Book by:  Edmund Russell (Cambridge University Press, 2011, 216pp.)

Reviewed By: Don MacLean

To the untrained eye, it may appear impossible to see evidence of the evolutionary process in the world around us. All animals and plants are born and live whatever life they have before passing on. Human beings may have evolved from our distant ancestors, but where is there evidence that we are still evolving in any discernible fashion? Despite the fleeting nature of all life, the forms living beings assume can appear fixed. A horse is a horse. A tree is a tree. A person is a person. Similarly human beings exert a staggering influence on the planet’s environment, but evolution does not appear to be part of that ongoing process. The study of ecology sheds light on how the environment is changing, but typically underestimates or ignores altogether the role of evolution in facilitating change or as an outcome of such change. It’s as though evolution either occurs outside of history or not at all (as creationists would have us believe). Yet, as biologists will tell you, there is evidence everywhere of evolutionary processes subtly but often profoundly shaping the world. We just need to look more closely.  In learning how to do so, it is useful to re-examine how evolution has shaped history.

This, at least, is the underlying theme of Edmund Russell’s book, Evolutionary History: Uniting History and Biology to Understand Life on Earth. Agriculturally, technologically, economically and politically: virtually every large scale human endeavour, according to Russell, has evolutionary impacts not only on humans but on the natural world. The book is rich with examples. Consider the fate of elephants in Zambia, Africa. It used to be that the vast majority of elephants had tusks, with good reason. For an elephant, tusks were extraordinarily useful. They helped the creatures dig for water in dry landscapes. To use the biological term, “natural selection favoured tusk bearing.” Yet towards the end of the 20th century the majority of elephants living in Zambia were without tusks. Why would the elephant species develop without tusks when for centuries natural selection dictated the opposite? The answer is that elephants with tusks were ruthlessly hunted and killed in order to serve the demand for ivory. Elephants without tusks thus began to have a much higher survival rate than those with tusks. This example also points to the role of the state in shaping the evolutionary process. Zambia’s state exercised very little control over elephant hunting and thus did nothing to stem the near elimination of tusked elephants.

By contrast, the Canadian state’s more active role in regulating the hunting of bighorn sheep rams has shaped the evolutionary process in a less predictable fashion. Canadian authorities understood that hunters of the bighorn sheep in Ram Mountain, Alberta desired large horns above all else. In a bid to manage the species’ survival, the government established a minimum size limit on the sheep that could be hunted. The inadvertent outcome of the state’s efforts was to selectively favour those bighorn sheep rams with smaller horns. More of the smaller sheep survived and thus the likelihood that the genetic trait dictating small horn size was also more readily passed down to offspring.

By reasserting humanity’s central role in shaping the evolutionary process, Russell raises questions that are not merely of academic interest. To begin with, our attempts to minimize the spread of communicable diseases can facilitate the resistance among those pests (like the malaria carrying mosquito) and infectious organisms (such as the malaria plasmodium, which causes malaria) that together spread infections. As Russell demonstrates, insects and bacteria and other such organisms are very well suited to thrive in the game of evolution. They generate many offspring, thereby increasing the odds that genetic traits conducive to survival in the face of threats are passed down. They can also readily adapt to different habitats.

Conversely, many other species have been driven to extinction because of the combination of the human impact on their environment and their relative inability to evolve quickly. Millions of buffalo used to roam the Canadian prairies. Railroad construction then rendered human mobility across the landscape much faster and more efficient. As European communities moved further west more and more of the buffalo’s terrain was used for agricultural purposes. Moreover, the proliferation of guns made entire herds of buffalo easy targets. The buffalo, for its part, had no evolutionary defenses to cope with the sudden and far-reaching anthropogenic-induced changes to their environment. Within a few generations, North America’s buffalo population was all but wiped out.  The two examples highlight our power to not only shape the evolutionary process, but to engender unwelcome predicaments. As Russell claims, human beings can inadvertently facilitate conditions conducive to the evolution of organisms we would prefer to do without and the extinction of those species we should want to see thrive. What are the implications of such predicaments? How, for example, should we adapt if antibiotics engender bacterial resistance and thus more virulent and deadly strains of diseases such as malaria or tuberculosis? How will climate change impact the evolution of species? Russell’s marvelous book forces us to consider such challenging questions.

Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind

July 13, 2011 10:20 am

by Brian Fagan • Bloomsbury Press, 2011, 384 pp.

This spring’s flooding of the Assiniboine River in Saskatchewan and Manitoba and the Richelieu River in Quebec has thrust surrounding communities into crisis. The inundation of farmlands has destroyed crops and livelihoods. Homes have been lost. Meanwhile drought along the Yangtze River has made drinking water increasingly inaccessible for millions of Chinese citizens. Although the urgent needs generated by these water-based crises are different, they point to the same conclusion. Despite our pretensions to the contrary, our relationship to water remains precarious and will become more so as the climate changes in unpredictable ways.

Humanity’s relationship with water is the subject of Brian Fagan’s Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind. In keeping with his best books, Fagan cleverly mixes his erudition with beautifully written depictions of life in the distant past. The combination leaves the reader feeling he is on a journey of discovery. We learn how gravity dictates the flow of water and how early human communities devised water diversion schemes that made irrigation possible. We learn of the enormous human toll of past civilizations’ great water monuments and how steam power made water accessible to depths hitherto unimaginable, thereby fundamentally altering our relationship to the ‘elixir’ of life. With the advent of steam power, water was increasingly treated as simply a commodity to be bought and sold and as a resource vital to our mastery over the planet. It is these narrowly defined approaches to water to which Fagan takes serious exception. Indeed the book’s twin themes are that fresh water must be conceived of as a finite resource and our ongoing attempts to achieve mastery over water are doomed to failure. If we are to survive our looming water crises, there must instead be a respect – indeed reverence – for humanity’s most precious resource.

Fagan is most insightful when he establishes the deeper connections between water and the rise and fall of distant civilizations. Throughout history the harnessing of water’s power has been designed to bring more land under cultivation and increase crop yields. As yields increased, so too did populations and population densities, thereby requiring further increases in a landscape’s productivity. But in arid and semi-arid landscapes in particular, ongoing attempts to increase crop yields often imposed unsustainable stresses on both the land and the dependent communities. To take one example, the Sassanian Empire (224 C.E.-652 C.E.) encompassed territory that included Iran, Iraq, much of The Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula, Armenia and the Southern Caucasus. Prisoners of war were used to build irrigation works between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Consequently ever bigger tracts of land were brought under cultivation. As the scale of projects increased, control over them often passed from the village level to more centralized authorities. Responses to any water management crises were thus less nimble and ultimately less effective. Increasing the number of irrigation works eventually produced less drainage. Soils were thus damaged at a time when population densities were increasing. As yields decreased, moreover, farmers no longer had the option of reverting to a more nomadic lifestyle. The results were disastrous. As Fagan makes clear, declining land productivity precipitated sharp reductions in food production and accompanying increases in epidemic disease. Even today much of the land brought under cultivation between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers is salt laden and unproductive.

Fagan’s deep awareness of water’s vital role in any civilization’s fate is what makes the book’s final chapter devoted to our current predicament such compelling reading. Although he talks of having a ‘reverence’ for water, it is rooted not in religion, but rather our looming water related challenges. This is in keeping with the elementary truth preached by environmentalists: we must respect nature’s limits if our civilization is to survive and thrive. There is little evidence, however, that water’s limits are understood or respected. On the contrary, water is still treated as an infinitely renewable resource that should be manipulated at almost any cost to meet human ends. Los Angeles is the archetypical example of a city built using water diverted from rivers and lakes hundreds of miles away. The construction of aqueducts made water diversion and thus irrigation possible in what remains a semi-arid landscape. As Fagan makes clear, however, such increases cannot continue indefinitely. Water tables are falling in, among other places, China, India and the United States – precisely the countries where demand for the resource is accelerating exponentially. The Ganges as well as many of the world’s other great rivers have diminished flows, even as the number of people they serve continues to rise. The Tigris, Euphrates and Nile Rivers are among the river basins in which much of humanity live and which are shared by many countries. Indeed the combination of reduced river flows and growing demand for water points to ominous possibilities. To take one example, Turkey’s plans to produce hydro electric dams using both the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers may seriously diminish water flow and access in both Syria and Iraq. How will Turkey’s neighbours respond? As this scenario suggests, many of the world’s future conflicts may very well be over water.

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