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.

Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont

May 30, 2011 10:06 am

By Joseph Boyden • Penguin, 2010, pp.204

After a night spent alone in mid-May 1885, Louis Riel emerged from the wilderness and surrendered to Canadian military. He was the leader of the Métis rebellion that the government of Sir John A. McDonald was intent on crushing. Riel hoped that voluntarily turning himself over would garner him some goodwill on the part of the authorities. It soon became clear that none would be forthcoming. Following months in captivity he was charged with high treason. The trial was held in Regina even though Riel has asked that it be held closer to home. The judge assigned to the trial was no judge at all, but rather a stipendiary magistrate who has formerly publicly denounced the Métis leader. Instead of 12 jury members, only 6 were picked for this trial and all were white, Protestant males from Ontario, where the Métis had no respect and even less sympathy. Finally, Riel’s defence only had a few days to prepare. The trial’s outcome was thus hardly surprising. Riel is found guilty of high treason and given the death penalty. On November 16, 1885 Riel was hanged.

The fate of Louis Riel is known by most Canadians. Less appreciated is the role of Gabriel Dumont in Riel’s return to Canada from exile and the Métis rebellion that soon followed. In his book Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, the Canadian novelist Joseph Boyden explores these aspects of Riel’s story. In the mid to late 19th century, Canada’s buffalo population was being driven to near extinction. The Métis were thus forced to become subsistence farmers. But the land they were living on for generations was fertile and thus valuable. The federal government would routinely send surveyors west to capture more and more land. Like the rest of the Indian populations, the Métis were regarded as a nuisance to be subdued and certainly not as a people worthy of respect or equality. The Métis, of course, would not prove so easy to efface. Gabriel Dumont was among the Métis leaders. He was strong as a bull, a skilled fighter and fiercely committed to protecting his community from the growing threat from the east. But he realized if the Métis were to successfully defend themselves they would require the presence of their spiritual leader, Louis Riel. And so early one morning in early June 1884, Dumont rode south to Montana, where he found Riel living a quiet life. After careful deliberation, Riel agrees to return from exile.

As Boyden describes, Riel’s role in the Métis rebellion is complicated and contradictory. He was their spiritual leader and thus inspired devotion among his fellow Métis. He believed the path to peace and reconciliation with the government was through non-violence. The Métis demands were, after all, reasonable and fair. They wanted right to the land that they had living on for years. They wanted respect for their culture and they wanted to avoid the conditions of dire poverty that were already starting to afflict native Canadians everywhere around them. Surely, Riel thought, the government would at least acknowledge the legitimacy of their grievances and demands. Surely they would want to avoid bloodshed. Almost up until the day he surrendered, Riel clung to these hopes.

Such expectations were misguided but not necessarily unreasonable. The problem was that Riel was, at the very least, delusional. He believed he was a prophet of a new world and that God spoke to him directly. His delusions compromised his military judgment, but not the support of his community. Dumont is thus torn by the combination of Riel’s exulted status and the questionable direction in which he pushed the rebellion. Should Dumont share in Riel’s faith in God and in the government, despite all the evidence that contradicted both? Should the Métis avoid engaging in military battles with Canadian military forces? Dumont was a brave man, a warrior. His instinct was to fight. He knew better than Riel than to trust the government to negotiate in good faith, or to trust that the military would not ruthlessly crush the rebellion given the chance. But he also believed Riel possessed greater spiritual gifts than he and that Riel’s faith might ultimately prove decisive. Perhaps the Métis were on the verge of establishing a ‘new world.’ Their opposing instincts lead to crucial bouts of indecisiveness on the part of the rebellion. Eventually the Métis were defeated.

Boyden’s first priority in writing this book is to simply tell the story well of these two great men and the rebellion they led. He brings his considerable skills as a novelist to bear on the task. He brilliantly creates a sense of tension and foreboding from the first page onward. The sense that the Métis and the Canadian military are on a collision course is palpable. But Boyden’s aim is also to make the reader reflect on the broader themes of injustice, violence and cultural intolerance the lives of Dumont and Riel touch on. As Boyden reminds the reader, the fate of the two men and the community they led raises questions still relevant in the world today.

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival

March 6, 2011 1:39 am

John Vaillant, Knopf Canada, 2010 • 329pp.

The region is Primorye, located in Russia’s Far East. On a frigid day in the dead of winter, a man is returning to his cabin in the remote wilderness with his dog. The region is populated with Amur tigers, which have an awesome ability to be present without being seen. A tiger’s presence is thus often impossible to detect until it emerges from the shadows to launch a fierce attack. When the man is reported missing, a team of inspectors whose job it is to protect tigers from human poachers, begin a search. The outcome is somehow known in advance. Within hours, the team uncovers the evidence of the tiger’s ferocious power. The snow is bloodstained and human and dog bones are scattered about the frozen landscape. The men fear the tiger’s presence and thus quickly retreat for fear of crossing it again. In the wake of the deadly attack, serious questions must be answered. Why did the tiger attack a person? Will it attack again? The gathering of evidence raises a deeper question still. Why did the tiger intentionally stake out its victim?

This is the event and a sample of the questions it inspired that forms the basis of John Vaillant’s book, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival. A tiger weighing close to seven hundred pounds that can cover fifty yards in a blink of an eye is stalking members of a small community located in one of the remotest parts of Russia. In telling the tale, Vaillant also draws the reader into a world populated with a cast of characters that in so many ways exemplify post Perestroika Russia. The changing relationship between the tigers inhabiting this remote wilderness and the human communities surrounding it begins to shed light on the reasons for the attacks. Many of the men are poor, desperate and fatalistic. The forest for them represents an opportunity to stake out a meager livelihood, sometimes by poaching tigers. The region borders China, where there exists a booming black market for all parts of the great animal. Others are men of enormous physical strength whose professional responsibility is to exercise some state control in a largely lawless region. Alas, they are almost powerless to stop the onslaught. Indeed as Vaillant makes clear, Perestroika was necessary in Russia’s evolution towards a more democratic state, but it also ushered in an era in which tigers have been more easily and ruthlessly hunted. In Russia’s remotest regions, the state’s power and resources are limited and people must find a way to survive in a place with few economic opportunities. The physical climate is almost as unrelentingly harsh as the economic climate. Winters are frigid and summers are scorching hot. Not surprisingly, protecting tigers and other forms of conservation is hardly uppermost in the minds of most of the region’s inhabitants. In such a place, the tiger, for all its power and majestic beauty, barely stands a chance.

Indeed Vaillant’s greatest strength is his ability to create suspense while simultaneously exploring the tiger’s world and the forces fuelling the tiger population’s decline. The reader is drawn to the edge of his/her seat waiting to learn of the tiger’s next attack. The community’s anxiety is palpable. But in recalling that anxiety and the attempts to track the tiger down, Vaillant is always directing the reader towards the larger story of the threat to the Amur tiger as a species. Where there were once many thousands of tigers, there are now only hundreds left. The dwindling of the tiger population, for Vaillant, is indicative of a growing imbalance in the ecosystem and the web of relationships that make up life in the taiga. Tigers help to maintain a balanced ecosystem by virtue of their power. When they kill a predator for food, other animals all the way down the food chain benefit as well. Some readers may feel Vaillant is in danger of elevating both the tiger’s role and its intelligence. The creature acts according to instinct and is not nearly as intelligent or discerning as he or others might suggest. Yet the tiger at the heart of the story clearly demonstrated the sort of intelligence we don’t normally associate with wild animals. It appears as though he stalked his first victim with calculation and patience. In the gathering of evidence, moreover, we discover that the victim in question did indeed poach tigers.

Vaillant is not without hope. If the tiger is to be saved there must be a greater recognition of what might be referred to as indigenous wisdom. Throughout the period of the tiger’s rapid decline, the Udeghe, Nanai and Orachi communities have all served as potent reminders that tigers and humans once peacefully coexisted. There once was a mutual respect. Tigers, they insist would not kill humans so long as humans would not kill them. Humans, in other words, need to better appreciate that ecosystems require balance and landscapes should be shared. Otherwise we run the risk of dominating the tiger to the point of its extinction. n

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

January 6, 2011 4:13 am

Siddhartha Mukherjee • Scribner, Toronto, 2010, 571pp.

In 1961, the multi-drug therapy referred to as VAMP initially showed impressive signs of success in treating childhood leukemia. When given to patients, tumours receded, leukemia cells were reduced in the bone marrow and white blood cell counts returned to normal. Within months of having achieved remission, however, patients would return to their doctors complaining of debilitating headaches and paralysis of the face. Such symptoms were signs the leukemia cells had spread to the brain. Indeed, most of the children died from metastasized brain cancer. The tragic pattern pointed to a vital question: why did the cancer cells metastasize in the brain and not somewhere else in the body? As researchers discovered, there was an evolutionary underpinning to the process of remission and eventual metastasis. Human beings evolved such that the brain was protected from foreign chemicals. The cancer cells were thus using the brain as a refuge from the chemotherapy drugs.

This is but one of many poignant stories of cancer in Siddartha Mukherjee’s magisterial book, The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. The theme that binds together the book’s disparate parts is, in a sense, cancer’s hallmark: success in both our understanding and treatment of the disease has been incremental, temporary and typically accompanied by tragic setbacks. Indeed, even as the scientific understanding of cancer grew more accurate, there remained staggering gaps in our knowledge of how to prevent or treat the disease. Many in the medical community who understood that lung cancer was caused by the uncontrollable growth of malignant cells also insisted that smoking could not possibly cause the disease. Similarly the notion that cancer would metastasize in different regions of the body was poorly understood until relatively recently. This lack of insight meant that many women were pointlessly subject to a radical mastectomy. If the cancer had already spread beyond the breast, mastectomies were effectively useless in treating the disease. Although these gaps have been bridged, many mysteries remain unsolved. Why, for example, do cancer cells ceaselessly proliferate when normal cells do not? Cancer, in other words, remains the most elusive of diseases.

The Emperor of All Maladies documents Mukherjee’s own odyssey as a doctor struggling to understand cancer’s effects on patients and his ability to negotiate the fine line between realism and hope. In so doing, he masterfully draws the reader into the world of cancer. At what point does an oncologist know that therapeutic interventions are pointless? At what point does a patient with incurable cancer resign herself to her inevitable fate? These are never easy questions, especially given the ongoing attempts to develop more effective therapies and the role of hope in prolonging life in the face of mortal illness. Mukherjee tells the moving story of Germaine, an Alabama woman who was diagnosed in 1999 with a gastrointestinal stromal tumour, a rare form of cancer. Worse, the cancer had metastasized to her liver, lymph nodes and left lung. She was informed there were no therapies that might effectively treat the cancer and only given weeks to live. As part of a last gasp effort to fight the disease, she agreed to try Gleevec, a drug that had proved effective in treating acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The effects were immediate and remarkable: the tumours started to shrink and the cancer cells ceased spreading. Germaine achieved remission. Although the cancer did return and Germaine eventually did succumb to the disease, it wasn’t until 6 years later. She didn’t die within weeks of discovering her cancer, as her grim prognosis had promised.

Germaine’s experience is instructive. The most significant therapeutic advances in cancer treatment stem from breakthroughs in our understanding of normal and malignant human cells. Gleevec targets the proteins responsible for activating various growth signals and in so doing has been remarkably effective at negating the cancer cell’s capacity to reproduce itself. As a result, many who suffer from acute lymphoblastic leukemia especially are now in remission. Molecularly targeted therapies have been developed to treat other cancers, with similar results. The drug herceptin, for example, has been enormously successful in treating breast cancer. Yet here too, success has been tempered by the knowledge that some cancer patients grow increasingly unresponsive to targeted therapies. Remission is not always a cure.

From this perspective, cancer and our ongoing attempts to treat it should be conceived as a complex series of constantly evolving processes. As Mukherjee wisely suggests, this necessitates that we re-conceive of the ‘war on cancer,’ particularly of what constitutes ‘victory.’ Genetic mutations are the source of a disease that thrives through the reproduction and eventual spread of the genetically abnormal cells. As normal cells grow and divide, the possibility of such mutations persists. Victory, then, should not be conceived as the elimination of cancer. Instead we could reasonably declare victory over cancer when we’ve reached the point that the disease is no longer a death sentence for those afflicted with it. Indeed for various types of cancer – breast, acute lymphoblastic leukemia, – the prognosis for those suffering from it is often very good. When caught early, extended remission is often the outcome. Although the war on cancer may not be won, there is reason for hope

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right

May 4, 2010 9:22 am

Medicine, like so many other features of modern life, has become exceedingly complex. This has far-reaching implications, not only for how we understand the world but also how we most effectively meet challenges such as those encountered in a field like medicine. Any attempt to respond to complexity will be necessarily multifaceted. One potentially effective tool is deceptively simple: a checklist. This is Dr. Atul Gawande’s thesis in The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. The very idea left me wondering if the book would be worth reading. After all, how can checklists help a hospital overwhelmed with desperately sick patients? How can a checklist help a surgeon when performing a delicate surgery?

The answers to such questions are somewhat surprising, although perhaps they shouldn’t be. For medicine is beset with preventable complications, many of which have profound consequences for both medical systems and for the patients whose care is often compromised. Consider the Leamington, Ontario woman who is currently suing for having a mastectomy done on the wrong breast, or a more common example, patient deaths due to hospital-acquired infections. Moreover, the history of medicine is filled with examples of relatively simple interventions having far-reaching effects on people’s health. Gawande tells the remarkable story of a program carried out in Karachi, Pakistan, designed to reduce the incidence of preventable illnesses such as malaria, pneumonia and impetigo. Soap was distributed to all families as well as a guide as to when people should use it and how. Soap, as it turned out, was regularly used in Karachi but not always when it needed to be. Many people, for example, did not wash their hands with soap before handling and preparing food. It was not so much the distribution of soap that changed all that, but rather the instructions that accompanied it. As Gawande suggests, the instructions constituted a checklist of sorts. The results of the program were impressive. The incidence of malaria, pneumonia and impetigo all decreased dramatically.

Gawande’s celebration of checklists is rooted in a subtle understanding of those social and demographic trends with profound consequences for medicine. This is what gives the book its intellectual heft. Indeed, there is nothing trivial in his assertion that checklists prevent complications and in so doing, save money and lives. As life spans grow longer in developing countries, for example, the types of illnesses and causes of poor health also change. Cancers are more common, as well as other diseases associated with aging. So too do the number of surgeries performed in hospitals. Yet the medical systems in such countries are typically profoundly underfunded and under-resourced. Gawande writes of doctors in countries as far-flung as Ghana who might be responsible for performing every aspect of a surgery, from administering the anaesthesia to monitoring the patient’s vital signs, to fixing the ailing body part. In such scenarios, the likelihood of serious, potentially fatal mistakes increases exponentially.

Yet it would be wrong to assume that checklists could only be useful in developing countries with underfunded medical systems. To make his point, Gawande draws a useful analogy between medicine and the decline of the “master builder” in the building industry. The construction of a modern building is so complex and so replete with the potential of disastrous, life-threatening errors, that no one person could effectively manage such a project — hence the proliferation of specialists who must assume responsibility for narrowly defined aspects of the construction process. Likewise, medicine is often so human health and illness so infinitely complex, that doctors cannot in many instances possibly assume sole responsibility for a patient’s care. To do so could be a recipe for error or missed opportunities for improved care. Thus, among the most important effects of complexity in medicine is a necessary dispersion of power and responsibility. Those involved in the delivery of health care increasingly assume specialized roles. Specialization obviously works to improve the quality of care, but it also creates new opportunities for error and a need for more effective forms of communication. Properly designed checklists go a long way to addressing these twin challenges of modern medicine. As Gawande suggests, they constitute a ‘mental safety net’ and facilitate necessary and productive forms of communication among the various members of a medical team.

Gawande’s two previous books, Complications and Better are both masterpieces of medical writing. In a style that is at once dispassionate, accessible and humane, we learn of individuals struggling to cope with cystic fibrosis, cancer, obesity and many among the myriad of other illnesses to which people are subject. The Checklist doesn’t resonate in quite the same way. There are fewer stories of individuals succumbing to or triumphing over illness. Nor does it have the range of his two previous books but the book is another fine example of Gawande’s clearheadedness and his commitment to both explaining and improving medicine. For these reasons, The Checklist Manifesto doesn’t fail to inspire.

The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World

March 16, 2010 12:00 am

Wade Davis’s remarkable book,The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, is meant, in part, to debunk the antiquated theories of European anthropologists that turned their science into an agent of control over different peoples. Although such theories may seem like relics of Europe’s imperial past, Davis fears their ongoing resonance. Should we not simply allow the accelerated loss of languages that is occurring today? Is this not incontrovertible proof that more dominant cultures are in fact superior to those threatened with extinction? The answer to both questions is an emphatic no, according to Davis. On the contrary, there is much wisdom in ancient cultures.And although Davis celebrates the West’s capacity for science and technological advancement, he also insists that the culture is rooted in a world view that ultimately remains unsustainable. Climate change and all of its fearsome implications are the latest and most dire proof of this unsustainability. The lessons we must learn if humanity is to survive and thrive – that the world’s resources are not infinitely renewable, that the atmospheric conditions that make life possible are held in a delicate balance – were often better understood by ancient cultures.Davis’s book begins with a nod to the past and ends with a sombre but ultimately hopeful nod to the future.

His analysis and prose exude a deep respect for the ancient cultures to which he refers. Some critics will contend that the respect too often runs perilously close to romanticizing the cultures he is describing. There is indeed a romantic undertone to Davis’s writing. He is enthralled by the connections he uncovers between ancient cultures and the wind, the sun and sky and the sea. One senses that Davis feels more at home sailing the Pacific on a giant catamaran than he would, for example, in a big city. Yet this is what enriches both his analysis and prose. The romance, one feels, is what allows him to travel to the heart of ancient cultures and in so doing, uncover many of their brilliant achievements.Their brilliance exposes the lie that such cultures were inherently inferior to that of our own.

Davis’s immersion in Polynesian culture is a case in point. In the 16th century, Spanish sailors could not fathom how the Polynesian cultures they encountered managed to populate multiple islands in the Pacific Ocean, separated by thousands of miles. Their disbelief was rooted in a misunderstanding of equatorial wind patterns, which were predominantly easterly. Easterly winds would have made any attempt to travel to distant islands effectively impossible. The Spaniards, moreover, possessed all the modern tools of navigation, the peoples the Spanish encountered did not. If the Spaniards couldn’t navigate from point A to point B even with the aid of sextants, it was by definition impossible for the Polynesians to have done so.

As Davis demonstrates, however, equatorial winds were not always easterly. On an annual basis, the winds reversed direction and became westerly, thereby making travel possible. This was hardly an astounding insight, even at the time of Spain’s initial encounter with the Polynesians. What was astounding was the Polynesian capacity for navigation. All of the elements – the sea, the stars, clouds, the wind, birds and marine life – contributed to a remarkably subtle and complex navigational system. The shape and colour of clouds combined with their place in the sky were illuminating details for the navigator. Brown clouds foreshadowed strong winds; higher clouds suggested the likelihood of rain. Frigate bird flight patterns helped to determine proximity to land. Constellations were maps stored in the mind. Individual stars were used as reference points. Different weather patterns were discerned based on water waves. As Davis remarks, most remarkable of all, was their ability to simultaneously integrate all of these elements into a system of knowledge that made voyages of discovery possible. A writer of lesser skill may indeed appear to be peddling nostalgia in celebrating an ancient system of navigation that did not require modern technology. In Davis’s hands, by contrast, the celebration seems entirely worthy. For the Polynesian capacity for navigation remains a remarkable cultural achievement.

For Davis, the lessons of the Polynesians (and the Waorani and Canada’s First Nations) are clear. There are alternative ways of understanding and approaching the world to that of our own. To privilege one approach at the expense of all others is a form of cultural arrogance we can do without. Thus one challenge for secular democratic societies is to meaningfully draw on a pool of knowledge that is more global in scope. This, however, is no easy task. For culture and forms of knowledge are not easily separated. And absent from the many cultures Davis explores are those ideas that form the basis of a liberal, secular society. How, for example, can the forms of knowledge Davis celebrates be incorporated into societies in which the market remains the most important mechanism of change and science remains the lens through which we attempt to understand and change our world? Like many great books, The Wayfinders stimulates many questions for which there are no easy answers.

Leaf through the BIG Book of Canadian Trivia

July 28, 2009 5:46 am

Ottawa author Randy Ray and co-author Mark Kearney of London, Ont. have published their ninth book, The Big Book of Canadian Trivia. The latest Ray-Kearney effort is as a “greatest hits” book that contains the best Canadiana from their previous eight books, plus an astounding amount of new material. In one big book readers will find all the trivia and facts about Canada they need to know: there are stories of important Canadian artifacts and history including what became of Canada’s World War II spy camp. All regions and provinces are covered, as well as important Canadian figures like John Molson, Elizabeth Arden and Russ Jackson. If that isn’t enough there are sections explaining whatever happened to such Canadian icons as the last spike, labour leader Bob White, hockey tough guy Dave “The Hammer Schultz,” the first skidoo, former Ottawa 67 player Denis Potvin, swimmer Marilyn Bell and the first Tim Hortons donut shop. Some items are “classics” while others are little known facts. Approximately 25% of the material has never before appeared in print. The Big Book of Canadian Trivia is published by The Dundurn Group of Toronto. Ray and Kearney have sold more than 50,000 copies of their books. The Big Book of Canadian Trivia is now available in stores and at: www.triviaguys.com .

Art and Politics – The History of the National Arts Centre by Sarah Jennings

4:27 am

Documenting four decades of the National Arts Centre (NAC), Sarah Jenning’s book, Art and Politics- The History of the National Arts Centre, is a real treat for Canadian art culture enthusiasts. The book details the developments of the arts scene in Canada while highlighting the memories of the many participants who contributed to the NAC’s history. In it, you’ll find the stories of the many patrons, performers and board members who supported the NAC through its rough periods and helped in the rebirth of the organization.

Sarah Jennings has spent the last five years sifting through archival material and collecting first person accounts for the purposes of this book. Her work has been highlighted in the BBC, CBC, Wall Street Journal, National Post, Financial Post, and the Globe and Mail. Jennings was a lecturer at the School of Journalism at Carleton University until 2005, and currently resides in Ottawa.

The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and fall of Civilizations

May 25, 2009 5:23 am

Brian Fagan, Bloomsbury Press, 2008, 282pp.

Brian Fagan cannot be counted among those who dismiss the threat of global warming. He understands better than most that warming periods have occurred and that their effects on human societies can be drastic and severe. In his book The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations Fagan examines what historians and archeologists refer to as the medieval warming period, occurring approximately from 800 – 1300 A.D. By examining the relationship between climate and the respective fates of various civilizations, Fagan produces a compelling case for climate change as a vital force in history. His analysis is at once sweeping, subtle and beautifully descriptive. Fagan showcases an encyclopedic knowledge of the relationship between climate and civilizations as disparate as the Mongolian Empire in the Eurasia Steppe, the Maya Empire based in the Yucatan Peninsula and the Inuit based in the Canadian Artic, but draws firm conclusions only where warranted. Otherwise much of his analysis is well reasoned but necessarily speculative. Nevertheless, Fagan demonstrates that slight changes in temperature and rainfall patterns during the centuries in question produced subtle but vitally important changes to climate. More interesting is how climate change up ended apparently stable societies. For this reason, The Great Warming is also a grim warning about the potential consequences of climate change for our own civilization.

Fagan makes clear the effects of the medieval warming period were varied and depended on other climatic factors. In Europe the warming period was characterized by a 10% decline in rainfall and a temperature increase of 0.9 – 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit. The seemingly minor changes had far reaching effects on the overall climate and agricultural production. In Europe, the period was characterized by relatively stable harvests and slightly warmer winters. This combination was conducive to a period of population growth and the accelerated formation and expansion of towns and cities. As populations increased, more people were engaged in activities other than agriculture. Thus despite the relative stability of the climate, agricultural production was under increasing stress: there were more mouths to feed and yet fewer people engaged in agricultural production. Food shortages remained a constant threat, as well as the social unrest that would inevitably accompany them.

In explaining the interaction between climate and human communities, Fagan introduces the metaphor of the ‘desert pump,’ which refers to the desert’s capacity to draw in animals, plants and peoples during periods of rainfall. The effect of the precipitation is to shrink the desert: plants take root where rainfall occurs, prompting the eventual migration of nomadic populations and their animals. Once the rainfall ceases, the desert conditions return and the nomadic populations are forced to migrate once again. This is why the Eurasia steppe was comprised of populations who were perpetually on the move and perpetually at war with each other over scarce resources. Survival in such unforgiving lands was precarious at any time, let alone during a period of intensified warming.

Indeed, the effects of the medieval warming period were more dramatic in climates of either extreme heat or cold. To take one example, the collapse of the Maya Civilization highlights the vital relationship between climate patterns and cultural and political instability. The Maya civilization was located in the Yucatan Peninsula. Like other civilizations, the Maya were very much attuned to subtle climatic shifts and were thus adept at developing water management strategies conducive to agricultural production. Over the centuries, agricultural production was elaborate and sophisticated enough to help the Maya Civilization build Tikala and other great cities, the eventual effect of which was to expand their population base. Nevertheless, sustained warming eventually produced drought conditions, from which the Maya did not recover. By early in the 12th century most remaining Maya communities were scattered.

By contrast, the warming period created important opportunities for peoples living in the bitterly cold and harsh climates in and around the Artic circle. Evidence suggests that the warming period produced slightly warmer summers in areas as far north as the Beaufort Sea and east through the Canadian Archipelago and Baffin Bay. Water was consequently easier to navigate during the short summers, making possible encounters between different civilizations. Fagan relates how the Inuit came into contact with the Norseman, a people who migrated from Norway down to the Shetland Islands and eventually west to Baffin Bay before settling in Greenland. The Inuit had established trading relations with other peoples and were less insular then other groups inhabiting the harsh landscapes of the Canadian north. Indeed both the Inuit and the Norsemen craved what turned out to be a mutually beneficial trading relationship. The Inuit possessed ivory and the Norsemen iron. The Norsemen needed narwhal and walrus ivory to pay as tithe to the Norwegian Church. But a prolonged period of intensely cold winters and summers in the mid 14th century served to sever the connection between the Norsemen and Norway. The Norsemen migrated to the south of Greenland and the trading relationship with the Inuit collapsed. It is one among many fascinating stories of climate change Fagan tells in this remarkable book.

The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World

March 24, 2009 8:10 pm

The current U.S. originated housing slump and subsequent global recession has exposed the extraordinary extent to which the world is connected through money. The housing market was the basis for a sustained period of economic growth, most especially in the U.S. but in most other advanced capitalist countries as well. Home ownership dramatically increased, one effect of which was to propel the growth of home building related industries. As demand for homes accelerated, so too did the increase in their value. Meanwhile wages and money earned by a growing portion of homeowners remained stagnant. This was the first sign of a flaw that would eventually strike at the heart of the industry: many people were buying homes that they could not really afford. In such a scenario if a homeowner lost his or her job, the capacity to pay their monthly mortgage payments was lost and foreclosure the likely outcome. However, the value of that home would not necessarily fall. If millions of people, however, undergo the same downward spiral of job loss and home foreclosure an additional consequence will be the collapse in housing values. The viscous spiral is then intensified. A shrinking job market and growing unemployment depresses the market for homes further. Shrinking demand, in turn, further depresses housing prices. Fewer new homes are thus built and fewer renovations of existing housing stock are undertaken. With so much of the economy tied to housing, the industry’s collapse still ripples far and wide.

Notwithstanding our collective capacity to forget, this sort of boom and bust cycle is hardly unique. There are, however, added elements that have intensified the scope of this particular economic crisis. In his new book The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, Niall Ferguson writes of a growing disconnect between ‘planet finance’ and ‘planet earth.’ The disconnect in question revolves around the increasingly sophisticated tools of financial engineering used by lending agencies and investment firms to transcend the conventional economic cycle and thereby generate profit and minimize financial risk. Witness the accelerated growth of the ‘subprime’ housing market. Mortgage lending agencies and banks were financing mortgages to homeowners with stagnant incomes and poor credit histories (often with initial tantalizing low interest rates, followed by unsustainably high rates) and in turn packaging those loans and selling them as “collateralized debt obligations” (CDOs) to other agencies the world over. Indeed pension funds, banks, and municipal governments in places as far-flung as Iceland and Norway used CDOs as investment vehicles. It was a financial engineering model predicated on the perpetual rise in home values. No one it seemed – certainly not on Wall Street – pondered the simple question: what will happen if home prices start to fall? Contrary to the promise of arcane formulas used to generate staggering profits, financial risk had been spread far and wide. When the house of cards did finally fall in the U.S. much of the world fell with it.

Although Ferguson repeatedly highlights the role of such crises in the evolution of finance, money’s ascent continues unabated. In explaining why, The Ascent of Money expertly traces the development of the first banks, the introduction of bonds and the creation of companies and stock markets. But Ferguson’s greatest strength is his ability to uncover the hidden relationships between money and a country or region’s political evolution. To take one example, he tells the story of how England’s strategy of using the bond market to finance their military effort was a decisive factor in their ultimate victory over France during the Napoleonic wars. Nevertheless Ferguson’s judgment must sometimes be called into question. To take another example, he comes perilously close to rationalizing Pinochet’s authoritarian rule in Chile for nearly two decades. Pinochet, it will be recalled, orchestrated the coup against the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in 1973. According to Ferguson, the state of Chile’s finances is sounder today than it would have been had Allende been allowed to rule.

Ferguson ultimately insists that money is a progressive agent of change. His thesis is seemingly confirmed through simple comparison: societies, where money assumes a minimal role or is non-existent, are closed, authoritarian and fail to meet the basic material needs of its citizens. North Korea comes to mind. In the wealthiest societies, by contrast, money is the fuel driving the economy and improving living standards for the vast majority of citizens. Ferguson’s contention, to my mind, only points to a partial truth. Money is so much more than its conventional definition would suggest. As Ferguson demonstrates, it is indeed a source of liberty: those who possess it are often able to pursue dreams and live life with a quiet dignity. But one does not need to be a Marxist to recognize that the profit motive can fuel greed and exploitation. Similarly, one does not have to be Christian or otherwise religious to know that money can drive individuals to evil. Money, from this perspective, is many things at once. Ferguson’s book, for all its learning and erudition, only begins to uncover money’s mysterious power.


A Place Within: Rediscovering India

January 13, 2009 6:14 pm

In November a group of gunmen launched a series of coordinated attacks on both civilians and foreigners in Mumbai, India. In the end, almost 200 people were dead, hundreds more were injured and Mumbai itself teetered on the edge of chaos. The attacks were devastating but hardly novel. It was only in 2006 in Mumbai that seven bombs laid on train tracks went off simultaneously during the afternoon rush hour commute, killing hundreds of innocent civilians. In both instances much of the subsequent analysis focused on the terrorist nature of the attack: the 2006 bombing campaign had all the hallmarks of an Al Queda operation, while November’s attack was most likely carried out by Lashkare- Taiba, a terrorist organization based in Pakistan. According to the one gunman caught alive, their aim in killing as many people as possible was to ‘free’ Kashmir from Indian control. In any case, both attacks lay bare a series of stark truths: communal violence remains distressingly common throughout much of India and relations between India and Pakistan remain in a heightened state of tension.

The November attacks also shed light on the type of city Mumbai has become — frantic, overcrowded and unequal. The concentration of financial power in Mumbai has accelerated its transformation, physically, politically and socially. More wealth has been created, to be sure, but so too has inequality and sometimes wrenchingly difficult forms of dislocation. The majority of peasants who migrate from the rural areas become members of the city’s underclass. As for the burgeoning middle class, a majority are still forced to live in shacks in communities so dense it is likely impossible to have sex without neighbours hearing. For most people living in such a city, personal and financial freedom must be a tantalizing but elusive dream. For all of the city’s undeniable dynamism, it remains an oppressive place for too many of its citizens.

From this perspective, it is perhaps not surprising that many Indians choose to leave their country in the hope of creating a better life elsewhere. Yet most Indians who do leave likely remain deeply attached to their country of origin. Their ambivalence is understandable. M. G. Vassanji, a Canadian writer of Indian descent, is acutely aware of India’s ongoing painful transformation. In A Place Within: Rediscovering India, Vassanji writes of a series of journeys back to the country of his ancestors. The book is vast in scope: it is at a once a travelogue, a history of India and a meditation on the type of country it is and aspires to be. For this reason, reading A Place Within is occasionally tedious but ultimately rewarding. Vassanji documents the rise and fall of past rulers. He laments India’s pervasive violence and the injustice of the caste system. However, he also describes the beauty of traveling through India on overcrowded trains and celebrates the country’s burgeoning self-confidence.

Vassanji’s story resonates most when he writes of India’s independence in 1947 and Partition. India and Pakistan’s subsequent relationship has been characterized by lingering, simmering tensions that occasionally spill over into full-blown violence. Vassanji’s odyssey strikes the reader in part as an attempt to seek wisdom where the perpetual conflict between the two countries is concerned. The section in which Vassanji describes meeting Kushwant Singh, one of India’s greatest writers is certainly a highlight. Although very old, Singh remains a free spirit and is said to love the company of women. He also understands the vital role tolerance must play if Pakistan and India are to ever amicably settle their profound differences. More interesting perhaps is Singh’s contention that the unspeakable violence and the wrenching dislocation due to Partition has never been sufficiently acknowledged or memorialized by either country. For example, there are no museums documenting the period. There has thus been no attempt at a collective catharsis. The resentment between the two countries thus festers and is indeed intensified after every outrageous act of violence.

Elsewhere Vassanji describes talking over tea with an elderly and humane couple, the wife a painter and the husband a famous Hindu writer. The quiet and spacious setting in which Vassanji finds himself is in stark contrast to the images of dense streets and cities with which we associate India. Before long the discussion settles on the familiar themes of communal violence and the cynicism among India’s rulers. Both scenes call to mind the theme that binds together the book’s disparate parts. To use Vassanji’s own term, in India one must prepare for the darkness even amidst the country’s ‘warm embrace.’


A Short History of the New World Order

November 24, 2008 11:03 am

Barack Obama has been elected president of the United States. This is an extraordinarily important achievement, both for the man himself and the country as a whole. It remains to be seen, of course, how an Obama administration will address problems that are enormous in scope. America is involved in two wars – one in Iraq, the other in Afghanistan, has a staggering debt and deficit and is in the throes of a recession that shows no signs of abating. However Barack performs as president, his election as the first black man to win the presidency of the United States highlights the potential for progressive change. Obama’s message of change, hope and inclusiveness galvanized a majority of Americans like no other candidate has since John F Kennedy. Hitherto disaffected African Americans (both young and old) were finally able to exercise their enfranchisement in a way that mattered. Racism suffered a severe setback. Indeed, Obama’s victory also signals a willingness on the part of a majority of Americans to atone for some of the sins of their past.

Ronald Wright is no doubt celebrating this development. In What is America? A Short History of the New World Order, the Canadian anthropologist does not provide a definitive answer to the question posed in the book’s title. He insists, however, that if America is to ever realize its full potential it must first soberly re-assess its history. Much of the book is a history lesson meant to debunk the national myths concerning America’s founding. The most persistent myth perhaps is that Native Americans were ‘savages’ requiring European enlightenment. According to this myth, Native Americans consisted of nomadic tribes perpetually at war with themselves and barely subsisting, due to their lack of sound agricultural practices. Their political structures were primitive, if they could be said to exist at all. Europeans, by contrast, were more developed in every way that mattered, socially, politically, economically and spiritually. Their superior develop–ment is why Europeans ultimately flourished in North America, while Native American communities were decimated. This myth of superiority extended to Africans as well, which set in motion America’s long history of slavery and other forms of racism.

Like any good anthropologist, Wright uses eyewitness testimonies to help uncover a much different reality. In their diaries and in written accounts to their home governments, new world explorers often described Native Americans as living in settled agricultural communities with a rich political and spiritual life. Nevertheless, white Americans very aggressively sought to either displace or eliminate altogether the Indian presence in their country. He describes Andrew Jackson’s presidency during which he deliberately sacrificed the Cherokee Indians to quell secessionist sentiments in Georgia. White America wanted not only their land, but the infrastructure and the crops the Native Americans produced. This capacity for ruthless intervention in the pursuit of narrow forms of national interest has continued to this day. This is the type of politics and approach to the world that has been damaging not only to America, but also to much of the rest of the world.

America, has always been a country of competing visions. Throughout the book Wright draws perhaps too fine a line between those Americans who are more liberal and progressive, on the one hand, and those clinging to archaic belief systems, on the other. Nevertheless, he is correct to insist that if America is to begin to address the issues it faces it requires an administration operating with the former type of outlook. America’s issues, moreover, are increasingly global in scope, which is why Wright’s analysis gravitates towards more universal themes of technological and moral progress and the environmental crisis. He insists the idea that moral progress is cause and consequence of technological progress is a potentially fatal illusion. On the contrary, moral progress can only be achieved when the benefits of technological progress are more widely distributed and subject to more democratic forms of control. Similarly, if more severe forms of environmental catastrophe are to be averted, economic activity must also be more democratic and respect natural limits to growth.

Wright is very good at highlighting issues not only faced by Americans but that effect Canadians, as well. How do we reconcile the need for economic growth with the need for environmental sustainability? How do we manage our economy so as to prevent the sort of financial crisis in which America and much of the rest of the world finds itself? How do we ensure more of humanity benefits from our current economic system? Wright does not begin to answer such questions. But in mining America’s past for inspiration, Wright gives a nod to Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, former American presidents who understood that political and economic stability required multilateral efforts. There is every reason to hope Barack Obama does as well.

What Is America? | by Ronald Wright | KNOPF CANADA 2008


UNDER PRESSURE: Rescuing Childhood from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting

August 19, 2008 5:54 pm

A few years ago my 14 year-old nephew was playing in a hockey tournament. A young man with only one arm was refereeing one of their games. My nephew’s team was losing and the affair was getting rough. As his team fell behind, some parents became increasingly vocal in expressing their frustration with the officiating. In response to a called penalty, one parent yelled, “Hey ref, did you lose your eye sight when you lost your arm?” It was another example of a parent losing perspective and exercising horrible judgment. For at least some of the parents in attendance that day, the game was not about sportsmanship or giving their child an opportunity to have fun. Winning was their only priority.

According to Carl Honoré, this sort of behavior is typical and has far reaching consequences for children. In his book, Under Pressure: Rescuing Childhood From the Culture of Hyper-Parenting, Honoré laments that parents and society are compromising childhood in a variety of ways. Many problems Honoré cites stem from the competitive impulse: parents are so busy preparing their children to succeed in life that children are forced to forego much of their childhood. The obvious examples are those parents who are so committed to ensuring their son or daughter is the next great athlete, that they forget that sport is a form of play meant to stimulate joy and creativity. However, the risk to childhood comes from other sources as well. Technology is so ubiquitous and can be so all consuming that for an increasing number of children and teenagers it is the only medium through which they experience the world.

Childhood pressures can begin early and innocuously. The race to raise the smartest child, for example, has been fuelled by the theory that there is a small window of opportunity to shape a child’s brain. If the right steps have not been taken by the age of three, or so goes the theory, children will invariably not reach their full potential. Marketers have seized on this idea to peddle all types of learning products designed to stimulate a child’s brainpower. Mozart’s genius, we are told, is sure to rub off on a two year old if she is presented with the opportunity to listen to his music. Although there is nothing wrong with exposing a child to Mozart’s brilliance, there is no evidence that doing so will somehow cultivate her inner genius. Indeed, when a child is perpetually stimulated, it can very well be at the expense of her own imaginative impulses. It may seem counterintuitive but occasional bouts of boredom are a necessary aspect of a child’s development. As a way of relieving boredom, a child develops a natural curiosity about the world around them.

Honoré is at his best when discussing education. We are constantly reminded that our education system must adapt to the rigors of the global economy. The fear that a country’s standard of living will be compromised by declining productivity has been the impulse behind ever more rigorous forms of standardized testing. Subjecting kids to the same tests allows educators and parents to measure their development. The appeal of standardized testing, moreover, becomes self-reinforcing. Better results by definition means children are being effectively taught and are learning more. Or does it? Many educators question the wisdom of this approach to teaching and learning. Relentless testing and competition can put too much pressure on children, so much so that it can ultimately undermine the more noble aim of education, namely to instill in kids a love of life and learning.

Under Pressure is far from perfect. Although the book is meant to be a relatively easy read, Honoré’s writing should be more polished. He also has a bad habit of referring to “studies” in support of various theories of child learning or child development without actually referencing them. In a word, he should have been more rigorous in his presentation. Nevertheless, Honoré’s plea for a more balanced approach to education and child rearing is welcome.


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