Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Last Season

A strange mixture of hockey and the supernatural featuring NHL enforcer Felix Batterinski, better known as Frankenstein (opposing fans), Monster (his grandmother), and Bats (his friends). He uses stick, fists, and cheap shots to intimidate opponents, and lovingly describes the way he knocked Bobby Orr out of a game -- after Orr had scored on a breakaway.

He wins two Stanley Cups with the Broad Street Bullies, then is traded to the LA Kings who offer him a sweet contract. He thinks he's set for life until he discovers that his agent has bilked him of almost everything. He ends up as a player-coach for a semi-pro team in Finland. The reason they're in last place? "They all have their teeth. All of them, all their teeth."

When spit on by a fan during an exhibition game in Sweden, he climbs out of the penalty box and chases the fan all the way out of the arena. Then, celebrating their win after the game in a hotel bar, one of his teammates "hoots in derision" when he pours himself a small drink.

I hold up my hand, silently calling for patience. My mood is strange and I am not quite certain what it is that's making me do this, but instead of going for more alcohol to prove the point, I suddenly find myself pulling at my fly as I stand there. In front of the entire table, I whip it out and slowly pee several more shots into the glass. Then zipping back up, I raise this yellowed sparkling liquid toward the chandeliers, cut off my breath and quickly drain the glass to the bottom.

Felix batters his way through life, both on and off the ice, in part to escape his Polish heritage. He grew up in a shack without electricity or running water, a child of immigrants maligned as DPs and Bohunks. Though crude and foul-mouthed himself, he never gets over his embarrassment at his father's accent.

Worse, his personal life seems cursed, bringing death and misfortune to those he is closest to. Does it have something to do with his malevolent grandmother? The book takes place during the years of the Solidarity movement in Poland, which has implications when his Finnish team travels to Leningrad for a game, and sets up a preposterous ending when he flies back home.

The ending tells us what the author thinks of such rats, er, people, who have so deformed Canada's game -- and that includes not just enforcers like Felix but also coaches, fans and sportswriters:

"We're going to have to do something about all this violence," the late Conn Smythe once said, "or people are going to keep on buying tickets."

Review by Lucas Aykroyd

POSTSCRIPT - A comment from MacGregor in his new book, Wayne Gretzky's Ghost: "Professional hockey players who have read it [The Last Season] love it to a point where at least two have claimed that I modelled Felix on them...."

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Ghosts of Cannae

Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic

Before this book I had a schoolboy’s knowledge of Hannibal: a Carthaginian who crossed the Alps with elephants. Now that vacuum in my brain has been admirably filled.

Hannibal was a military genius who never lost a major battle during his invasion of Italy. His most famous victory was at Cannae, where he annihilated a Roman army that outnumbered his by almost two-to-one. One of the chief difference-makers was his cavalry, which he used to flank the Roman thrust. By the end of the day around 50,000 Romans were dead, including a significant number of their leaders, while Hannibal’s force remained "basically intact."

But despite his battlefield brilliance, Hannibal lost the war against Rome. Eventually he returned to North Africa to defend Carthage, and finally was defeated at the Battle of Zama by another military genius, Scipio Africanus. This brought an end to the Second Punic War, "one of the most important wars in recorded history."

Hannibal was forced into exile, but continued to run afoul of the Romans. When he was about to fall into their hands he is reported to have said, "Let us now put an end to the great anxiety of the Romans, who have thought it too long and hard a task to wait for the death of a hated old man." And then took poison.

The Legacy of Cannae

The Romans soldiers who survived Cannae were scapegoated for the defeat. Their pay was withheld and they were banished to Sicily. The author refers to them as "the ghosts of Cannae." They remained in Sicily until rehabilitated by Scipio Africanus, who incorporated them into the invasion force that finally defeated Hannibal at Zama.

Poetic justice, you say? But there’s more:

...these ghosts of Cannae would live to haunt the republic. For one day, legionaries would look to their generals and not Rome for a future, and that perspective would spell civil war and absolute rule. This more than anything else was the battle’s legacy.

The ambitious Scipio "set a pattern that led eventually to Caesar and the collapse of the republic." Thus:

In the very act of fighting Hannibal, Rome put itself on the road to civil war by coming to rely on charismatic generals for survival. If this is the case, then Hannibal had the last laugh.

Cannae remains one of the most studied battles in history. Two thousand years later men like Guderian, Rommel, Eisenhower, and Schwarzkopf were trying to emulate Hannibal’s tactics.


A brief sampling of other interesting bits from this engagingly-written book:

After Carthage was defeated in the First Punic War, Hannibal's father, Hamilcar, made his nine-year-old son swear "an oath of eternal enmity toward the Romans."

It took Hannibal two weeks to cross the Alps, a passage that cost him three-quarters of his force and most of his elephants. His "Panzer pachyderms," however, were "a questionable military asset," as likely to trample friend as foe.

When the leader of the first Roman army to engage Hannibal in Italy was wounded, his son "led a band of horsemen back into the fight to surround and protect his fallen father." That 17-year-old was Scipio Africanus.

For a hard-headed pragmatic bunch, Romans were surprisingly superstitious, being "obsessed with the proper taking of auspices and obedience to various portents." When Hannibal invaded Italy, they consulted the Sybelline books and the oracle at Delphi to find out how to propitiate the gods.

Not only were Romans a militaristic people, but their view of honour was bound up with "individual martial courage" expressed through face-to-face combat. The author reminds us that in The Iliad, Paris was reviled for using a bow.

"If Romans harbored a national nightmare, it was the Gauls." After sacking Rome in 390 BC, they "had come to symbolize irrationality, violence, and disorder." They were taller than Romans and fought bare-chested, berserker-style.

CBC interview with the author

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Township of Time

A Chronicle

A collection of 20 stories set in Nova Scotia and spread over two centuries, the first taking place in 1786, the last in 1950. Some are complete in themselves, while the outcome or full import of others is not revealed until later. Together they form a sort of tapestry of interrelated lives, and lead to observations by several characters about the evanescence of time.

Keeping track of the many characters (some of whom are only bit players) is complicated by the use of nicknames, names that are similar, and even identical names. Many characters reappear in later stories, but the necessary connections are not always spelled out.

An Example

In "The Fiddlers of Point M'sieu 1873" young Col Forester goes fishing for mackerel. Four stories later he returns home having spent most of the intervening years at sea, and discovers his brother Ray has run off, his sister-in-law Edith dead, and their unnamed infant son in the care of Edith's sister, Clara. Three stories later we meet a boy named John Forester, who is being cared for by "Mam" (who turns out to be aunt Clara) and "the Captain," whom we are left to infer is Col Forester.

Similar threads extend through other stories for the reader to piece together, making them not so much linked as interwoven.


The image on the cover picks up on an interesting device that the author has used to add cohesiveness to the book. In "Juniper 1813" the first Colin Forester (Col's great-grandfather) plants an apple tree each time his wife gives birth, and these trees are known by the names of the children they were planted for. Several generations later in "The Bad Day 1921" John Forester refers to some apples as being "off the old Jen." And later, in "The Wind in the Juniper 1945" when he lies dying, it is the memory of a juniper tree (also planted by Colin) that triggers thoughts of home.

Bruce and Buckler

Charles Bruce and Ernest Buckler wrote nostalgic, almost romantic, portrayals of rural Nova Scotia, and were particularly skilled at capturing events from a child's point of view.

Bruce is better known as a poet, having received the G-G for The Mulgrave Road, but to my knowledge The Township of Time and his lone novel The Channel Shore (set in the same location as Township and sharing a few characters) are no longer in print.

That’s a shame. Bruce's descriptions are crisp and evocative, his dialogue excellent, and some of the stories in this book (like "The Bad Day") are very fine. His work deserves as much attention as that of Buckler or Frank Parker Day.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Ox Bells and Fireflies

It’s the sort of title you'd expect on a volume of verse, and therefore doubly appropriate as many of the 21 pieces are filled with lyrical prose and tagged with similar names:

Wicks and Cups
Fireflies and Freedom
Drop Mail and Diplomats
Soft Soap and Drawknives
Plow, Scythe, and Peavey
Wildcats, Tetrazzini, and Bee Beer

They present an idealized picture of farming and village life in the Annapolis Valley when oxen were still being used to plough fields.

Together they make up a nostalgic album of memories related in a way that is often dreamy and impressionistic:

The ground has been ribboned into dark furrows. They lie like brothers side by side, the earth's rich secrets exposed willingly to the sun.

In several pieces the language is a little less poetic in order to accommodate the more traditional shape of a story, while others move into Leacock territory with folksy accounts of how people act at election time or on wedding nights.

The affectionate parade of rustic characters includes a woman "violently allergic to horse farts" and another who "sounds like a bee under a cup." One tardy fellow was "always behind, like a boar's nuts," while another "ate fried bullfrogs to deepen his voice," and a third "said 'Good Morning' to any cow he passed."

Sex is "a blend of comedy and sheet lightning." Oxen "rise like prophecies" and plant "their great slow feet like sorrows." A pig has "moneylender eyes" and hens rustle "their cuneiform feet in the straw."

There are also moments of grief and misfortune, but they only serve to bind people closer together, as in the wonderful opening story, "Seven Crows a Secret," in which a young boy observes how the death of a neighbour brings out a touching tenderness in his parents.

The author, Ernest Buckler, referred to the book as a "fictional memoir." It was published in 1968.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Parasite Rex

Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures

It's a disturbing fact that the body of any creature, including our own, is potential habitat. We are a house and the mice want in. Or as the prologue puts it: "a vein is a river."

The life cycle of a parasite can be ingenious, complex, and gruesome, and the book provides some startling examples. Among the 16 pages of b&w photos you'll find one of a crustacean that has devoured the tongue of a fish and taken its place. But what makes this book remarkable is that it goes beyond such sensational examples and addresses broader issues.

Parasites, it seems, have been practising their trade since the dawn of life, and any ecosystem without them is likely to be unhealthy. Parasites may even have been responsible for the development of sex and language.

Then there are social parasites, like the cuckoo. Ultimately we ourselves may be seen as parasites -- with the planet our host.

Behaviour Modification

One of the truly shocking aspects of parasitism is the ability of some organisms to alter the behaviour of their host. Toxoplasma causes rats to be less wary of cats, the parasite’s final host.

Ants that have ingested lancet flukes leave their sisters and spend the night at the top of a blade of grass, the better to be consumed by a grazing mammal.

Sacculina, a parasitic barnacle, penetrates a crab’s leg joint, sends out "roots" through the crab’s entire body, and emerges as a sac on its ventral surface. The crab loses its ability to reproduce, becoming "genetically speaking, a zombie: one of the undead serving a master."

...parasites such as Sacculina...control their hosts, becoming in effect their new brain, and turning them into new creatures. It is as if the host itself is simply a puppet, and the parasite is the hand inside.

Makes one think of Heinlein’s Puppet Masters, and the movie Alien, doesn’t it? The author mentions them too.

Carl Zimmer

I enjoyed Parasite Rex so much that I immediately went out and bought two more of Zimmer’s books. Check out his website, which contains numerous articles he has written, as well as Chapter 1 from this book.

You can also find a link to his blog on Discover’s website, and there a link to a a photo gallery of scientific tattoos, the basis for a cool book coming out this fall called Science Ink.

Zimmer has had a tapeworm named after him.

A Few More Quotes

It’s time to put the parasite alongside the lion.

Castration is a strategy that any number of parasites have hit on independently...

Parasites have been a dominant force, perhaps the dominant force, in the evolution of life.

There are more human intestinal worms than humans.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Good Body

An inspired blend of hockey and Canlit that makes you wonder why such an obvious combo hasn't been tried before.

Bobby Bonaduce has laboured 20 years in the minors, the high point of his career being a single shift with the Maple Leafs. Or perhaps it's a low point, for in that short span he speared an opponent's spleen, got into three fights, pushed a linesman, spit at a fan, and knocked off a cop's hat.

Now with his career over, he's heading north to reconnect with his son Jason, who is playing hockey for UNB in Fredericton. He bluffs his way into the graduate program for creative writing in the hope that he'll be able to join the team.

This makes for some great comic moments on and off the ice. Bonaduce is predictably disdainful of works like "Lady Windermere's fucking Fan" and at sea in seminars like "Canadian Writers of the British Diaspora," the first hour of which is spent defining "Britain."

The writing has a distinctive rhythm and tone, and offers up some cool observations.

Hockey have the puck and you're lugging a bag of gold to market surrounded by fast bandits.


Reading her novel, he'd felt a shovel-the-snow kinship to Atwood, though her tough-shit sharpness made him nervous; and to Davies, though he was a stuffed shirt. But you could tell they'd both shovelled driveways.

Grad school

This was pretty good, gift as a verb, one of the better ones in the new language he'd been learning here. Other verbs he didn't like so much. Dialogue. Let's dialogue. Hell, why not get Sally and trialogue. Eight of us at Murray's lousy party, octaloguing away.

He went to the bathroom, to urine.

The ex-wife

Her eyes, her bright eyes. You looked in and saw she was smarter than you but also that this wasn't a bad thing. You could also see how she felt her body to be not quite hers, or not quite her. She could hold her body at arm's length. You could see she respected her body, but also that she saw it to be a kind of playground.

The book is filled with likeable characters save for a roommate with a withered arm. But perhaps Toby and Bobby are intended as doppelgangers, as both are afflicted with a physical disability that gives an ironic twist to the book's title. The image of Bonaduce driving around with a dead Christmas tree on the roof of his car is a telling one. It's clear from the start that the book can only end one way, but funny and sad make for a powerful combination.

Hockey Lit

A good companion to this book is a more recent one by Gaston, Midnight Hockey, a non-fiction work in which he mentions his own hockey career.

You can also check out this review by Angie Abdou. Her novel, The Bone Cage, was defended by former NHL enforcer, Georges Laraque, in the CBC's 2011 Canada Reads event.

Two other hockey novels I have enjoyed: King Leary and Salvage Kings, Ya!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Bobby Fischer Goes to War

The True Story of How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time

The "Match of the Century" has already been the subject of many books, but this one has benefited by coming out more than 30 years after the event.

Thanks to the ending of the Cold War, the authors had access to sources of information formerly unavailable. They spoke to many of the key people involved (the main exception, of course, being Fischer himself), and have put together this compulsively readable account.

In 1972 the match caught the imagination of people in the West because it was seen as a Cold War battle enacted over a chessboard, with a lone American taking on the seemingly invincible Soviet chess collective.

The authors have a different view: "Far from being a simple ideological confrontation, the championship was played out on many levels, of which the chess itself was only one." Thus their focus is more on what happened away from the board. They begin by describing the two opponents: Fischer the "enfant terrible of chess," and Spassky something of a maverick himself, a patriotic Russian who felt little allegiance to the Soviet Union. He was not a party member, and once raised hackles by asking:

"Did Comrade Lenin suffer from syphilis?"

The authors explain how Fischer was able to dictate the terms of the match in a way that had never happened before. The event almost never took place because he demanded an unprecedented amount of money. British businessman Jim Slater came to the rescue by kicking in an additional $125,000. That got Fischer to Reykjavik, but the barrage of demands continued, some of them quite ridiculous:

The legs of the $1200 custom-built mahogany table should be shortened, the sumptuous chessboard changed, the front rows of seats removed, the camera towers pushed right back to the point where filming would be nigh impracticable, the lighting brighter –- no, less bright, no, brighter than that.

Opposing him was the likeable Spassky, who had never been beaten by Fischer, and who was perhaps more accommodating than he should have been. The cumulative effect of Fischer’s tantrums and ultimatums wore down the champion even before the match began. He also undermined his own efforts by quarrelling with his handlers and insisting on putting together his own team. He did not prepare as hard as he could have, and was surprised by Fischer's use of atypical openings, like the English.

When Spassky fell behind, the Soviets expressed concern that the Americans were using “non-sporting” means to gain an advantage – telepathy, chemicals, parapsychology, etc. Fischer’s chair was x-rayed, revealing a strange u-shaped tube inside it, which did not show up on a second x-ray. Was it a diabolical device? Or was it planted then removed by the KGB?

"I'm crushing him with brute force. Haaaaaa!"

Fischer is reported to have said this during game 3, which he won -- the first time he had ever beaten Spassky. In the end he won 7 games to Spassky's 3 (one of which Fischer forfeited by not showing up). The rest were draws, though "far from being dull, lazy games, several of these had been desperate, protracted bare-knuckle brawls, exciting if not always pretty."

The final score was 12.5 - 8.5 after 21 games. Fischer earned over $150,000, while Spassky took home $93,750, making him a wealthy man in the USSR.

Fischer never defended his title despite lucrative tournament offers. When he was due to meet Karpov, the winner of the next Candidates tournament, he issued a list of 179 demands. When FIDE refused to meet them all, he resigned his title. Many observers believed he was frightened of the chessboard. After winning the championship, he had nothing left to achieve and descended into "an abyss of unreality."

A few final quotes:

Reykjavik changed chess itself.

Spassky went to Reykjavik to celebrate chess. Fischer went to fight.

There never has been an era in modern chess during which one player
[Fischer] has so overshadowed all others.

A movie based on the book is in development.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Cunning Man

"Should I have taken the false teeth?"

A great opening line delivered by the narrator, Jonathan Hullah, a physician who grows up in Sioux Lookout where two medical practitioners are presented as possible models. One is a shamanistic healer, the other a second-rate doctor who is also the town's bootlegger.

Hullah goes away to a boarding school where he makes two close friends, Charles Iredale and Brocky Gilmartin, whose lives continue to intertwine with his own throughout adulthood. Iredale becomes an Anglican priest, Gilmartin a respected prof of English literature, and Hullah a doctor who employs unorthodox methods of diagnosis. Their professions provide the three principal motifs in the book, and give Davies a broad canvas on which to display his erudition. There is a boggling number of literary references, as well as forays into theatre, opera, painting, and church music.

But the great thing about Davies is the way he mixes his erudition with comedy, often of the ribald variety. Here is Hullah examining one of his patients:

...not that he demanded to peep up her chimney, or anythng like that...but he stared at her until she said she blushed from head to toe. Then he poked at her with an enquiring finger simply everywhere! He grabbed her tum until she thought he was trying to dislodge something inside, but it appears it was just an unusually prolonged and searching examination of the spleen. He made her turn over and did the same sort of investigation of her back, including a prolonged parting of the buttocks while he seemed to be staring at her exit – about which she seems to be extremely secretive. He did a lot about feet. Then – and this is what really shook her -- he began to sniff at her, very close up, and he sniffed her from head to foot, very slowly and even quite a lot of sniffing in that area which Miss Fothergill described as You Know Where...

But he's not merely a "twat-sniffer." He believes the health of the body is inextricably bound up with the health of the spirit, and combines modern medical techniques with enemas and poetry-reading. He refers to himself as a Paracelsian physician, melding humanism with medicine. He is the modern version of a village wise man who can also mend bones – a "Cunning Man."

The novel proceeds with a combination of satisfying plot twists, outrageous incidents, and lots of playful but wide-ranging dialogue fueled by good wine and fine scotch. There is a murder, a couple of miracles, a bad breath contest, and a scene during the war when a bomb explodes while Hullah is taking a bath, leaving him trapped in the tub for four days.

In the penultimate chapter Davies introduces a brave new character who takes over some of the narrative duties. She writes numerous letters in an amusing "schoolgirl-slangy vein," letters which later come into Hullah's possession. When he incorporates them into his Case Book and comments on them, the result is an interesting narrative crossfire.

In the final section Hullah reaches retirement age and devotes himself to working on a revolutionary approach to literature. He is going to re-evaluate the the characters of great works from a medical point of view. Was Shakespeare constipated? What about Mr. Pickwick's prostate? The Anatomy of Fiction will be the title, in homage to Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, from which is taken The Cunning Man's epigraph.

Some Great Lines

A brief sampling of the many delightful turns of phrase:

She blabs to conquer.
a trumpeting of flatus
a hymen like parchment
a melting young beauty
English beef-witted folly
some dark cupboard in my mind
the portcullis of respectability
the small change of her conversation
The church is an anvil that has worn out many hammers.


The book has an astonishing number of characters. Many of them are minor, some appearing only once, but Davies names them all, a formidable task in itself. He always comes up with some great ones.

Dr. Ogg
Elsie Smoke
Hugh McWearie
Emily Raven-Hart
Edwin Allchin
Richard Craigie
Father Ninian Hobbes
Father Tommy Whimble
Pansy Freake Todhunter (aka Chips)
Hercules McNabb and his wife Dorsy
Lieutenant Dorrington
Prudence Vizard
Joe Sliter

An Unfinished Trilogy

One of the sweetest aspects of Davies's work is the way the books in his trilogies complement each other. The Gilmartin family tree was exhaustively explored in the preceding book, Murther & Walking Spirits, and while not necessary to understand The Cunning Man, it so enriches it that I've revised somewhat my earlier opinion of that book.

The ending in particular harkens back to Murther in a couple of respects – Esme wondering whether Gil's ghost might be hanging around, and a misdirected telephone inquiry about a movie. Those who have read Murther will immediately understand their significance.

And not only do the books in the trilogies overlap, but the trilogies themselves occasionally do. For example, Dunstan Ramsay has a brief walk-on as a history teacher at Colbourne, the boarding school attended by Hullah and his friends. And Brocky ends up a prof at Waverley University in Salterton, the setting for Davies’s first trilogy.

Unfortunately The Cunning Man is Davies’s last novel. He had begun preliminary work on another, mostly likely the concluding volume in what has been termed the Toronto series, when he died. While it's useless to speculate on what the contents of that book may have been, it's also fun. The main question is who would have been the lead character. Perhaps Nuala Conor, Brocky's wife and Hullah's lover.

Since Murther and Cunning Man both open with a death, it's not unreasonable to suppose the final volume would have done so as well. Perhaps it would have been that of Darcy Dwyer, who died of stab wounds in Gilbraltar.

There is a character in Murther known as the Sniffer. In Cunning Man, Hullah is also a sniffer, using his nose as a diagnostic tool. Would there have been another sniffer in the third book?

The Gilmartins

Since several of Brocky's relatives pop up in Cunning Man, I made an abbreviated family tree to refresh my memory. All except for Ollwen appear in Murther. The names in bold are those who appear in this book.

The Female Line (5 generations)

Anna Vermeulen + Major Gage
--Elizabeth Gage + Justus Vanderlip
----Nelson Vanderlip
------Cynthia Vanderlip + Dan Boutelle
------Virginia Vanderlip + William McOmish
--------Caroline, Minerva & Malvina McOmish

The Old World Gilmartins (5 generations)

Thomas G.
--Wesley G. (adopted)
----Samuel G.
------Polly G. + John Jethro Jenkins
------Walter G. + Janet Jenkins
--------Elaine, Maude, Lancelot, Rhodri G.

The New World Gilmartins

Rhodri G. + Malvina McOmish
--Brochwel "Brocky" G. + Nuala Conor
----Conor "Gil" G. + Esme Barron
-----Ollwen G.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Martin Chuzzlewit

The plot of the novel originates with a quarrel between two men, both named Martin Chuzzlewit. One is wealthy and old, the other is his grandson. They were on good terms until young Martin fell in love with Mary Graham, an orphan raised from childhood by the grandfather.

As a result young Martin is disinherited and heads to America with Mark Tapley in search of fortune, only to be conned into buying worthless swampland in a place called Eden. When they return to England, Martin has been transformed by his experiences into a better person.

During their absence, old Martin’s brother, Anthony, dies. His avaricious son, Jonas, marries Mercy, the daughter of a sanctimonious hypocrite named Pecksniff. Tigg, the prosperous chairman of the Anglo-Bengalee company, learns that Jonas hastened his father’s death with poison. Jonas is blackmailed into investing in Anglo-Bengalee, then forced to persuade his father-in-law, Pecksniff, to do the same. Tigg pays for this with his life.

Old Martin, who has pretended to fall under Pecksniff’s influence in order to expose his hypocrisy, now confronts Jonas about his role in Anthony’s death. To the surprise of everyone, including Jonas, it is learned that Anthony only pretended to take poison and died of a broken heart. Jonas, however, does not go free, as he is immediately taken into custody for the murder of Tigg, and commits suicide by swallowing poison. Old Martin denounces Pecksniff and is reconciled with young Martin, who regains his inheritance and weds Mary.

The novel was not as well-received as previous titles, and the first one to suffer a decline in readership.

Memorable Characters

Pecksniff is a major figure in the book. His smarmy hypocrisy and glib fawning ways are wonderful to behold. He is "soft and oily," has a flabby face, and is described by Jonas as "a sleek, sly chap...just like a tomcat." At one point he tells young Martin, "I am an honest man, seeking to do my duty in this carnal universe and setting my face against all vice and treachery. I weep for your depravity, sir."

Mrs. Gamp is a fat old woman with a swollen red nose and a liking for booze and snuff. She works as a nurse, midwife, and "performer of nameless offices about the persons of the dead." A comic figure and loquacious spouter of malaprops, she goes to "a lying-in or a laying-out with equal zest and relish." One of her sayings: "Rich folks may ride on camels, but it ain’t so easy for ‘em to see out of a needle’s eye."

Mark Tapley is a jolly fellow in search of a trying situation. He wishes “to come out strong under circumstances as would keep other men down.” In Martin he sees the potential he is looking for.


The wonderful glimpses of Victorian England -- a steak wrapped in a cabbage leaf, straw on the floor of a stage-coach for passengers to shove their feet into for warmth, a medication called a slime draft, patches of pickled brown paper applied to Pecksniff's head, sacks stuffed up a chimney to keep the rain out, men carrying letters in their hats and walking arm-in-arm in convivial friendship. The draymen, thimbleriggers, underporters, and coal-heavers; and the quaint antiquarian objects -- hunting-whips, portmanteaus, tea-chests, pudding-basins, stone brandy-bottles, fish-baskets, waist-coat strings, toasting forks, key-bugles.

Dickens's delight in food: oysters for breakfast, potted boar's head, intensely pickled salmon, beef-steak pudding, sheets of ham, stewed kidneys, a hot leg of mutton, innocent young potatoes, a cool salad, a crusty loaf, cunning tea-cakes, flowing mugs of beer, jorums of hot punch.

Some fine comic scenes including the row between Mrs. Gamp and Betsey Prig, and Tigg's weaselly cadging at the beginning of the novel when he is still a shiftless bum. In fact, some consider Martin Chuzzlewit to be Dickens's funniest novel, while author John Boyd finds that chapters 8 and 9, which describe the Pecksniffs' London visit, as the "most sustained passage of comic writing in English literature." Counterbalancing the humour are some dark scenes, and though not always effective or believable, the nightmarish carriage journey undertaken by Jonas and Tigg is especially powerful.

Finally, the book is not burdened with a labyrinthine plot as some of the later novels are. It is relatively free from sentimentality; there are no cloying characters or tear-jerking death scenes. And young Martin’s slightly flawed character makes him more likeable than other bland heroes, like Arthur Clennam in Little Dorrit.


Dickens wrote Martin Chuzzlewit after a disappointing trip to America, and vented some of his ire in this book. Most Americans are portrayed as glib, crass, pretentious, and hypocritical. They are gluttonous feeders with swinish table manners, and have the unpleasant habit of spraying tobacco juice everywhere. Despite such comedic potential, this portion of the book (7 of 54 chapters) was the least satisfying, because the characters are pretty much cut from the same cloth, with the result that none stand out the way Pecksniff and Mrs. Gamp do. Some great names, though:

Colonel Diver
Major Pawkins
General Fladdock
General Cyrus Choke
Major Hannibal Chollop
Professor Mullit
Doctor Dunkle
Jefferson Brick
LaFayette Kettle
Zephaniah Scadder
Mrs. Hominy

Reversals & Improbabilities

As much as I enjoy Dickens I always seem to have difficulties with his plotting, and in this book the appalling bipolar behaviour of old Martin is more a function of plot than of character. The senseless quarrel with young Martin, and especially the ruse of pretending to be in Pecksniff's power, are neither credible nor creditable. Dickens has a lot of explaining to do at the end, but none of it is very convincing. He is not unaware of the problem, for he has Pecksniff declare, "Whether it was worthy of you to partake of my hospitality, and to act the part you did act in my house, that, sir, is a question which I leave to your own conscience."

Equally unbelievable is Anthony’s pretending to take poison, and Tigg's transformation from a scruffy cadger at the beginning of the book into the well-dressed and prosperous chairman of Anglo-Bengalee. Again, these are functions of plot rather than character.

Also related to Dickens's handling of plot is the way some characters are dragged back into the story when there is no need for it. Chevy Slyme shows up at the end of the book as an officer of the law, and the woman Mark assists during the journey to America reappears with her husband in Eden and again in London in the last chapter. This is perhaps an effort to make the sprawling tale seem a little more shapely than it actually is, tidying up ends that are not really loose.

Still, one might argue that some plot decisions are based on the recurring theme of character reversal, of which there are many in the book. Anthony, Pecksniff, Tigg, Slyme, Mercy, both Martins, and the suitor of Mercy's sister all undergo (or pretend to) some sort of transformative change. This is underscored by the change in Tigg's name -- from Montague Tigg to Tigg Montague.

It might also be said that some of Dickens's most entertaining characters are no more believable than his twisted plots, and that together they are but two sides of the same coin of his teeming genius.


The 1994 BBC production of Martin Chuzzlewit is superb and quite faithful to the book. Paul Scofield as old Martin, Tom Wilkinson as Pecksniff, and Pete Postlewaite as Tigg are especially good. You can find clips on Youtube.

Here's a map of London showing locations mentioned in the novels of Dickens. The boarding house of Mrs. Todgers is close by the Monument near London Bridge.

Friday, July 15, 2011


A minor Canadian classic, this book provides a sobering look at a time when Canada was not a prosperous country. It takes place during the Depression in a part of Toronto that was once a slum. Everyone is down on their luck, and for a group of teens entering adulthood, things generally go from bad to worse.

The main character is anti-hero Ken Tilling, who yearns for Myrla Patson until he discovers that she's pregnant. He leaves town in a boxcar and leads the life of a hobo. He's beaten up by railroad bulls, earns pennies a day harvesting crops, and develops left-wing leanings. His simmering anger is directed at government and big business.

An unsavoury affair continues Myrla's descent, which ends with her walking the streets. Bob McIsaacs moves from a life of petty crime to more serious offenses, a prison break, and a hail of bullets. Billy Addington works in a candy factory over vats of boiling chocolate despite being so malnourished that he has fainting spells. (You can guess what happens next.) Theodore East is a little better off than the others, but in seeking to escape Cabbagetown falls in with nasty anti-Semites and effete pseudo-intellectuals.

The book ends on a curiously hopeful note with Ken leaving Canada to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

Despite the grimness of the story, the spare prose speeds the reader along. It's not an unpleasant read by any means, and the Hemingwayesque style makes an interesting match with characters as ill-fated as those in any Hardy novel.

Jack Illingworth's view: "As literary art, Cabbagetown is decidedly second-tier... Nonetheless, its brutal honesty makes it a consistently rewarding novel, and far more than a mere historical curiosity."

Hugh Garner

Cabbagetown was expurgated when it came out in 1950. The version I read was the unabridged edition, which appeared in 1968 and was included in A Hugh Garner Omnibus as well as several short stories, excerpts from two other novels, and a single piece of journalism, "A Loyalist Soldier Returns to Spain." The latter makes an excellent companion piece to Cabbagetown, because Garner fought in the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. He writes, "...going there to fight was one of the few things I am proud of having done," and incorporated a number of undisguised details directly into the book.

He won the GG in 1963 for a volume of short stories.


Imagining Toronto
Hugh Garner: The "One Man Trade Union" of Publishing
One of the Greatest Authors of All Time
Historical Plaque

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

For Love of Insects

Science fiction writers in need of an alien or two have only to peruse this book for inspiration. There's the bombardier beetle, for instance, which is capable of discharging with great accuracy jets of boiling acid from its butt.

Yes, boiling.

Spraying is only one way to deliver a toxic substance. Some millipedes, for example, ooze cyanide from glandular pores. Others creatures, lacking defensive glands, are reflex bleeders – their toxic bodily fluids leak out from easily ruptured cuticle. Additional delivery methods include defensive vomiting and defecating. Yowza!

Larvae of the leaf beetle protect themselves by extruding fecal matter in long strands, which they then attach to themselves until they are completely hidden from view, creating the appearance of a tiny haystack.

Some insects practice seminal gift giving. In one species of moth, males lose 10% of their mass when mating. They transfer not just sperm to females, but also nutrients and protective alkaloids. Copulation takes upward of 9 hours.

Butterflies engage in a strange behaviour called puddling. They drink and expel prodigious amounts of water (eg 600 times their body mass) in order to acquire sodium, which is then transferred to females during mating.

Bolas spiders, which do not make webs, bring down their prey bola-style, using a thread with a drop of glue at the end.

These are only a few of the creatures you'll meet in this wonderful book, which is packed with brilliant colour photos that illustrate the bizarre goings-on of insects and arthropods.

The author, Thomas Eisner, is one of the fathers of chemical ecology. He tells us that probably far less than half of all insect species have been discovered, leaving unknown a vast reservoir of chemical compounds. "Chemical prospecting in the world of insects can still bring real rewards," he writes.

He passed away earlier this year.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Maurice Richard

The dressing-room was his telephone booth, where he donned the red and blue costume of the Habs.

Off ice he was as mild-mannered as Clark Kent, a devoted husband and father, respectful citizen and church-goer.

On ice he was Rocket Richard, a man with a short fuse and blazing eyes, "defender and exemplar of the downtrodden French Canadian through both his brilliant play and the righteous violence of his fists." All he lacked was a cape.

In 1955 he was involved in a stick-swinging incident with Hal Laycoe of the Bruins, in the course of which he punched out a linesman. He was suspended for the final three games of the season and for the playoffs. Enraged fans attacked NHL president Clarence Campbell at the Montreal Forum and a riot ensued. The next day Richard calmed the city with a few words on the radio.

Of the authoritarian Campbell, author Charles Foran writes:

Living and working in Montreal did little to heighten Campbell’s insensitivity. Operating out of the imposing stone Sun Life building, an edifice that, more than any other, represented Anglo financial dominance and smugness, and residing nearby the mentally walled ghetto of Westmount, the league president carried on both his professional duties and private life as a colonial administrator in India or Africa might have done...

The Richard Riot was a manifestation of the simmering dissatisfaction felt by Quebecers, and a precursor to the Quiet Revolution that began in 1960, the same year Richard retired.

Stuff I Didn't Know

How tough Richard was. Early in his career he fought twice with a player on the NY Rangers, "a marginal talent with a background as an amateur boxer." Both times Richard knocked him out with a single punch.

He tried several times to enlist during the War, but was turned down when x-rays showed that breaks in his ankle, leg and wrist -- incurred while playing hockey -- had not healed properly. "The ankle, in particular, was permanently misshapen."

The emergence of “gladatorial hockey” occurred after the War with the return of veterans. "'If you know nothing else about the time I played,' Richard would later say of this period, 'know how violent the game was.'"

One year he led the league in penalties. Fans routinely paid his fines.

His famous jersey number was chosen after the birth of his first child, who weighed nine pounds.

After he retired Richard became so unhappy at the way he was treated by the Canadiens organization that he refused to drink Molson’s beer or allow it to be served in his tavern.

The shocking end of Howie Morenz: leg broken in four places during a game, hospitalized with his leg in traction, began drinking heavily, had a nervous breakdown, and -- still in hospital a month and a half after being admitted -- died of a heart attack. He was 34.

End Thoughts

This slim compact book is more of a sketch than a full-fledged bio, and similar in scope (I assume) to others in the series of "Extraordinary Canadians". No illustrations.

Series editor John Raltson Saul mentions the filming of forthcoming documentaries. Until then a worthwhile substitute is the feature film, The Rocket, with Roy Dupuis as Richard and several NHLers in supporting roles, including Vinnie LeCavalier, Mike Ricci and Sean Avery.

You can also view a four-minute clip from a CBC Fifth Estate documentary about Richard.

Dust jacket painting by Tavis Coburn.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Human Comedy of Chess

A Grandmaster's Chronicles

I learned the game as a child from my grandfather, who played postal chess. He bought me a small book suitable for my age, but I was more captivated by the names of the openings than the openings themselves, and to this day it is the lore of the game holds my greatest interest.

The Human Comedy of Chess is a work exactly suited to my taste. It’s a collection of articles written in the 1990s by Dutch GM Hans Ree and splendidly translated by Willem Tissot and Maureen Peeck.

It contains 56 articles with an average length of just around five pages and bearing titles such as:

Chess with the KGB
Karpov's Revenge
Khan of Kalmykia
What is Beautiful?
Heroic Tales
The Chess Murder
Adjourned Games

There are pieces on the history of chess, and on familiar names such as Reshevsky, Tal, Botvinnick, Marshall, Keres, Nimzowitsch, Koltanowski, Duchamp. Scattered throughout are a number of games with brief but colourful annotations. Particularly entertaining is Ree's account of the matches between Karpov and Anand, Short and Timman, and Short and Kasparov.

The writing is smooth, witty, engaging, with pungent observations on nearly every page. A sampling:

Today's top chess: rather like the headhunting frenzy of axe-wielding savages

Tal: doctors had accidentally removed not a kidney, but his appendix

Krylenko: executed in 1938 because he had neglected to propagate the social meaning of chess

Duchamp: after the game, chess pieces were sent into the air by balloons

Kasparov: uproots heavy trees with bare hands

FIDE: a banana republic run by gangsters

Time trouble: an addiction

Soviet chess
: before Sputnik circled the earth chess was the only field in which the Soviet Union had caught up with the rest of the world and outdone it

Nor has Ree neglected the dark side of chess. He mentions bribery, conspiracy, intimidation, scandal, con men, imposters, bodyguards, chess bosses, "gruff telephone calls from blackmailers," and bald-faced attempts at cheating. "Sometimes," he writes, it is "hard to distinguish between the chess community and the world of organized crime."

But the best parts of the book are those that communicate Ree's infectious love of the game. Of a match with Topalov, he writes that Kasparov "conjured up an attack out of nothing, with a rook sacrifice," after which he made "fifteen mortal blows in a row, all of marvelous beauty." He concludes by saying, "Those who were privileged to be present knew they would tell it to their children and grandchildren, as long as chess will be played in this world."

This wonderful book gives a thrilling glimpse into a world that ordinary mortals like me would not otherwise see.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Golden Spruce

A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed

Winner of the Governor General’s award for non-fiction in 2005 for its combination of fine writing, gripping story, and fascinating detail.

The setting is the BC rainforest and the Queen Charlotte Islands, where trees "like Tolkien's Ents" can be found.

The backstory includes the troubled history of the warlike Haida, whose totem poles were at one time cut down and used for pilings; the hair-raising dangers of logging as experienced by chokermen, whistlepunks, donkey punchers, and high-riggers; and the deadly waters of Hecate Strait (between the BC mainland and the Queen Charlottes) with its overfalls, blind rollers, clapitos, and katabatic winds.

But in the end what makes this book so compelling are its elements of Shakespearian tragedy. The people and events will stay with you for a long time to come.

The Greed

The forest industry in BC has clearcut an unimaginable amount of rainforest and left behind “traumatized landscapes.” Worst of all is the removal of old growth trees that have lived for centuries and whose harvest resembles “terrestrial whaling.” BC, the author notes, “has been described as a banana republic, only with bigger bananas.”

The Myth

One tree on the Queen Charlotttes was utterly unique, a Sitka spruce with golden needles. An "arboreal unicorn" is how the author refers to it, while another person said, “This was not just a physical tree of unusual beauty, it was in fact a unique symbol of the islands and ourselves. It was a mythic tree.” According to the Haida, the tree had once been a human being. MacMillan Bloedel had abstained from harvesting it.

The Madness

A gifted and formidable woodsman working in the logging industry became disillusioned with the devastation it was causing. After suffering a religious experience, he cut down the sixteen-storey Golden Spruce to publicize his concerns. He called it a freak, MacBlo’s "pet tree." He wrote, “We tend to focus on the individual trees like the Golden Spruce while the rest of the forests are being slaughtered.”

He refused to travel by public transport to the Queen Charlottes for his trial because he feared that he would be murdered. Instead he set out by kayak and was never seen again. Many people, including former colleagues and Haida elders, believe he is still alive. His former wife called him “indestructible.”

The Author

John Vaillant is also the author of another fascinating book, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Imagining Mars

A Literary History

A scholarly work with 30 pages of footnotes, this book wades through many obscure volumes before arriving at ones that modern readers will be familiar with. Yet it’s a necessary journey in order to provide context to those later works.

Especially helpful is the correlation between fiction and scientific knowledge of the day, as well as portraits of two influential astronomers, Camille Flammarion and Percival Lowell, whose writings incorporated as much fancy as fact.

Their work stimulated the first outpourings of fiction about Mars late in the 19th century. So potent was Lowell's romantic notion of a heroic but dying Martian civilization that it remained a modern myth, even after it had been discredited scientifically.

The space age put to rest such “obsolete fantasies,” especially with the Mariner flybys in the 1960s and the Viking landings in the 1970s. Fiction about Mars became energized by a new realism, with terraforming a major theme.

Dozens upon dozens of novels are investigated in the book, with the following authors given the most prominence: H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, Frederick Turner, and Kim Stanley Robinson. Below are a few scattered observations and quotes.

The War of the Worlds

Wells's portrayal of Martians as inimical non-humanoids was meant as a rebuke to the Victorian attitude of cultural superiority. "...for the first time, the inhabitants of Mars are depicted not as kindlier and nobler versions of ourselves but as monsters..."

John Carter

ERB’s John Carter books belong to a group of “masculinist fantasies” that became popular early in the 20th century. They portrayed Mars as a frontier outpost and Martians as savages needing to be pacified. Such books reflected the racist and imperialist attitudes of the day.

The Martian Chronicles

This 1950 novel represents "the last flowering of a romantic vision of Mars," yet remains "one of the half-dozen or so fictions about Mars that are central to the imaginative tradition." Bradbury is quoted as saying, "Mars is a mirror, not a crystal."

Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein's "send-up of American sexual Puritanism and fundamentalism" is "full of his customary libertarian doctrines and cartoon characters masquerading as personalities."

Frederick Turner

An author I was not familiar with. His 1978 novel, A Double Shadow, and 1988 epic poem, Genesis, are discussed in some detail. Genesis is “the most original treatment of Mars produced in the 1980s."

Final Thoughts

In any survey such as this it’s inevitable that some books will be left out. In my case I regret the absence of Desolation Road by Ian McDonald, especially since one of his short stories, “The Old Cosmonaut and the Construction Worker Dream of Mars,” is mentioned as a possible new direction in Martian fiction, able to mesh the literary heritage of a canaled Mars, which seems embedded in our imagination, with the reality of a harsh and lifeless planet.

The book includes eight colour plates. As the subtitle indicates, this is a literary history, so only a few films are mentioned.

Certainly, a huge undertaking with many valuable insights.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Ukimwi Road

From Kenya to Zimbabwe

The word "intrepid" scarcely seems adequate to describe Dervla Murphy. In 1992 she set out on a four-month, 3000-mile, bicycle trip through East Africa -- alone, and at the age of 60.

Early on she is challenged by an African pastor to speak out about AIDS (ukimwi in Swahili). "There's no medicine for this plague, only information to stop it," he says, and his words are borne out by people who believe the disease is caused by alcohol, or witchcraft, or American biological experiments. Condom use is widely disdained, one reason being the belief that only inferior ones are sent to Africa, another that they are part of a Western plot to slow African population growth.

AIDS thus becomes the book's leitmotif, and Dervla reports on the devastation she glimpses and the tangled ethical and moral issues it has stirred up. She also voices some pet peeves -- the IMF, the World Bank, and "UN free-loaders." At one point an FAO Land Cruiser whizzes past her, "vividly illustrating the reality of Western 'aid' to Africa. Hundreds of such vehicles, normally carrying only one or two expatriates, zoom around rural areas; but the locals, to whom transport would be a boon, knew better than to expect a lift."

Yet the book is not shrill or single-minded, and contains the usual elements of good travel writing -- description, anecdote, conversation, historical context, economic status report, observation both sympathetic and caustic -- as well as her own somewhat eccentric behaviour. She tipples Nile beer in Uganda, Tusker in Kenya and Tanzania, and Carlsberg in Malawi. She registers herself as a Russian astronaut at a police station, and alters a date on her vaccination booklet to facilitate a border crossing.

Throughout her travels she is repeatedly cautioned by concerned Africans about her safety, yet the only violence she witnesses are two episodes of brutal government repression in Kenya. True, she is harassed by belligerent louts, jeering children, and uncooperative officials, yet such acts are overshadowed by many instances of friendliness and generosity, people who go out of the way to help her when she has a flat, gets lost, falls sick.

Kenya (2 chapters)

From Nairobi she heads west to the port of Kisumu on Lake Victoria, then continues on to Uganda. While in Kenya she observes that "a half-century of White settlement created a racial chasm," and mentions the legacy of paternalism exemplified in the writings of Karen Blixen and Elspeth Huxley.

Uganda (4 chapters)

She "salutes the Nile" at Jinja, visits friends in Entebbe, and tours the Sese Islands in Lake Victoria. She spends time in Kampala, then heads west to Fort Portal and skirts the Ruwenzoris.

Tanzania (2 chapters)

After a stop in Bukoba, she takes the ferry to Mwanza at the southern end of Lake Victoria. The road is so corrugated that she departs from it at Old Shinyanga and (in my favourite part of the book) heads overland to Dodoma -- on a footpath! She camps out four nights in succession after being reassured that leopards and hyenas are rare in the area. After this detour she returns to the road system and continues on to Iringa and Mbeya in the beautiful southern highlands.

She blames much of "Tanzania’s drab and uniform poverty" on Nyerere's disastrous ujamaa policy.

Malawi and Zambia (3 chapters)

Faced with visa limitations in Malawi during a time of upheaval, she departs from her planned route and takes a rough mountain road which turns out to be one of the highlights of the trip. She delights in Malawian charm, and in Zambia declares, "The good news, in Zambia, is the Zambians – warm-hearted, open-minded, high-spirited against all the odds."

After a stay in Lusaka, she crosses the Zambesi into Zimbabwe where she is immediately felled by malaria and the book ends in Karoi (where the family of Alexandra Fuller once farmed, as described in Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight). When she recovers she heads back to Nairobi by public transport, a journey that regrettably she does not describe, for part of it was on the Tanzam railway from Lusaka to Dar, which I very much would have enjoyed reading.

Dark Star Safari

Paul Theroux replicated part of this route about 10 years later, as recounted in Dark Star Safari. He was about the same age as Dervla at the time of her trip, and though he didn’t travel by bike he was as intrepid as her in his own way, and equally scathing about aid workers. Moreover, as a young man he lived and taught in Malawi and Uganda, and still retains a grasp of Swahili. It’s interesting to compare the two books.


Dervla's Website
CBC "Writers & Co." interview (podcast)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Big Short

Inside the Doomsday Machine

Lewis’s books are either about sports or finance. An odd combination, yet his procedure is the same in either case. He focuses on people to such an extent that his books read almost like novels.

The Big Short then is not a dry financial text, but a fascinating look at a handful of characters who figured out what was wrong with subprime mortgages and were able to profit from it.

All were mavericks to some extent. One was an abrasive iconoclast who identified with Spiderman and enjoyed disrupting meetings. “He’s not tactically rude,” his wife says. “He’s sincerely rude.”

Another was a one-eyed doctor with Asperger’s Syndrome who refused to wear shoes with laces, and blogged about investing between 16-hours shifts at the hospital. These and other characters as well as Lewis himself deliver some withering criticism of Wall Street:

“However corrupt you think this industry is, it’s worse.”

"The fraud was so obvious that it seemed to us it had implications for democracy. We actually got scared.”

For more than twenty years, the bond market’s complexity had helped the Wall Street bond trader to deceive the Wall Street customer. It was now leading the bond trader to deceive himself.


Lewis’s first book, Liar’s Poker, describes his job as a bond salesman at Salomon Brothers in the 1980s. He relates how the firm pioneered the pooling of home mortgages for resale as mortgage bonds, which made the firm immensely profitable. In The Big Short, he picks up the story 20 years later with the subprime loan fiasco.

Subprime loans were devised to make the purchase of homes available to people who couldn’t afford them, borrowers who “tended to be one broken refrigerator away from default.” They were enticed into the deal with a fixed-interest “teaser” rate that would remain in place for two years, after which the rate would float. The floating rates were inevitably more expensive, forcing people to refinance, which was not a problem as long as the value of their home had increased. The banks didn't care what happened, because either way they stood to gain -- by repossessing or refinancing.

The loans were risky, but a loophole in the bond rating system allowed investment banks to hide the fact. They did such a good job that virtually no one in the industry had a clear idea of exactly what the mortgage bonds contained. It was a financial shell game that in the end conned the banks themselves. By the time they got a whiff of financial rot, they were so exposed to risk that they tried to reduce their losses by making side bets (credit default swaps) against them. It was, as Lewis puts it, like taking out fire insurance when the house was already engulfed in flames.

A fascinating book.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Postcards from Mars

The First Photographer on the Red Planet

This is as close to Mars as most of us will get, a coffee table book with photos taken by the two Mars Rovers that arrived there in January of 2004. You may remember the event, especially the landing procedure, which involved bouncing the airbag-encased landers across the Martian surface.

Jim Bell, the book's author, is the lead scientist for the Pancam colour imaging system on the Rovers. He gives an interesting behind-the-scenes account of the mission -- launch preparations, technical problems, communication challenges -- but book's main attraction is the 150 or so photos. Postcards he calls them, but not because of their size. You'll actually need a coffee table to spread out the double-page fold-outs. There are four of them, each almost four feet long.

The two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, arrived on opposite sides of the planet, Gusev Crater and Meridiani Planum -- not the most exciting places visually or scientifically, but for landing purposes they were a necessary trade-off. Nearly half of spacecraft send to Mars in the last 40 years have failed.


Gusev Crater was thought to have once have been a lake, but Spirit found no sedimentary rocks, only a rugged lava plain with "dry, primitive volcanic basalts." It therefore set out for the Columbia Hills, 3-4 km distant, where it discovered evidence of layering in outcrops.

Along the way it overcame a wonky wheel and power problems caused by dust on the solar panels. By utilizing slopes oriented toward the sun, and with the fortuitous intervention of the wind, NASA scientists were able to keep the rover alive.

The panoramas are mostly flat desert-like expanses littered with rocky rubble. The light is dim, and the sky is a paler shade of the rust-coloured terrain.


Meridiani turned out to be very different from Gusev -- darker soils, prominent sand dunes, and weathered outcrops that reminded me of the Canadian Shield. More importantly there were BB-sized hematite "blueberries," and a mineral called jarosite in layered sedimentary deposits -- "key evidence that there was once liquid water on Mars...either on the surface in a lake or shallow sea, or just below the surface in extensive underground aquifers or groundwater systems."

The presence of water, however, does not guarantee an environment hospitable to life. On Mars the abundance of sulfur might have resulted in water too acidic for organic molecules to form.

More Mars

A cool companion to this book is the documentary film, Roving Mars. It recreates the Rovers' journey with a combination of actual images and computer-animated graphics. A delightful bonus is the hour-long episode, "Mars and Beyond," that aired in 1957 on the TV program "Disneyland," and is introduced by Walt himself.

When the book and the film came out in 2006, the two rovers were still functioning, having far exceeded their expected travelling distance of 600 meters and life expectancy of 90 Martian days (aka "sols," 39 minutes longer than Earth days). In 2009 Spirit got mired in soft sand, but Opportunity is still carrying out its mission. Current info on the rovers, including updates from Opportunity, is available at the following sites:

Mars Exploration Rover Mission
NASA - Mars Exploration Rovers

Finally, more info about the book can be found on the author's website, including a few images from the book.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight

An African Childhood

Much of this book is a child's-eye-view of Africa during the civil war in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

There's the constant threat of bloodshed plus the usual exotic risks -- snakes, scorpions, leopards, etc.

The family drives a bomb-proofed Land Rover, and the children learn how to clean and load their father's assault rifle, their mother's Uzi.

When the war ends they remain in Zimbabwe, though many other white settlers leave and their farm is sold out from under them. Eventually they relocate to Malawi and then to Zambia.

The author's portrayal of her family and herself is vivid, unflinching, and firmly cemented into place by the b&w photos that head each chapter. She writes:

I felt as if I needed to find a way to explain the racism I had grown up around, to justify the hard living of whites in Africa, to expunge my guilt over the injustice I had witnessed in my youth.

Not an easy task, delivering a sympathetic portrayal of her flawed but hard-working parents, along with her own dawning awareness of native Africans as fully rounded human beings, and tempered with a few glimpses of the excesses of post-Independence Africa.

Her descriptions of the sights, sounds and particularly the smells of Africa are rich and evocative.

When the ship veered into the Cape of Good Hope, Mum caught the spicy, woody scent of Africa on the changing wind. She smelled the people: raw onions and salt, the smell of people who are not afraid to eat meat, and who smoke fish over open fires on the beach and who pound maize into meal and who work out-of-doors. She held me up to face the earthy air, so that the fingers of warmth pushed back my black curls of hair, and her pale green eyes went clear-glassy.

"Smell that," she whispered. "That's home."

Many sad, humorous, poignant, tense and uncomfortable moments fill the book. Clueless missionaries and hitchhikers pop up, border officials are either welcoming, venal or dangerous. There is a pot-smoking cook and a man with an almost preternatural skill as a tracker. The mother -- beautiful, feisty, eccentric -- suffers a nervous breakdown after the loss of her third child (two of whom rest in unmarked graves).

I wonder what sort of book Jane Austen would have produced if she had grown up in Africa.

The Author

Though Alexandra Fuller attended university in Canada (Acadia here in Nova Scotia), and now lives in the US, she still thinks of herself as an African. Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight was a New York Times notable book, and finalist for the Guardian First Book Prize.

You can find out more about her at her website.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Sound Like Water Dripping

In Search of the Boreal Owl

Youthful idealism motivated the author to tackle the boreal owl as a research project while attending the University of Guelph. At the time little was known about the species, including whether or not it even nested in Ontario.

Undeterred, he set out for Kapuskasing in late winter equipped with camping gear, climbing irons, and a recording of a Tengmalm's owl (a European version of the boreal). Thanks to his determination and resourcefulness he not only confirmed that the owl was indeed nesting in the province, but also gathered much useful information about the species.

The following year he continued his research in northern Alberta, and travelled to Sweden in the book's final chapter to compare notes with a fellow biologist studying the Tengmalm's owl. A few of his experiences:

One moonless night while returning to camp he walked smack into a moose.

Boreal owls are quite small, and so unwary he was able to catch one with his bare hands.

He got a personal demonstration of an owl's striking power (their prey is usually killed outright) when an attack left him with a splitting headache and bloody talon marks across his face.

One of the best anecdotes in the book explains how a snake was cowed by its intended meal, a fearless white lab mouse.

While you'll learn a lot about owls and nature and wildlife biologists, what really makes this book so readable is its human side. You'll meet the guys at a logging camp, and a married couple running an owl rehabilitation centre, and a fellow student the author fell in love with. You'll admire his resourcefulness when he makes an owl-trap out of an aluminum lawn chair, and uses a mechanical clock to record the comings and goings at a nest, and fixes up an old cabin by installing windows, door, and a pole floor.

This is a quintessentially Canadian book, infused with honesty, enthusiasm, and a genuine love of nature. It contains 23 b&w photos and a beautiful line drawing by one of the author's friends (whom you'll also meet in the book). The title comes from the Montagnais name for the boreal owl: the water-dripping bird.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The 64-Square Looking Glass

The Great Game of Chess in World Literature

Chess in fiction is most often employed as a superficial metaphor or shallow plot device. There are a number of reasons for this, which probably explains why chess stories are scarce and chess novels even scarcer.

Nevertheless I keep hoping to find a few fictional offerings that genuinely communicate the excitement and dazzle of the game, or at least offer a fresh take on it. Thus I was very pleased to come across this anthology, the most comprehensive I've found so far. It includes a wide selection of verse, non-fiction, short stories, and novel excerpts.

Non-Fiction - 7 selections

The two pieces I enjoyed most are:

"Playing Chess with Arthur Koestler" by Julian Barnes
"Chess Reclaims a Devotee" by Alfred Kreymborg

I've never read anything by Julian Barnes before, but this piece convinced me I must read more. The others are:

Vladimir Nabokov, from Speak, Memory
E.M. Forster, from "Our Diversions" in Abinger Harvest
Charles Krauthammer, "The Romance of Chess"
A.L. Taylor, from The White Knight: A Study of C. L. Dodgson
Andrew Waterman, from his introduction to The Poetry of Chess, an anthology of chess poetry

Verse - 6 selections

Jorge Luis Borges, "Chess"
Lord Dunsany, "The Sea and Chess"
Robert Lowell, "The Winner"
Ezra Pound, "The Game of Chess"
Lord Tennyson, excerpt from Beckett (a verse play)
Bulwer-Lytton, "The Chess-Board" (not that Bulwer-Lytton)

Short Stories - 13 selections

The two I enjoyed most are both humorous:

"Check!" by Slawomir Mrozek
"The Gossage-Varebedian Papers" by Woody Allen

The first (from The Ugupu Bird) is an amusing account of players in a living chess match taking matters into their own hands. The Woody Allen piece is about a postal match gone horribly wrong, and has been called the funniest story ever written about chess. I won't disagree. It can be found online in a number of places.

There is also an excerpt from the novella "The Royal Game" by Stefan Zweig, thought by some to be the best story ever written about chess.

Of the remainder, two are by famous authors -- "All the King's Men" by Kurt Vonnegut (from Welcome to the Monkey House), and "Pawn to King's Four" by Stephen Leacock (from Happy Stories Just to Laugh At).

Three are crime stories:
Harry Kemelman, "End Play"
Theodore Mathieson, "The Chess Partner"
Henry Slesar, "The Poisoned Pawn"

And the rest are:
Poul Anderson, "The Immortal Game"
Spencer Holst, "Chess" from The Language of Cats and Other Stories
Vasily Aksyonov, "The Victory -- A Story with Exaggerations"
Miguel de Unamuno, "The Novel of Dan Sandalio, Chessplayer" from Ficciones
Sholem Aleichem, "From Passover to Succos, or The Chess Player's Story" from Tevye's Daughters

Novel Excerpts - 17 selections

Several come from the hand of famous authors:
Martin Amis, Money
Samuel Beckett, Murphy
Anne Bronte, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass
Thomas Hardy, A Pair of Blue Eyes
Sinclair Lewis, Cass Timberlane
Vladimir Nabokov, The Defense

Four are from detective or espionage novels:
Ian Fleming, From Russia with Love
David Delman, The Last Gambit
John Griffiths, The Memory Man
Alan Sharp, Night Moves

The rest are:
Walter Tevis, The Queen's Gambit
Brad Leithauser, Hence
Claud Cockburn, Beat the Devil
Ilf and Petrov, The Twelve Chairs
Fernando Arrabal, The Tower Struck by Lighting
Elias Canetti, Auto-da-Fe (Canetti was the Nobel winner for literature in 1981)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Magic Journey

Second of a trilogy (the first being the wonderful Milagro Beanfield War), this book starts off with a bang -- the explosion of a busload of dynamite in Chamisaville, a town in the southwestern US. In the middle of the resulting crater stands a man wearing nothing but his boots.

It's a miracle!

The Holy Chapel of the Dynamite Virgin is quickly erected, followed by a Dynamite Shrine Motor Court and the sale of "sacred wooden dynamite fetishes."

In the midst of this money-making grab is the owner of the bus, Rodey McQueen, a conman from Muleshoe, Texas. He has his eye on bigger things, possible only if the backward and impoverished community of Chicanos and Native Americans can be transformed into a cash-based economy.

One of the earliest signs of progress is the arrival of the first automobile owned by a local farmer. The vehicle is dubbed the Horse without Shit and its purchase destitutes the farmer.

Another early attraction is an embalmed whale, which results in the following incident:

A pale, taciturn youth named Ralphito Garcia walked eighteen miles into town one day, gingerly placed his palm against the whale, then left without a word, a beatific smile lighting up his bewitched features: he promptly hitchhiked to the West Coast and drowned himself in the Pacific Ocean.

This symbolic event is referenced again and again throughout the book, as a dripping Ralphito reappears numerous times with seaweed in his hair. He presages the outcome of the "Betterment of Chamisaville" scheme, which McQueen and his band of developers (the "Anglo Axis") are implementing by robbing people of their land.

Local opposition includes an exhausted lawyer, a hundred-year-old outlaw, and McQueen's own daughter, April Delaney. Vivacious and impossibly beautiful, her hunger for life leads her through many travels and numerous marriages, before she returns to Chamisaville to oppose her father's ruthless ambitions.

A Real Kitchen Sink

That's how the author describes the book in his Introduction, and he's right. It's a big rambling work, bursting with characters, full of humour and compassion and raunchy sex, but also simmering with rage, which does not become truly apparent until the gut-wrenching ending. The Magic Journey has some of the same range, expansiveness, and multitude of characters as Pynchon's V and Gravity's Rainbow, though I much preferred The Magic Journey to those.

In the Introduction the author also says that he was "politicized in the mid-1960s by feminism, the antiwar movement, environmental activism, the fight for civil rights." All of these elements are present in the book. He adds, "Call this a 'regional' novel and I'll kill you."

Here's a typical passage, McQueen reflecting on his early years:

[He was] a skinny hobo tacker wild as a corncrib rat riding boxcars, hunting cigarette butts in gutters, pitching hay on west Texas prairieland until his back was almost broken, curled up under tattered blankets in snow-sprinkled winter arroyos half starving to death, grappling big-breasted farm girls ugly as homemade soap in horse-shit-smelling three-room shotgun shacks, and getting drunk in disaster alleys with other tow-headed buck-toothed big-eared scrawny redneck good 'ol boys on Saturday nights in small cowboy towns with names like Lampasas, Tulip, Ropesville, Tokio, Turkey, Matador, Rankin, and Iraan.

McQueen had strung barbed wire, milked cows, played $6.98 Sears Roebuck guitars, shot horses for meat (and rustled them, too), hunted rattlesnakes in annual roundups, stolen cars, spent a year in jail and another six months in the workhouse and on a road gang, managed a travelling carnival, and ridden broncos and bulls bareback in a hundred rodeos. He had failed in a dozen occupations before arriving in Chamisaville: logger, cowboy, trainman, wetback runner and farm contractor, oil rigger, all-around conman, poacher, Bible salesman, semipro football player, whatever had come his way.