Pick Your Antidote
Short reviews of ten books past and present.
It is hard to imagine a more dreadful year in the post-war period than the one the world has just been through. Of course there have been human-made catastrophes in all-too-familiar places: Congo, Afghanistan, Gaza, Sri Lanka. And there have been the usual natural and environmental disasters in Italy, Mexico and China. But the global economic meltdown, triggered by the subprime mortgage crisis in the United States last fall, possessed the uniquely unsettling power to undermine the well-being of almost every person on the planet—except for those lucky Wall Street brokers still collecting their bonuses.
LRC readers need a break from all this, but trying to recommend some good beach reading for this particular summer presented unusual challenges. How can books help to relieve the trauma? For some, mindless escape fiction could be the way to go, so we have included some of that. Others might prefer just to get as far away as possible, so a bit of romantic armchair travel or interesting historical distance seemed to be in order. Then there are those who deal best with adversity by delving deep inside it, so the list needed at least one meaning-of-life book, if not a couple. Finally, for the truly resentful among us, a good dose of Schadenfreude appeared to be just the ticket.
We have all of us imbibed the same poison, apparently. But the antidotes (at least the literary ones) come in many different varieties: the following are an eclectic mix of possibilities—some Canadian and some foreign, not all new—and we invite you to pick your favourite.
Summertime, and the livin’ is easy …
The wretched lives of the residents of Hugh Garner’s Cabbagetown, the neighbourhood he chronicles through the Depression years, provide a welcome reminder that no matter how bad things might get this time around, they were worse in ways that have since been remedied.
However long our waiting lists are for medical treatment, we can see a doctor whether we are in the black or the red, unlike Garner’s alter ego, Ken Tilling, who treats his blistered hands by soaking them in urine so he can get back to the fields and continue haying. More significantly, a premarital pregnancy today does not mean what it did for Garner’s heroine, Myrla Patson, whose seduction by her employer results in a bottomless downward spiral beginning with an illegitimate birth and ending in tawdry prostitution.
Similarly, while booze may take an increasing toll over the course of this economic crisis, as it did during the Depression, at least now we have a diverse selection of fine wines and spirits, and women do not have to enter a tavern by a separate door and stay sequestered in the Ladies Room. If they can’t handle the brew, they are also less likely to end up frozen to death in an alley, the way Tilling’s mother did—Alcoholics Anonymous having begun in Canada a few years after Cabbagetown ends.
Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time
Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
With endless agonizing in the press over declining stock portfolios, it is refreshing to read a book like Three Cups of Tea instead, about someone who sees globalization as an opportunity not to exploit new markets but to help others. A climbing bum from Montana, Greg Mortenson failed in a 1993 attempt to scale Pakistan’s K2 and then took refuge in the small village of Korphe, whose residents nursed him back to health. Having watched local children try to learn by writing in the sand with sticks, Mortensen then rashly promised to return and build a school as a show of gratitude. Which he did.
This is a feat he has since replicated almost 80 times in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan’s remote villages, building schools primarily for girls. Three Cups chronicles the remarkable challenges Mortensen overcame in the process, including local corruption and intransigence, a brief kidnapping, and religious fundamentalism. (Back in the United States, he met at first with indifference and then with death threats, from those upset at his talk of root causes and pragmatic willingness to work even with former Taliban.) As a result, Mortensen has been embraced as family in a region where Americans are deeply mistrusted—one most westerners cannot identify on a map—and made a real difference for its poorest people.
Happiness: A History
Darrin M. McMahon
Atlantic Monthly Press
When contemplating life in a recession, it might be comforting to remember that many canonical thinkers did not attach much value to material success. Examples range from Horace (“The more money grows the more the greed / grows too; also the anxiety of greed”) to Adam Smith himself (“wealth and greatness are mere trinkets of frivolous utility”).
Those are just two of many quotes that Darrin McMahon cites in tracing the radically different ways that prominent western writers over the ages have conceived of human satisfaction. Vaulting from Herodotus to Aquinas and de Tocqueville through Marx and Beckett, McMahon sketches out a gradual secularization and democratization in the idea of happiness: he argues that while the ancient Greeks essentially believed it an idyllic state reserved for the gods, thinkers from Socrates on advanced the appealing notion that ever more people could expect happiness in their own lives. Permanent contentment was somehow within human grasp, whether pursued through personal virtue, religious ecstasy or proletarian revolution.
McMahon argues, however, that both chance and humanity’s natural restlessness make the now commonplace ideal of personal happiness a mirage. Freed from chasing it, he hopes, we might learn to deal gracefully with what Freud described as “ordinary unhappiness” while enjoying life’s simple, necessarily fleeting pleasures.
Tea Time for the Traditionally Built
The tenth installment of Alexander McCall-Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series delivers exactly what readers have come to expect from this wildly successful franchise. Tea Time for the Traditionally Built centres on a mystery resolved with homespun sagacity by Botswanan detective Precious Ramotswe and her prickly sidekick Grace Makutsi. The owner of a municipal soccer team, Leungo Molofololo, asks Ramotswe to investigate the disaffection that afflicts his players. As the story unfolds, the abrasive Molofololo is forced to confront a few of his personal failings: “Sometimes we do not find out exactly what clients want,” Ramotswe notes in summarizing her modus operandi, “but we find out what they need to know.” Combined with an evocative African setting, in which poverty and happiness easily coexist, this upbeat emphasis distinguishes Tea Time and its predecessors as ideal literary comfort food for their many fans worldwide.
Nevertheless, McCall-Smith aspires to more. The Detective Agency stories emphasize the characters’ everyday dignity and humour in the face of difficult circumstances, qualities that he believes apocalyptic western narratives about Africa—from Heart of Darkness to the daily news—too often neglect; likewise, the books consciously celebrate the overlooked success stories McCall-Smith sees in places like Botswana.
Closer to the Sun
Garth Drabinsky, with Marq de Villiers
McClelland and Stewart
If a touch of Schadenfreude would help you through this summer of our discontent, you could do worse than revisit the over-reaching autobiography penned by one of Canada’s favourite felons, Garth Drabinsky. He wrote it when he was flying high in the mid 1990s as the head of Livent, having recently escaped his near-death experience with Cineplex Odeon. Corporate names that have since turned villainous echo through these pages—Ivan Boesky and Robert Campeau, Morgan Stanley and Bear Stearns—which also feature every Hollywood and Broadway star in the firmament.
Drabinsky shoots his famous venom at many enemies, most entertainingly at the Canadian cultural nationalists (“They wanted to discredit me, discredit my prospectus, discredit my financing, discredit my movie—I was being swamped in negativity”) and at the bankers (“Those blind, smug people with their shuttered minds and that smothering blanket of condescension. How I loathed them!”). And here’s Drabinsky’s explanation of the title he chose for his book: “In Greek mythology, Icarus plunged into the sea when he flew too close to the sun. It’s supposed to be a lesson in the sin of hubris. I think the bastard just gave up too soon.”
Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
In times like these, employing one’s imagination can be a welcome remedy for stress. Mississauga native Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts offers engaging escapism with a clever conceit, telling the story of a failed relationship by way of the objects owned by a couple during their four years together. A mock auction catalogue listing the now-defunct duo’s personal items for sale, the book constructs the narrative arc of a fictional affair between Lenore Doolan, a food writer at the New York Times (played by writer Sheila Heti), and Harold Morris, a peripatetic photographer. Through photographs of the pair and their possessions, along with emails, handwritten notes and the brief but revealing catalogue copy, Shapton outlines the liaison from beginning to end.
There’s a voyeuristic thrill that comes with poring over the couple’s personal effects, and Shapton’s book indulges the urge to slip inside their domestic drama and inspect everything from Morris’s lame attempts at art—snapshots of beef jerky and hotel ceilings—to photographs of brassieres and toiletries, to excerpts from Doolan’s diary: “I love his legs. I hate his sullenness.” Piecing together the unlucky lovers’ story from the series of images is an exercise in imagination, empathy and flagrant nosiness at its most satisfying.
The Geography of Hope
Random House Canada
Those wishing to read a book on the current state of the environment, but unable to muster the steely indifference required to endure the usual grim forecast, can find an alternative in Chris Turner’s The Geography of Hope.
Rather than aiming to distress, Turner instead motivates through well-researched examples intended to sow (cautious) optimism: among others, a “next generation development boutique” based in New Jersey that provides financing and business development support to renewable-energy businesses and a remote Thai village where solar panels and a hydroelectric dam powered by a creek provide all the electricity. In one of the many stops Turner makes in his search for examples of budding eco-consciousness, he marvels at the German suburb of Vauban, a former World War Two French military barracks, now a shining, contemporary example of low-impact living. There, cars have been replaced with bicycles, photovoltaic tiles cover roofs, and any given apartment in the town uses between “zero and 30 percent of the energy of a standard German building.”
Although environmentalists with a predilection for scare tactics may be put off by Turner’s approach, there is no denying it is catching on. With plans for a Vauban-like community on the outskirts of Oakland currently in development, the positive tone of The Geography of Hope may be the timbre of the future.
New Grub Street
If you think the cash nexus, consumerism and debt reached their apotheosis this past year, take a look at New Grub Street, George Gissing’s excoriating 1891 novel of the high Victorian era, in which every character is judged entirely by his or her yearly investment income. As one of the females says, “Anything is better than to say plainly, ‘My husband can’t support me and he has gone to work as a clerk for weekly wages.’”
Although it is clear that Gissing’s own sympathies are with Edwin Reardon, a miserably struggling novelist who has married a beautiful and demanding woman of high expectations, the dominant voice of the novel belongs to Jasper Milvain, a brilliantly opportunistic young man of letters who trumpets his materialistic beliefs with glee: “Luxuries are a most important part of life. I had rather not live at all than never possess them,” he writes. “Happiness is the nurse of virtue. And independence the root of happiness.” At the novel’s end, as he sits with his arm around the waist of his trophy wife, Reardon’s widow, they proclaim a final salvo: “Isn’t the world a glorious place?” “For rich people.” “Yes, for rich people. How I pity the poor devils!”
Leona Helmsley could not have said it better.
The Age of Spiritual Machines
Nothing reduces short-term anxieties like the pronouncements of a wide-eyed futurist, reassuring us of the wonders awaiting just beyond the latest catastrophe. And few are more wide-eyed than inventor and technological pundit Ray Kurzweil.
Perhaps the best introduction to his ideas, The Age of Spiritual Machines attempts to prove that humans are in the process of creating beings more intelligent than themselves. Just as humans are more complex than the simpler beings from which we evolved, Kurzweil argues, so our carbon-based neurons have created the electronic means of overcoming the human brain’s built-in limitations.
He makes this prediction through a heroic extrapolation of Moore’s Law, the observation that the number of transistors on a relatively inexpensive integrated circuit has doubled roughly every two years since 1971. This trend has allowed exponential increases in computing power, and Kurzweil claims that if it continues to the end of the century, human and machine intelligences will be virtually indistinguishable. He further maintains that technological advances such as these (benevolent) artificial minds will by then have eliminated war and poverty, with humans having discovered the means to ensure cybernetic immortality.
Hilarious sci-fi fantasy? Kurzweil’s Pangloss-on-cocaine musings might seem outlandish, but he has his share of ardent admirers, including a raft of influential new economy types.
To Timbuktu for a Haircut
In troubling times, travel reading holds out the possibility of escape—all at little risk to one’s pocket book or well-being. In To Timbuktu for a Haircut, Rick Antonson, a middle-aged, Canadian travel executive, takes us with him on a solo pilgrimage.
The trip is inspired by the great African explorations of Laing, Caille and Barth, and by Timbuktu’s glory days as a centre of trade in the northwest of the continent. But romantic visions of spice markets and exotic treasures are dashed by the modern Timbuktu’s mud huts and disarray: only the city’s archives offer Antonson any sense of its historic glory.
While an unplanned sojourn to a music festival at the Saharan oasis Essakane transports the reader into the desert night, it is not until Antonson leaves Timbuktu behind, journeys down the great Niger River and begins a ten-day sojourn across the Dogon Plateau that our narrator seems to come alive to the wonders of the landscape. “Led from behind” by his local guide Zak, Antonson discovers the solitude he has longed for as he walks the footpaths between villages and sleeps on rooftops under the African sky.