Category Archives: History

The Tiger by John Vaillant

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Winner of the 2010 B.C. National Book Award for Non-Fiction
Winner of the 2010 Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Award
Winner of the 2010 CBA Libris Award for Non-Fiction
A Globe & Mail Best Book ~ 2010
A Quill & Quire Best Book ~ 2010
Selected for Canada Reads 2012

The 2012 edition of Canada Reads switched gears a bit and focused on non-fiction titles for the first time. I remember thinking then that The Tiger by John Vaillant stuck out a bit from the others. It was the only book that didn’t have a Canadian connection, other than the author’s nationality, and it was the only history narrative, while the other four were all memoirs. As such, this title got a rough ride on the show. But, more than most of the other titles that year, this one caught my interest. I planned on reading the book while listening to shows, and it only took me over 3 years to actually get to it. Who wouldn’t be interested in a classic man-versus-nature story of a man-eating tiger? There is a certain primitiveness to this idea. A challenge to Man’s rank in the natural pecking order. What Vaillant has delivered in The Tiger, is an interesting mix of history, nature writing, political science, and psychology.

I’m going to give The Tiger a solid “ok.” Certain aspects of the book were very interesting. Vaillant’s digressions into the biology, ecology, evolution and biogeography of tigers were the highlight of the book; additionally, he went into great depth in exploring the current conservation status and the sharp decline in tiger numbers. During these chapters, I felt strong overtones of one of my favorite nature titles, Song of the Dodo. Another strong point of this book was the correlations Vaillant drew between perestroika – the opening of the Soviet economy in the late 80s – and the desperate poverty in this remote region of Russia forcing people to resort to things like poaching. It was through this particular lens that the central players in the story were most interesting and developed.

This book was a bit of a slog though. The actual forward motion of the narrative component was a little slow and at some points came to grinding halt. The Tiger could have easily shed 50 to 75 pages. But, oddly enough, during the third and final section, “Trush”, the narrative took off with the pace that I was hoping for and, ultimately, you as the reader do feel satisfied with the conclusion.

With all of that being said, one thing that definitely stands out is the amount of primary research that the author must have done to complete this book. Other than one documentary film and the contemporaneous news stories, there would be very little available in terms of first-hand accounts of these incidents. For the author, I imagine striking out into the backwoods of isolated eastern Russia must have been like entering a different planet.

That’s all I’ve got. This is a rather short review, but I just don’t have much to say. I find I always have lots to say on books that I either really liked or really didn’t like, but books like The Tiger where I am just kinda “meh, it’s alright,” just don’t elicit enough excitement in me either way to write a lengthy response.

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The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King

Inconvenient Indian

Winner of the 2014 RBC Taylor Prize
Shortlisted for the 2013 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction
Shortlisted for the 2014 Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature
Shortlisted for the 2013 Trillium Award
Selected for Canada Reads 2015

Two weeks ago I thought, great, I have 14 days to read the last Canada Reads title, lots of time to finish before the show. Then my wife came down with influenza, then my son did, then I did. So, with all of these flu related distractions, I finished the last Canada Reads 2015 pick with only a day or so to spare. Anyway…

Thomas King is one of Canada’s most respected writers and one of the top Aboriginal cultural figures in the country. It seems in the last few years he has really been at the top of his craft. His 2012 The Inconvenient Indian, prior to being selected for Canada Reads, won the RBC Taylor Prize, one of the most prestigious non-fiction prizes in the country, and his 2014 novel The Back of the Turtle won last year’s GG for fiction. Both titles received nearly universal praise. Thomas King has already had quite the literary career before this current run of greatness – he wrote the contemporary classic Green Grass, Running Water, a GG nominee and Canada Reads contestant in 2004; he was chosen to deliver and write the 2003 Massey Lectures, The Truth About Stories; and he’s been shortlisted for numerous awards, was made a member of the Order of Canada in 2004, and ran for parliament in Guelph for the NDP in 2008 coming in a solid fourth. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Thomas King is only the fourth author to have multiple books appear on Canada Reads. He is by far the most recognized name on the show this year, and judging from the chatter on Twitter, blogs, and the various polls on the CBC website, I’d say that The Inconvenient Indian is coming into the show as the frontrunner to win.

This is an interesting book and the one I was most looking forward to reading of the five. A lot has been said about it, the reviews have been stellar, the Goodreads average is very high, and the comments about it for Canada Reads have been warm. But, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of what kind of book this would be. Prior to starting page one, I assumed this would be a straightforward history of Natives in North America. But, The Inconvenient Indian is best described sociological examination of the Native condition through the lens of history. Basically, King tries to answer the question, “How did we (Natives) get here?” He looks at issues including land claims, poverty, prejudices, and politics with a particular focus on the 19th and 20th centuries.

The breadth of what King tackles is impressive. Armed with detailed research on treaties, legislation, history, and his own intellect, the author lays out the story of a people with a critical eye and unrestrained zeal. The strength of this book is King’s conversational tone. At no point does the reader feel like he’s being lectured to by Professor King, PhD; instead, it feels more like you’re sitting down for lunch at the local diner having a chat about current events. The writing is peppered with the author’s trademark wit, personal digressions, and tongue-in-cheek commentary.

This book obviously fits with this year’s Canada Reads theme. For me, it was something of an education. I follow politics in Canada very closely, but the mind only has a finite amount of attention that can be paid to issues, and some are invariably left out. Some people are rather ignorant of foreign policy, some of military issues, education, etc. For me, Native issues are one of those. It’s not that I don’t view it as an extremely important issue; it’s just not one I’ve followed closely. So this book broke a lot of conceptions and I think would be a good addition to academic and school reading lists.

My one problem is with how this book will compete in Canada Reads. It doesn’t have a narrative or characters in the same way as the other fiction and non-fiction books this year. Plus, this title, while it is technically a history, doesn’t follow a linear form of writing; chapters tend to be divided on thematic lines rather than chronologically. This is the inherent problem with comparing fiction to non-fiction. I doubt the discussion on the show will be limited to thematic topics – what happens when discussion turns to character development, dialogue, etc?

Thomas King is a national treasure. He represents so many different facets of Canadian identity. He is Canadian, he’s Native, he’s an immigrant, and he’s very conscious of all of those things. He has become one of the foremost literary commentators on Native issues in North America and one of Canada’s greatest writers period. The Inconvenient Indian will likely become his signature non-fiction work and I think this timely book will definitely be a strong contender on Canada Reads 2015.

1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal by Christopher Moore

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Christopher Moore is one of Canada’s best known current authors of histories. He’s a two-time Governor General’s Award winner (one for non-fiction and one for Children’s lit for a history book for kids) and has been shortlisted for a variety of literary non-fiction awards. He’s a well known columnist, a CBC and NFB documentary producer/host, and does extensive work with numerous historical societies. His work covers numerous topics and he writes in a manner that is both intelligent and accessible. Simply put, he is the guy in Canadian history right now. A few years ago I read and reviewed The Road to Confederation by Donald Creighton, which has long been considered one of the seminal histories of the making of Canada. Since I enjoyed his book so much, Moore’s 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal sat on my bookshelf, unread, literally for years. It has been a long while since I read Creighton’s book and I was itching to read a history, so this title caught my eye. Funny enough, this was the very first book I added to my “to-read” list on Goodreads when I first signed up.

I expected Moore’s book to simply be another retelling of the story of Confederation, just with his own conclusions that may or may not mesh with Creighton. 1867 was so much more. As the book begins, Moore essentially flat out states that Creighton was wrong. He says that Creighton’s conclusions came out of a very specific point in time and many perpetual myths about Confederation that aren’t 100% accurate (those typically taught in the school system) were drawn from his volume. From there, I knew this book would have a lot to offer. Moore’s story is told through two lenses: first, the constitution building approaches used by the Fathers of Confederation, spanning from the Charlottetown Conference to July 1, 1867; second, how does this historical time compare to the collapse of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords and the approach to these constitutional meetings from 1989 to 1992 (this would be relatively fresh in Moore’s mind, this book was finished in 1997).

1867 is as much a book of Canadian political theory as it is history. Moore uses frequent digressions into modern times for comparative purposes to seamlessly put the history into perspective. His central thesis is that the three Confederation conferences in Charlottetown, Quebec, and London were, at its most fundamental level, exercises in constitution making. He focuses on the different methods that were used to craft this new country: how the political leaders worked with the opposition, the relationship with the electorate, legislative philosophy and functioning, the role of the colonial governors and the British parliament, and the fascinating personalities of many of the participants that have been whitewashed by history over the decades. Moore does a masterful job of contrasting the Confederation meetings with both Trudeau’s 1981-2 meetings and Mulroney’s Meech Lake and Charlottetown meetings to craft the book’s central conclusion.

One of the most important early political accomplishments of colonial British North America was the achievement of what was called “responsible government,” this would now more properly be called parliamentary democracy. Essentially, what this means is that the executive, the cabinet including the Prime Minister, is responsible to parliament (and by extension the people), and not the crown, governor, or chief executive. This means that backbench and opposition members of parliament were tasked with keeping the government in line. Moore’s central conclusion in 1867 is that Canada is no longer a parliamentary democracy; we no longer have responsible government. We have become a pseudo-presidential state where backbench MPs, and opposition MPs, are nothing short of faceless drones responsible solely to the party leader. Moore’s exposition of this is absolutely brilliant – his writing, arguments, and style are formidable and hard to dispute. His arguments are nuanced and much more complex than I can articulate in a short blog post.

This book was revelatory. It was a lot different from The Road to Confederation in many ways. That book was more of a blow-by-blow history told through the lens of 1960s sensibilities. Creighton helped build the cult of Sir John A. and create the mythos of Confederation. Moore’s book, as I stated before, was as much political philosophy as it was history. 1867 uses a mix of history, biography, relevant digressions, political theory, and contemporary contexts to show how relevant the Confederation meetings could be to today’s political circumstances. This is required reading for Canadians who desire more from our elected representatives. This book is 17 years old and still in print, a rarity for a book of Canadian history. I really believe that this will go down as a classic in the genre in Canada.

Ice and Water by John English

Ice and water

After finishing Death on Two Fronts, I decided to read one more title from the History of Canada Series; I bought Ice and Water at the same time as the last book and it was next in the queue on my Kobo app, so I dove right in. I was looking forward to this title mainly because the actual subject matter interested me; I minored in Political Science and my graduate studies were in Island Studies so I was already fairly familiar with Arctic politics and some of the history around it. This is the fifth title in the History of Canada Series that I’ve read, and unfortunately, it was my least favorite so far. It wasn’t necessarily bad, it just didn’t live up to the expectations I went in with based on my experience with the previous four entries.

Ice and Water: Politics, Peoples, and the Arctic Council by John English is a look at the political history of the Arctic. English provides a bit of pre-World War II context, subsequently looks at Cold War era Arctic politics, and then zooms in on the formation and development of the Arctic Council that took place from the mid-1980s through to today. The book explores the relations between the “Arctic Eight” (Canada, US, Russia/Soviet Union, and the five Nordic countries), indigenous peoples (Inuit, Eskimos, and Saami), and NGOs (such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Federation) and how we ended up with the current international Arctic political dynamic. Topics such as sovereignty, defence, the environment, indigenous rights, and economic development are all examined through the lens of Northern politics.

Writing about contemporary history is very difficult – John English admits as much in his acknowledgements. Very little is archived, items may be classified in some way, many of the players are still politically active and therefore reluctant to speak candidly, media accounts that usually make up the primary sources may be unreliable, and most importantly it is hard to draw conclusions from events that have yet to be “concluded.” With that being said, John English must be one exceptionally well connected historian; his book is well researched, meticulously detailed, and leaves no stone unturned. I think it may be this meticulousness that made this title less enjoyable than previous History of Canada titles.

Ice and Water read more like a Master’s thesis than it did a general audience history. It wasn’t written in social science-ese but was very steeped in the conventions of political science and historical academic writing. This caused the book to be very heavy and dense; I usually read in bed at the end of the day and found myself exhausted after about the equivalent of 20 pages – making this is a very slow-read. I read this on my Kobo but the hardcover is almost 400 pages (which I’d argue is a lot for such a topic as Arctic politics).

I don’t want to leave the impression that I didn’t enjoy the book. I liked it, I just didn’t love it. If you have an interest in political history, international relations or Cold War politics, then you may enjoy this, even though it is a bit of a slow slog to finish. If, on the other hand, you like Canadian history but are not interested in any of the aforementioned topics, I would skip this one.

I’ve read only histories and academic titles for over a year now and it was fun while it lasted. But now, my brain needs a shift in my reading list. May 2013 was the last time I read a novel or book of poetry. The time has come to delve back into the exciting world of hardcore CanLit. Here we go…

Death on Two Fronts by Sean Cadigan

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It’s been over a year since my last book review and what a year it’s been. I completed a year of graduate studies in the fascinating, yet obscure, field of Island Studies. And, last but not least, my wife and I had a baby; our little bundle Gavin was born on November 4th, 2013. Now that he’s almost ten months old and actually sleeps through the night, and since I’ve completed all of the academic pursuits I’ll be pursuing for a while, I’m able to start pleasure reading again; so of course, that means new blog posts. Hopefully I haven’t forgotten how to review books, but surely you’ll forgive me if this first one in 15 months seems a little rusty.

For my first book read in almost a year, I decided to start with another title in Penguin’s History of Canada Series that I seem to lust after (in the literary sense). Death on Two Fronts: National Tragedies and the Fate of Democracy in Newfoundland, 1914-34 by Sean Cadigan is one the latest additions to the series. This book charts two decades of political culture in Newfoundland, spanning the years 1914 to 1934. The history is book-ended with the infamous Newfoundland sealing disaster of 1914 (which Kent Stetson dramatized in The Harps of God) and the end of responsible government culminating with the defacto return to crown colony status in 1934. The focus during the intervening years is obviously World War I and its effect on the Dominion of Newfoundland. Cadigan works his story around Newfoundland’s two fronts: the war front in Europe and the domestic political struggles at home.

Cadigan chronicles all of important events during this period with the vivid details and meticulously researched insight  – the Newfoundland disaster, WWI battles like Beaumont Hamel and Gallipoli, and the rise of progressive politics and its subsequent collapse. The major political players during the time are the primary figures and Cadigan often uses contemporaneous newspaper editorials to set the stage and situate the contrasting views prevailing in the Dominion at the time.

Newfoundland, during the period Cadigan explores, is a perfect example of “the island” acting as a microcosm of what was, and currently is, taking place in larger states. What I most enjoyed about Cadigan’s book was how relevant it is to today’s political and economic situations. Newfoundland was faced with an extremely polarized political culture and media (a la Fox News and MSNBC), a populace that increasingly demanded publicly funded services with no thoughts given to the cost, public debt that was completely unmanageable, and rising disillusionment with the political process and liberal democracy as a whole. While it is obvious to the reader with a century of hindsight how desperate the government was becoming (selling Labrador was considered a viable option to raise cash) and what the ultimate fate of Newfoundland would be, it was not clear to those involved until the very last moment.

This book worked for me on many levels: the writing was fabulous, the book was well researched, the selection of photographs were wonderful, the subject matter is as relevant today and it was in the early 20th century, the history was analyzed intelligently without being written in social-scienese (which is a challenging task) and the author masterfully balanced details with wide-lens scene-setting. Death on Two Fronts is a fantastic addition to The History of Canada series.

The Best Place to Be by John Lownsbrough

John Lownsbrough’s The Best Place to Be: Expo 67 and Its Time is the ninth entry in the History of Canada series published by Penguin Canada. As the title implies, it is the story of Expo 67, Canada’s centennial celebration held on constructed islands in Montreal. I was born in 1982, so I obviously didn’t attend the festivities and prior to reading this book I knew almost nothing about Expo 67 (except of course for what those Heritage Moments taught me); that is why this book titillated my interest. I learned a lot of interesting tidbits about the fair, but, unfortunately, this book did not live up to the expectations that its History of Canada brethren set up for it.

Among the positives in Lownsbrough’s book were the incredible detail he described and the way in which he tied the events of Expo into the wider context of Canadian culture and world events. I had no idea what Expo was all about and that it was such a large event. Dozens of countries setup pavilions, the various Canadian regions setup buildings, as did corporations, there was a giant amusement park, and, of course, Habitat – the one element of Expo I had certainly heard of and seen. Expo was a celebration of Canada, the world, and, as the Expo theme bluntly stated, “Man and His World.” The impression that I was left with after reading the book and looking up photos, was that this was a venerable artistic paradise. Avant-garde film, in both content and technology, was everywhere; the pavilions were bacchanalias of architectural prowess; and all manners of visual art were never more than 2 minutes away.

In addition to his lucid descriptions of the sights, Lownsbrough also made one point exceptionally clear: the men running Expo were unbelievably dedicated to the event and they knew that they were undertaking something special. The author did a fantastic job of setting the political scene for Expo; this event involved some very bombastic personalities, not the least of whom was Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau and eventual Parti Quebecois leader Rene Levesque.

Unfortunately though, The Best Place to Be could have been better. All of the other History of Canada books follow the convention of single author history books of telling the story in a linear, narrative fashion.  This book instead devoted each chapter to an individual element of the Expo, be it the people, the buildings, the context, VIP guests, etc. While I would not normally be that bother by this, there was no sequential logic to the chapters and the way they jumped around made the book feel disconnected and disorganized. The quality of writing wasn’t nearly as good as many of the high quality history books I have read in the last few years – it felt like the author was trying to be witty, but not very well. Finally, Expo was a very visual, tactile experience – the dearth of photographs in the volume was very disappointing. I read the Kobo ebook and I think there were in total maybe 20 screens worth of pictures (so about 10 pages in print) and there were no maps. This did not do it justice; going online I found thousands of beautiful and rich photos in the National Archives that were far superior to anything included in the volume.

Despite the book’s shortcomings, if you’re interested in Expo 67 or are a fan of the History of Canada series, I would recommend picking this up. It does provide some neat insight into the event and it is a good starting point if you were like me and knew nothing about this important milestone in our cultural history. As a closing note on Expo 67, there are rentals currently available apparently at Habitat 67 (although way out of my price range). Click here.

The Destiny of Canada by Christopher Pennington

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Penguin’s History of Canada series is one of my new favorite collections. I’ve collected all of the paperback releases and have them on a shelf with Oxford’s Wynford books and Penguin’s other fantastic series, Extraordinary Canadians. The Destiny of Canada, Christopher Pennington’s tale of the 1891 federal election, is the second book in the series that I have read (the first being The Last Act). Pennington takes the reader into the backrooms of the Macdonald and Laurier campaign; legends of Canadian history become fascinating characters (Sir Charles Tupper is my favorite). This book is like porn for the political junkie but is written in a way that anyone with even a passing interest in Canadian history will enjoy.

Pennington’s research was incredibly thorough. It is clear that he must have read thousands of newspaper articles as well as previous academic research. The tone of the book is somewhat sardonic; Pennington goes into great depth on the rampant corruption in almost every element of Canadian politics, but, instead of taking a judgmental tone, he simply expounds the details with a tongue-in-cheek wit. The author makes the case that the 1891 election was one of the most important in our history and it has largely been overlooked. Canada never had an election like the 1860 US vote, where the outcome would bring Earth-shattering consequences; the 1891 election was probably the closest to that which we have had. At stake, argues Pennington, was the fate of Canada. Would we travel down a road that would possibly lead to American annexation or would we stay on the current path which was bringing about severe economic hardships?

Sir John A. Macdonald was the star of the book. Laurier was obviously important, but at this early point in his career, he didn’t have the same gravitas as Sir John. I’ve really come to the conclusion, after reading many books on early Confederation, that Sir John A. was a Machiavellian political master. He did have major accomplishments: he was a leader Father of Confederation and under his reign he added all the territory save Newfoundland to the country, completed the railway, instituted the National Policy, and created what would become the RCMP. But, he also manipulated, bribed, “boodled,” and did just about anything imaginable to hang on to power. The author notes in the epilogue that Laurier was the same when he came to power. This behavior has to be taken into context though; this was perfectly normal and somewhat accepted as politics as usual in Canada in the 19th century. These details have simply been scrubbed out of junior high history books.

The book is filled with all kinds of interesting tidbits. It was common for individuals to run in multiple ridings to hedge their bets and running and serving concurrently in provincial and federal houses was common. And, what interested me very much, were the mentions of the insanely ambitious discussions in the 1880s and 90s to build a tunnel from PEI to NB.

The Destiny of Canada is a fantastic entry in the History of Canada series. It is very readable, it has a solid narrative flow, it is incredibly well researched, it is both balanced and thorough and there are several pages of portraits of the important figures and a good number of editorial cartoons. This book would be enjoyed by Canadian history enthusiasts, political junkies, or anyone who enjoys quasi-political TV shows like The West Wing or Veep.

The other titles in the History of Canada series cover Expo 67, the 1981 constitutional debate, the Fenians, WWII in the St. Lawrence, and the Plains of Abraham battle. Get these on you bookshelves. The History of Canada Series

The Universe Within by Neil Turok

Universe Within

Longlisted for the 2013 Charles Taylor Prize

An Amazon.ca Best Book ~ 2012

If I would have worked harder at math in high school, I would have been an astrophysicist. The cosmos fascinates me; the study of physics of attempts to answer the most fundamental question in all of existence: how did we get here? Physics and cosmology play with such fantastic ideas that it makes your head spin. Spacetime, the Big Bang singularity, black holes, quantum particles, a multiverse, 11 spacial dimensions, and imaginary numbers like the square root of negative 1 are all fascinating topics. Who hasn’t been fascinated by Schrodinger’s Cat and who hasn’t looked up who Heisenberg was after watching Breaking Bad? Neil Turok’s The Universe Within, the 2012 Massey Lecture series, is an examination of the history of physics, how physics has shaped our world, and a philosophical treatise on the power of human mind. The Universe Within, particularly the fifth and final chapter, is an epic examination of science and is a very powerful read.

Turok, a world renowned physicist, explores the development of physics through its major stages. He looks at the contributions of the Greeks like Pythagoras, Newton and the beginning of classical physics, Einstein and the physics renaissance of the early 20th century, and the current quantum revolution. Throughout this history, Turok gives insights into his own experiences as a student of physics while growing up in Africa, giving back to the continent, and what the future of science in Africa may hold. He speaks very passionately about this subject and has great hope for the developing world. His prevailing question seems to be “what would happen of all seven billion of Earth’s minds fulfilled their potential?” This is certainly a great question to ask.

I LOVE the Massey Lecture books and this was a fantastic entry, but it didn’t knock off A Short History of Progress as my favorite (but I think Wright’s book was one of the most important pieces of writing in the last half-century). Of all the Massey Lecture’s I’ve read though, Turok’s book was certainly the most thoroughly and widely researched, covering not only science but history, philosophy, and literature. My one criticism of the book is that, at certain points, maybe a total of 20 pages, Turok gets way too technical for the average reader. There were times that he was elucidating mathematical formulae that were so complicated that I kind of zoned-out. But, with that being said, with some very very complicated theories, like the singularity, inflation, quantum mechanics, and string theory, Turok did a masterful job of “dumbing-it-down,” so to speak, for us non-scientists. (I tell my wife I’m a scientist all the time, but apparently studying the literary history of small islands doesn’t make me one…in her opinion).

The last chapter of this book absolutely blew me away. If you don’t have time to sit down and read a 250 page book, buy this title, and just read the final 50 page chapter. In it, Turok discusses the coming age of quantum computing. In addition to humanity approaching the end of its supply of non-renewable resources, it seems, according to Turok, that we are 20 years away, at most, from reaching the finite maximum computing speed using existing technology (because transistors in CPUs are limited by the size of an atom, and right now they are not much larger than that now). His discussion on the development and ramifications of quantum computing were fascinating.

Turok’s primary theme is that the human mind seems to have no limits. In our short time as a civilization, we have already mapped the visible universe, discovered the Higgs Boson, and are on the brink to solving the mystery of the Big Bang. Personally, I also think we are also on the brink of “discovering” a multiverse, travelling faster than light, and finding evidence of extraterrestrial life. Within his scientific writing, Turok is very humble about his place in the world (he has an astrophysics equation named after him) and he is also somewhat critical of the wider study of science. He advocates for a return to a common 18th and 19th century practice of public scientific lectures and making scientific research a part of everyday culture and thinking, removing the disconnect between the lab and the wider-world.

Even someone with the most rudimentary understanding of science will enjoy this book. If you enjoy science and are fascinated by the universe, this is a must read. In time, I think The Universe Within will join other books like A Brief History of Time, The Elegant Universe, and Cosmos in the canon of popular-science classics.

The Last Act by Ron Graham

Shortlisted for the 2011 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing

Globe and Mail Top 100 Book – 2011

The Last Act by Ron Graham is from Penguin’s new History of Canada series. When I first saw this series in the bookstore, with titles exploring the legendary 1891 federal election, the now mythic Plains of Abraham battle, Expo 67, and the German U-boat battles in the St. Lawrence, I almost had a stroke induced by excitement. A quality series of books, by very reputable writers, digging into events that are known at at least in a general way by the Canadian citizenry  is something to be celebrated. I immediately grabbed a pile of these titles and headed to the cash. Since I just finished Donald Creighton’s pair of histories on Canada, I figured this book would be a good follow-up.

Two great things happened to Canada in 1982: I was born and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was passed. Ron Graham’s The Last Act: Pierre Trudeau, the Gang of Eight, and the Fight for Canada is an account of the November 1981 conference that resulted in severing one of the last lingering remnants of colonialism. (Eventually we will sever the last and get rid of that anachronistic monarchy that is still technically our Head-of-State). This meeting brought about constitutional patriation, the Charter, an amending formula, and set into motion the wheels of the Quebec sovereignty movement that culminated in the 1995 referendum. While the book focuses on the events of November 4 and 5, there is a great prologue giving historical context and a fantastic epilogue discussing Mulroney’s failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords. Ron Graham has written a masterpiece of Canadian political history; it is highly readable and accessible, but also very thoroughly researched and scrupulously cited with a huge bibliography. In years to come, The Last Act will be looked at as an authoritative text on the 1981 constitutional debate.

Something that is interesting about Graham’s writing style is, with the exception of his epilogue, the utter neutrality he takes towards the people involved, especially Rene Levesque whom he tries to portray in as sympathetic manner as possible. As a reader though, depending on your ideological tendencies, you will definitely end up taking sides and developing strong dislikes of certain players (for instance I would have liked to beat Peter Lougheed and Sterling Lyon with a rubber hose).

This book could have become bogged down in philosophical notions of federalism, the role of the courts, and constitutionalism. These ideas are present, but they come out in the words of the players themselves through interviews, quotes, and their general actions. After reading Creighton’s The Road to Canada and learning about how opposed the Fathers of Confederation were to the concept of “provincial rights” and their destructive nature, I was fascinated by the importance of it in the negotiations.

I have always been a huge admirer of Pierre Trudeau, and this book did nothing but deepen that admiration. Trudeau took the long view. By introducing the Charter, he ensured fundamental freedoms for all Canadians. The political scientist in me firmly believes that for a liberal-democracy to function in the interests of its citizens, checks-and-balances need to be in place. The Charter provides this; important changes in Canada’s social fabric were brought about because of the Charter, changes that politicians would be terrified to touch (reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, safe-injection sites, and soon hopefully, assisted suicide). Trudeau was a Canadian visionary, but above all, he was a shrewd political mind, and love him or hate him, in November 1981, he was definitely the smartest guy in the room.

Canada’s First Century by Donald Creighton

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It is a very rare occurance for me to read two books by the same author back-to-back, but I felt I would be doing a disservice to Donald Creighton and to the early study of Canadian history if I didn’t read this book. Canada’s First Century is essentially a sequel to the last book I reviewed, The Road to Confederation, and judging by the cover design, the folks running the Wynford Project wanted to link the two titles in this way. This book picks up at midnight, July 1st 1867 and ends with Expo ’67. Post-confederation Canada has a rich and multifarious history and capturing a century of our story in 356 pages is a difficult task. For the most part, Creighton recites the political history of Canada’s first hundred years with chapters roughly divided up by who the Prime Minister was at the time. He wrote this book in the late 60s with publication coming in 1970. The historical interpretation and view of the world/Canada is definitely of its time; the Cold War was raging, the Quiet Revolution in Quebec was in full force, we were becoming almost inseparably linked to the US, and the welfare state system which Canadian’s now proudly identify as part of our collective identity was becoming firmly entrenched into the social fabric of this relatively young nation. All this being said, it is understandable that Creighton had an uncertain and pessimistic view of what the future held for his country.

This author was not short on opinions and he liberally inserted them into his book; something that few credible historians have the guts to do today. He was not ideologically or party driven in his clear admiration for certain Prime Ministers. He had high praise for Laurier and Bennett, but harsh criticisms of Borden and St. Laurent. The level of anti-Americanism that oozes from Creighton is almost militant; he only barely stops short of calling the US blatantly evil hypocrits. A similar level of disdain is also reserved for the Quebec nationalism that was growing in the 60s. Of the last 50 pages, at least a third of it is analyzing the issue of “bilingualism and biculturism.” Like every historian I have ever had the pleasure of working with (they really are fascinating humans), Creighton offers no solutions or predictions; he simply points out the lessons that can learned from our collective experience.

Six months ago I read A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright which examined how everything that happens does so in a cyclical way and that essentially nothing is without precedent. In the context of Canadian political history, this book shows that everything important in Canadian politics in the last decade also has precedent; be it an American snub of Canada over foreign policy, using rules of parliament and prorogation for political gains, party leadership quarrels, or using debate closure to force controversial legislation through the House of Commons.

Canada’s First Century was a fascinating read because it highlighted both the well-known events in Canadian history, like the Manitoba Schools problem or the WWI conscription debate, and lesser-known episodes of our history and politics. This book didn’t read as smoothly as The Road to Confederation and some parts seemed a bit clunky. Despite this, Donald Creighton certainly captured the nuances of Canada as it stood in the 1960s and certainly provides food-for-thought for where we going and where we are at now, on the eve of our sesquicentennial.

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