Tag Archives: non-fiction

Glenn Gould by Mark Kingwell

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The name Glenn Gould conjures images of greatness, madness, and everything in between. Gould was, without a doubt, one of the greatest classical musicians of his time, if not ever. But, he was also the poster boy of eccentricity. His Goldberg Variations, which bookended his career, are works of legend in the world of classical music, and, at the same time, he was a hopeless hypochondriac, mentally ill, and addicted to a cocktail of prescription and over-the-counter medication. If there was ever a textbook case of contradictions, Gould was it. I first became aware of Gould’s existence 13 years ago in a Canadian Literature class at St. Mary’s University, during a unit on Northern lit in which we listened to his esoteric radio “documentary” The Idea of North. I am a relative newcomer to his music though; I’ve only been regularly listening to him for about a year (the Google Play streaming service has a fairly comprehensive Gould catalogue). He is, not surprisingly, one of the subjects in the Extraordinary Canadians series from Penguin. Philosopher and professor Mark Kingwell takes up the challenge of examining this colourful character. In doing so, Kingwell pushes the boundaries of the biography genre, even interpretive biography, to the extreme.

Kingwell abandons the traditional narrative form that biographies, of any type, typically take. This book could be better described as philosophical biography that attempts to get at the core of what made Glenn Gould tick, rather that simply tell his story. Not all biographical details are left out though: Kingwell does examine some important moments and elements of his subject – including the beginning of his professional career, his love of the microphone and abandoning of live performances, his important recordings including the Variations, and his more unusual personal attributes.

Many of the philosophical digressions and their relation to Gould were quite interesting – even though philosophy is not a discipline I was particularly fond of as a student. Kingwell looks at different aspects related to the philosophy of music and art – such as the line between composer and performer, the idea of “genius” in relation to music, and notions of performance whether live or recorded among others. Importantly, and ultimately necessary in a general audience book, the author is able to delve into this concepts using non-academic language free from much of the jargon inherent in any discipline.

I always hope to learn something whenever I read a biography of someone with whom I’m already somewhat familiar. Kingwell delivered. In the author’s examination of Gould, he looked beyond just the music and undertook a detailed study of his expansive written works. I didn’t know that Gould was a somewhat prolific, if not idiosyncratic, essayist. Over the course of his career, he published numerous articles in piano magazines (and also recorded a handful of spoken word records). In reading this book, it is clear that these somewhat rambling and occasionally incomprehensible articles – which include interviewing himself and regularly referring to himself in the third person, offer the clearest glimpse into the mind of this mad genius.

Overall, I was satisfied once I finished this book. If you are looking for a lot of information and straight biographical facts about Glenn Gould, you’re going to have to look elsewhere. But, as I’ve said before, this is an excellent philosophical biography of Gould. Mark Kingwell does a great job of getting to the heart of the enigma that was Glenn Gould. And from a different angle, Glenn Gould offers interesting explorations of the nature of music and art in today’s society that would be of interest to anyone who takes music seriously. Another great entry in the Extraordinary Canadians series.

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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.

Dance on the Earth by Margaret Laurence

Dance on the earth

I’ve said before on this blog that Margaret Laurence is my number 1 favorite author. It is because of her I fell in love with Canadian Literature and reading in general. Laurence died relatively young and had very little output after her magnum-opus, The Diviners, was published. Over the years, I kept a few of Laurence’s works on reserve for future reading because I don’t like the finality of reading everything she has published. He last book, and only major work after The Diviners, is her posthumously published 1989 memoir Dance on the Earth. Laurence died in 1987, shortly after completing a semi-final draft and before publication. In the foreword, her daughter Jocelyn does an excellent job of describing the last few months of Laurence’s life and the rush and struggle to finish this book. Her cause of death wasn’t actually revealed until James King’s biography was published many years later. There is no particular reason why I decided to read this now, I just felt that it was time. Dance on the Earth was an excellent coda on the writing career of a masterful author. In fact, this strong woman being ripped from this world while writing her memoirs could even be described as Laurence-esque.

Laurence crafts an autobiography that is all her own. She doesn’t follow a standard A-to-B-to-C structure. Instead, she frames each of the four primary chapters in terms of the important mothers in her life: her biological mother, her step-mother, her mother-in-law, and finally herself. Within each of these frames, Laurence discusses the major events, important people, and central places that made her who she was and helped shape her pacifist and feminist views. Interestingly, she doesn’t really get into discussing her own writing until the chapter where she focuses on herself. Laurence gets into her state-of-mind with her works, her reactions of reviewers, her dislike of the publicity/business end of it, and why The Diviners was her last major work. This section more than the rest is really a fascinating glimpse into a brilliant creative mind. Additionally, the memoir is peppered with wonderful letters between Laurence and others, with the letters to Adele Wiseman being a definite highlight.

The main bulk of the book is written with the same understated powerful prose that punctuated her Manawaka cycle, except Laurence herself takes the place of Hagar, Rachael, Stacey, Vanessa, and Morag. She is very open, vulnerable, and pulls no punches. My one negative critique of the book is some of the items included in the “Afterwords” section. The previously published essays, including articles on nuclear disarmament, feminism, and a convocation address were fantastic, they were wonderfully written, articulate, and quite persuasive in their arguments. But, the poems that were included were not that great. It upsets me a little bit that the final work of Laurence’s career is concluded with a bit of mediocre poetry that seems to have been written for personal occasions, not publication. I’m sure this was an editorial decision made after Laurence had left us.

It’s clear that Margaret Laurence knew her life was coming to an end (as we now know she made the decision herself on when it would end). This was also clear in the way the memoir ended. She seemed to wrap things up quickly and almost suddenly because she knew that’s how it had to be. This is not a criticism of the book or even something that takes away from it. Instead it further punctuates that the fact that this great author had a lot more to give to our country, even if her prime writing days were behind her.

The Door is Open by Bart Campbell

Door is open

Finalist for the 2002 Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize

Finalist for the 2002 City of Vancouver Book Prize

Golf season is winding down so I guess it’s time to start reviewing some books again. I recently moved my bookshelves around and I wanted to read a book from the top shelf of the first case, which happens to be my paperback non-fiction shelf. The book that caught my eye was Bart Campbell’s The Door is Open: Memoir of a Soup Kitchen Volunteer.

This memoir tells the story of a hospital lab technician who volunteers at a drop in centre in Vancouver’s East Hastings area after he and his wife separate. Across Canada, East Hastings has the reputation of being a very poor, hard, and drug and crime infested area. Images are conjured up of prostitutes, heroin, and destitution. This memoir was published in 2001 so it was before the opening of the safe-injection site InSite, and other focused government efforts, started to make a very small dent in the visible poverty.

This book is very short, with the epilogue it clocks in at only 144 pages, but it is 144 very well used pages. Each of the 10 short chapters pack a very strong punch. The Door is Open is more than simply a memoir filled with anecdotes about the characters he came across while volunteering, of which there are lots; Campbell looks at the nature of poverty and all of the complications that go along with it. In methodical fashion, he explores concepts of poverty and homelessness, crime, addiction, prostitution, mental health and suicide, and survival. Campbell beautifully pieces together cold-hard facts, personal observations, anecdotes, and expert opinions to paint a brutally honest portrait of East Hastings, which is, as he points out, the “poorest forward sortation area of all 7,000 postal prefixes” in Canada.

At the end of each chapter, Campbell has a coda of sorts with excepts from diaries he kept while volunteering. These excerpts act as real human examples of the themes he explored in the preceding pages. Also peppered throughout the book are beautiful black and white photographs of the East Hastings landscape.

I’ve been fortunate in my life that I’ve never had to stare down the prospect of real poverty. When I was younger I was the stereotypical “poor student,” but this was far from being “poor.” It just meant I had to call my parents to borrow a few bucks. I always had a job, a roof over my head, cable TV and internet, food, a car, and a few books to read. Poverty and desperation on this level is something middle-class Canadians like myself just don’t have to think about, even though, as Campbell mentions, Statistics Canada points out that most Canadians are only a few months away from homelessness. The Door is Open is a hard read because it forces you to face this world. The author pulls no punches and maybe, just maybe, he might change a few minds on the homeless.

Canada is in the midst of a federal election and we recently had a provincial election here in PEI. As I finished this book last night, it actually got me thinking (which was likely a goal Bart Campbell had), about the political approaches that are the typical go-to’s in this country. Over the last few years, it’s been all “affordable housing.” Just last week Liberal leader Justin Trudeau promised tax credits to developers to build low income housing. If Trudeau came to my door step right now, I would hand him a copy of this book, and ask him how this would help the people Campbell writes about (answer is, it wouldn’t).

The Door is Open was on the longlist for Canada Reads this year; I hadn’t actually heard of the book prior to this. Even though it is almost 15 years old at this point, it is still, quite sadly, very relevant. In a country with an economy worth over $2,000,000,000,000, there is no need for people to have such a meager existence. This is a fantastic book and a must read

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.

Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes by Kamal Al-Solaylee

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Selected for Canada Reads 2015

Winner of the 2013 Toronto Book Award

Shortlisted for the 2012 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction

I don’t read a lot of memoirs. It’s not that I have something against the genre, I have at least 10 on my to-read list, I just never seem to pick many up. This year’s Canada Reads included a memoir by journalist and professor Kamal Al-Solaylee – Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes. This books charts his development as a gay man in the Middle-East and his eventual relocation to his adopted home of Toronto. This short memoir is so much more than an individual man’s coming-out narrative. Intolerable is a thought-provoking blend of personal memoir, family dynamics, history, economics, and political science. Ultimately, this is the story of Kamal Al-Solaylee, but the sentiments he espouses are no doubt almost universal amongst the millions of immigrants in Canada.

What I loved about this memoir was the holistic approach Solaylee took. There are three broad topics that he tackles: his own development and coming out as a gay man, his relationship with his family, and the increasing religiosity and intolerance in the Middle East. Each of these three threads is tied into the others and seamlessly flows into every chapter.

This book really grabbed me. The author’s background as a journalist really shows in his easy to read and highly informative prose. With the perspective of a Yemini who lived in Cairo and Beirut over the course of several decades that is now solidly Canadian, the author gives a stellar account of the rise of religious intolerance in the Arab world and succinctly gets down to the root causes as he experienced them. It would be surprising for a lot of readers to realize that this state of affairs in this part of the world is a relatively new thing. Solaylee discusses how when he was a kid his sisters would go bikini shopping for their summer vacation while now they must wear a niqab and be accompanied by a man. He gets into the root economic causes that spurned this social change and even throws out some ideas about what the cures may be – including some thoughts on the Arab Spring.

Ultimately though, this is a story of family. Solaylee has a relationship with his family that is complicated beyond what any native born Canadian could really comprehend. The youngest of over 10 kids, and the son of an illiterate lower class mother and former business tycoon father, Solaylee could tell from an early age he was different from his siblings – and this feeling only got stronger as time went on. As more and more distance was between him and them, and the situation in the Middle East deteriorated, things became even more complicated. And as his cosmopolitanism grew, his unhappiness with their situation increased.

So looking through the lens of this year’s Canada Reads theme, “One Book to Break Barriers,” this book shatters a lot of them. Solaylee’s memoir explores homosexuality in the Third World, the nature of Islamic intolerance in the Arab world, post-colonialism and its lingering effects, multiculturalism and its downfalls, and the immigrant experience. This eye opening memoir is informative, but not dry. It takes points-of-view on issues but doesn’t sound preachy. And, near the end of the book, it is a deeply moving love-letter to Toronto.

Intolerable is one of the best memoirs I have ever experienced. The problem I sometimes run into with this type of writing is that it is so self-centered and devoid of context that as you read you continually ask “why should I care.” Kamal Al-Solaylee is now, without any disrespect intended, a relatively average urban Canadian. He was a journalist for numerous publications after paying his dues and working his way up, and he is now a journalism professor. But, the story of how he got there is fascinating, because it is not simply his story, it is the story of him, a family, and very volatile region. I still have 3 Canada Reads picks to read, but I’m thinking this book may be hard to top.

Stephen Leacock by Margaret MacMillan

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After reading a couple non-Canadian titles, I’ve been getting geared up to roll through the choices for Canada Reads 2015 so I can pick a horse. Before that though, I wanted to knock off another title in the Extraordinary Canadians series. Canada Reads is a celebration of Canadian writing and the particularities that make it unique; in that vein, I decided to read Margaret MacMillan’s entry in the series, Stephen Leacock. Why is Leacock worthy of being named an extraordinary Canadian? Simple, he was one of the most important writers in Canadian cultural history and is one of the fathers of the CanLit movement. Additionally, he is the father of Canadian humour (Haliburton being the grandfather) and his sketches paved the way for comic and satirical writers like Robertson Davies, Mordecai Richler, Stuart MacLean, Terry Fallis, and the list goes on. Without Leacock, 20th century Canadian literature would look a lot different.

In terms of the book, I was very much looking forward to reading it. I’ve read a reasonable amount of Leacock and know of his importance to our literature, but I really knew very little of the man himself. Margaret MacMillan, the acclaimed Canadian historian/academic and author of the well-known volume Paris 1919. Stephen Leacock is a mix of the standard and the interpretive forms of biography. In the first few chapters, MacMillan lays out the overarching legacy of Leacock, an overview of his life and career, and of course his writing. The subsequent chapters follows a more chronological telling of his life with enough detail that you can really sense what made Leacock tick. And finally, a short chapter at the end details the legacy of the great humourist.

The strength of this biography is the way MacMillan weaves in quotes from Leacock’s writing and her unflinching honesty about much of his writing and his personality in general. Leacock has legendary books – Literary Lapses, Sunshine Sketches, Arcadian Adventures, My Remarkable Uncle – but he also wrote a lot of rather dull pieces and much of his humour, especially his later works, haven’t aged well, if they were ever funny to begin with. But, the great works produced an international celebrity on the lines of Stephen King today. The author also does a great job tracking his rise as a public intellectual, his mediocre career as an academic, and his rather unremarkable personal life.

The central thesis of this biography is this – Leacock was arrogant, he was greedy, and he carried many of the sexist and racist views of his time. Ultimately though, who cares? He was a paradigm changing writer who is an essential cornerstone of CanLit who’s still widely in print today.

Margaret MacMillan’s short book gets to the major points quickly, is highly readable, and really explores his writing in an accessible and non academic-ese language. Like Maurice Richard, the book also does a great job or outlining why Leacock is, in fact, an extraordinary Canadian. This is the second book in the Penguin Extraordinary Canadians series that I have read, and so far I’m very pleased. As I mentioned before, I wouldn’t read a huge multi-volume biography of most of the subjects in the series, including Leacock. But, because of this series and MacMillan’s pared-down book, I now know the essential story of an important Canadian.

Maurice Richard by Charles Foran

Maurice Richard

I read a lot but I realized recently that my bookshelf is surprisingly deficient in the biography genre. Three months ago, the only biography on my shelf was James King’s The Life of Margaret Laurence. Subsequently, I collected a few more, Gray’s biography of Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill, Charles Foran’s seminal treatment of Mordecai Richler, and King’s bio of Jack McClelland. But then I remembered something I noticed a few years ago. Over the years 2008 to 2011, Penguin Canada published a series of short biographies under the editorship of John Ralston Saul. The Extraordinary Canadians series is a collection of 18 biographies that look at people who helped influence Canada into what it is today. The series includes writers and thinkers, prime ministers and political leaders, musicians and artists, and some that defy labeling – like Norman Bethune. Each of these volumes, written by someone with a particular interest or connection to the subject, is short in relation to the average biography; between 160 to 250 pages each, these books are miniscule compared to some of the behemoth multi-volume bios of important Canadians. A reading goal of mine for 2015 is to read the entire Extraordinary Canadians series, now that I’ve bought the whole collection and smuggled them into the house.

My first choice from this collection is Charles Foran’s Maurice Richard. I have to admit, I am not a hockey fan, nor a sports fan in general outside of golf (go ahead, laugh). It’s been at least 15 years since I’ve watched a hockey game. But, I do find sports history quite interesting. Maurice “Rocket” Richard is nothing short of a sports legend in Canada, and the title legend is barely adequate to describe the myth that surrounds The Rocket .The Richard Riot in March 1955 is also an equally mythical event that is commonly seen as a catalytic event leading to the Quiet Revolution. Foran charts Richard’s humble beginnings, his early hockey career, the 50-in-50 season, his maturation and decline, and his post-hockey life.

This book was a fantastic volume of interpretive biography; the writing was fluid and smooth, it wasn’t heartless and cold like a lot of academic biographies, and Foran didn’t get too deep into the minutiae that are ultimately unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Using the important moments in Richard’s life, Foran effectively shows the parallels between his career and the evolution of Quebecois culture. While I was rather ignorant of Richard’s biography, I don’t think there was much new or groundbreaking in this volume, but it was an excellent overview of The Rocket’s career, style, and his personality. He was uncomfortable with the adoration and I would even say somewhat ignorant of the cultural importance with which he represented. My favorite aspect of the book was the general descriptions of hockey in the 40s and 50s. This was a brutal gladiatorial blood sport; injuries that are relatively unheard of in the sport today were fairly regular in this time – shattered femurs or skull fractures for example (remember, no helmets). The event that led to Richard’s suspension and subsequent riot was a vicious on-ice assault that would lead to jail time today. Foran also lends an interesting personal touch; he includes a great postscript in which he talks about his own memories of the Habs and Richard in his own mixed English-French family.

I really enjoyed Maurice Richard. I would not be interested in a large, detailed biography of Maurice Richard, but thanks to this fantastic series from Penguin Canada, I have quite a bit about an important figure in Canadian sports and cultural history. Any culturally aware Canadian is aware that Richard was a transformational figure in Quebec and personified the linguistic/cultural tensions that arose from English-French cleavages in Quebec – and as Foran describes it, The Rocket helped the evolution from French Canadian to Quebecois.  I am looking forward to getting deeper into the Extraordinary Canadians and now especially excited to read Charles Foran’s GG-winning Mordecai: The Life & Times.

1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal by Christopher Moore

1867

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.

The Educated Imagination by Northrop Frye

educated imagination

Northrop Frye was, and still remains, one of Canada’s true national treasures. He was one the most prolific academics and thinkers this country has ever seen. He was a master in so many fields, literary criticism, philosophy, Biblical scholarship, cultural criticism, and was an able observer of the visual arts. On top of this, he was a skilled writer who could succinctly make a point and disseminate obscure concepts to the general reader. His contributions to literary studies were numerous: he literally changed the paradigm in English literary criticism with his signature book, Anatomy of Criticism; he defined the overarching thematic thread in early CanLit in his conclusion to W.H. New’s History of Canadian Literature; he wrote one of the great contemporary pieces of Shakespearian scholarship with his 1986 Governor General Award winning Northrop Frye on Shakespeare; and he wrote The Great Code, a masterful book examining the influence of the Bible over every aspect of Western artistic culture. It is really impossible to overstate the contribution of Frye to Canadian culture; he really was one of the greatest Canadians.

The Educated Imagination is Frye’s 1962 contribution to the CBC Massey Lectures – only the second set delivered. Still in print, this book is a regular title you’ll see stocked in the miniature section called “Literary Studies” at your local bookstore. This is a thin book; I read the Kobo edition which was only about 160 screens, so the paper version would be around 100 pages. Despite its small size, not since Margaret Atwood’s Survival have I been so affected by a single book. This little book should be required reading for every university English major in their first week and then be re-read every year. Additionally, everyone who teaches English, from elementary school through to PhD programs should be reading this book regularly.

This series of essays attempts to answer two questions: Why study literature? And How do we best teach literature?. Frye uses his strong and fluent prose to answer these questions. He contrasts the study of literature with that of physical sciences to demonstrate the power and importance of the human imagination. The Educated Imagination looks at so many topics: different levels of imaginative communication, use of metaphor and simile, censorship and free-speech, teaching methodologies, the importance of knowing Biblical and classical stories, and the interplay of the arts, social sciences, and physical sciences.

There was nothing revelatory about this book. By that, I mean there wasn’t any new Earth-shattering notions that hadn’t crossed my mind before in the abstract. This book affected me the way it did because of how it articulated concepts and ideas that have vaguely occurred to me over my many years of academic study and general reading. Frye lays out, in clear and eloquent language, the argument for the study of literature and the arts.

Massey Lecture titles are always very engaging reads. Northrop Frye’s books are always a highly pleasurable experience. The two combined is something almost too overwhelmingly great to put into words. Ironically, this book was only Frye’s third published volume of work and his first following his seminal Anatomy of Criticism. Even this early in his career, he shows off his intellectual muscle. Now, not to sound elitist or “snobby”, but this book is not for everyone because, honestly, a lot of people will not connect with the topics or even understand them. This book is a must read though for anyone who has formally studied literature (and wondered why as we all have), anyone who writes seriously, or anyone who reads to be enlightened or to expand the intellect, not just to pass the time.

The Educated Imagination is one of the best books in that large fuzzy “non-fiction” category, and the best literary studies book, I have ever read. Full stop. Go read it.

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