American Heiress

By Jeffrey Toobin

The twentieth century had a lot of “crimes of the century.” Best-selling author and CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin has already written a book on one of them, the O. J. Simpson case, and in American Heiress he takes on another: the kidnapping and subsequent criminal career of Patricia Hearst.

What makes a crime a crime of the century? Celebrity is one crucial ingredient. Patty Hearst wasn’t famous for anything she did, but she had a famous name, being an heiress to the Hearst family fortune (her grandfather was the tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Citizen Kane himself).

Then there is the matter of how sensational and media-friendly a case it was. Here again Hearst’s story checked all the boxes as the revolutionary Symbionese Liberation Army played the media for all it was worth before going down in a blaze of guerilla glory on live TV (a novelty at the time). To this day the image of “Tania” (Hearst’s nom de guerre) holding a machine gun in front of the SLA flag is one of the most iconic of the period. In many ways her controversial trial-of-the-century, starring F. Lee Bailey for the defence, was anti-climactic.

A final factor contributing to crime-of-the-century status is broader cultural significance. In the case of O. J. Simpson, for example, there was the issue of race in America. For the story of Patty Hearst it was the moment of backlash against the counterculture. By 1974, the year she was kidnapped, the Summer of Love was a bitter memory for many, even in San Francisco.

Hearst was, in Toobin’s analysis, “emblematic of the political evolution of the country during the 1970s,” going from being a symbol of wounded innocence to one of wayward youth, “just another privileged youngster who had turned her back on all that was wholesome about her country.”

The hero of the historical moment wasn’t Patty’s father, a genial, alcoholic patrician who came to be seen as a lax and irresponsible parent, but the law-and-order governor of California Ronald Reagan. You didn’t need to be a Weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing. After her rescue Hearst adjusted quickly to the changed political climate, casting herself as the victim in a captive narrative and marrying her police-officer bodyguard.

The question of how sincere Hearst was in her turnaround is the question that has dogged her ever since.

Was she just a naive idiot? If not for their involvement in a couple of murders (one of which was apparently accidental), the SLA might be remembered today as a comic gang that couldn’t shoot straight, and the story of Hearst’s kidnapping a 1970’s version of O. Henry’s classic story “The Ransom of Red Chief” (a parallel that at least one SLA member drew explicitly).

Was she a victim: raped and brutalized, coerced and brainwashed by the SLA? It’s clear she had numerous chances to escape, but was she too traumatized or fearful to take them? Had she developed Stockholm syndrome?

Or was she a willing participant in the SLA’s madcap plans for revolution but then changed her mind when the law caught up with her? Was throwing her fellow revolutionaries under the bus just the price she had to pay in order to re-embrace her former life of privilege?

Readers will have to make up their own minds. Toobin, who did not get to interview Hearst, has no particular agenda and lets the facts speak for themselves. What he does render judgment on is the distasteful aftermath of the affair, as Hearst, after being convicted for bank robbery, had her sentence commuted by President Carter before receiving a pardon from President Clinton. As Toobin observes, “Rarely have the benefits of wealth, power, and renown been as clear as they were in the aftermath of Patricia’s conviction.”

If there’s a moral to the story it is here. Wealth will out. “The story of Patricia Hearst,” Toobin concludes, “as extraordinary as it once was, had a familiar, even predictable ending.” After her brief flirtation with fame and notoriety Hearst returned to lead “the life for which she was destined.” In this she was, again, flowing with the historical tide. Waking from the nightmare of revolution and social upheaval, Americans just wanted to enjoy being rich.

Review first published in the Toronto Star August 7, 2016.

Take Us to Your Chief

By Drew Hayden Taylor

Drew Hayden Taylor admits that “First Nations and science fiction don’t usually go together.” In the popular imagination they tend to occupy different mythic poles, making Native science fiction a “literary oxymoron.”

Taylor, however, is a fan of hybrids and so took up the challenge of wedding the two. As with most mash-ups the tone is mostly comic, playing off of incongruities. The idea that dream catchers might be part of a mind-control conspiracy is just one example. Because let’s face it, there has to be some sinister explanation for their popularity, doesn’t there?

The dream-catcher story has serious undertones though, reflecting Native distrust of government agencies. The best science fiction always hooks into contemporary issues in this way, its vision of the future a commentary on the present. And so Taylor is able to weave familiar SF tropes together with traditional Native narratives throughout, as with the experience of “first contact.” This is a story Natives have heard before, so they’re immediately on their guard when the alien Zxsdcf arrive. Do these visitors want to make treaties with Earth, or just go for genocide?

There may also be a deeper philosophical message involved in Taylor’s hybrids. In several stories the idea of animism is introduced, the belief that everything is alive or has a soul. One young man’s suicide is even derailed by the various objects in his bedroom coming to life, led by an old toy robot named Mr. Gizmo.

Such a world view is very different from that of SF, which is more driven by technology than a spiritual kinship with nature. The story “Lost in Space” plays with this contrast, portraying a Native astronaut named Mitchell who feels out of touch with Native traditions in an environment where everything, even the gravity, is manufactured and artificial.
Like all of us, Mitchell is lost in modernity, drifting alone through space, unattached to anything real. And yet it’s his shipboard Artificial Intelligence that comes to Mitchell’s rescue by providing Aboriginal drum music and old videos of his discussions with his grandfather in order to overcome his sense of rootlessness and isolation.

Finding links to our past in the future will be an important task. And for good or ill, technology will have to be our guide.

Review first published in the Toronto Star October 9, 2016.

Hitler: Ascent

HITLER: ASCENT, 1889 – 1939
By Volker Ullrich

Another biography of Hitler? And not just another, but another great big biography of Hitler?

Hitler: Ascent, which takes us from Hitler’s birth to his fiftieth birthday, runs nearly 1,000 pages and is only the first part of a two-volume set, a massiveness that recalls Ian Kershaw’s epic treatment of the same subject (Hubris and Nemesis).

But yes, another big biography is necessary, and for several reasons.

In the first place because the demand is there. Hitler has been one of the most studied figures in all of history, to the point where whole books have been written about the books that have been written about him, but interest remains higher than ever in the twenty-first century.

Second, while most of the story has been thoroughly researched and is well known, new information (not all of it reliable) keeps coming out in dribs and drabs, mostly in the form of diaries or letters located in archives. The complete diaries of Goebbels, for example, turned up after Kershaw had finished his work, and missing parts from the diaries of Himmler were only discovered earlier this year.

And finally another biography is necessary because Hitler is always with us, with every right-wing demagogue and tin-pot dictator who comes along inevitably made out by the media to be this reincarnation. There’s even something called Godwin’s law that says that the longer any online discussion goes on, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler. He’s inescapable.

Given Hitler’s continuing cultural presence it behooves us to have a fuller understanding of the man, one that explains the meaning behind the myth and places him in his appropriate context.

That context is complex, but Ullrich makes it accessible, judiciously balancing his analysis betwen the personal and the political. Difficult patches like the Nazi’s seizure of power, and how near-run a thing it was, are clearly described, while a sensible discussion is provided of what can be said about Hitler’s personality. In style and tone it is closer to the work of Joachim Fest than that of Kershaw, which shouldn’t come as too big a surprise given that both Fest and Ullrich come from a background in journalism whereas Kershaw is an academic. Ullrich, even in translation, is far easier to read than the precise but dull-as-dust Brit.

Ascent won’t be the last word, because there can never be a last word on Hitler. But this is an excellent bio — authoritative, up-to-date, and readable — that has given us a Hitler for our time.

Review first published in the Toronto Star September 25, 2016.

The Romanovs

The Romanovs
Simon Sebag Montefiore

The Russian ruling dynasty of the Romanovs (1613 – 1918) has always provided dramatic material for popular history. This really helps here, because Simon Sebag Montefiore, whatever his other virtues as a historian, is a dry, undramatic writer. He reminds me a bit of Ian Kershaw, an even duller and more exacting writer who is a bestseller because he writes about Nazis.

The Romanovs tries very hard to make its subject uninteresting. There’s little in the way of synthesis and far too much in the way of involved footnotes cataloguing secondary and tertiary figures. One would like to skip all of these, but they are in some cases integral to the main text. In at least one case the main text even refers back to one!

Despite these hundreds of not-so-tiny anchors some of the excitement of the dynasty still comes through. It helps a lot that much of the story is filled with sex and cruelty. Then there is the drawn-out final act: the tragedy of Nicholas and Alexandra, which makes up a quarter of the book despite Nicholas’s reign running for less than 25 years out of the Romanov’s grand total of just over 300. Seeing as this will likely be the most familiar part of the story for most readers, I’m not sure this much attention was necessary or advisable, but by the time I’d made it to this point I was relieved at the slower pace, which came like the cool-down at the end of an exhausting workout.

Overall, however, I can’t say The Romanovs is a book that works particularly well either as a reference or as old-fashioned narrative history. It falls somewhere in-between, which is a long way to fall.

Glass House

By Brian Alexander

Coming hard on the heels of the election of Donald Trump as president, it would be easy to see Glass House as a political book, an attempt to explain Trump’s improbable rise by taking as a case study the decline of an American industrial town.

This would be mistaken, as Brian Alexander has little to say about politics and, in any event, the narrative of the free-falling white working class taking a hard turn to the right is actually more complex than the media portrays it.

Instead, Glass House is a “state of America” book. Specifically, it is a tale of paradise lost: the end of the golden age of American capitalism and its decline into a cancer stage where nothing about the system (or The System, as it’s often rendered here) seems to work.

The pretty town of Lancaster, Ohio, home to the Anchor Hocking Glass Company, was profiled in Forbes Magazine in 1947, when it was made out to be “the epitome and apogee of the American free enterprise system.” Today Anchor Hocking is a shadow of its former self and Lancaster has fallen on hard times, becoming, in the words of one resident, “a dead town . . . a dead little dying town.” The American dream of working hard and getting ahead is gone, the social contract “smashed into mean little shards by the slow-motion terrorism of pirate capitalism.”

Saying what happened isn’t as easy or as obvious as lining up the usual culprits of globalization, technology that makes workers redundant, and the crushing of unions (though all of these played a role). There are, however, clear villains. In answer to the question of what happened, one native Lancastrian responds that “corporate America happened.” Anchor Hocking went through a series of changes of ownership, the only point being to saddle it with debt and drain it of capital, what Alexander describes as “a thirty-five-year program of exploitation and value destruction in the service of ‘returns.’” As jobs were lost and wages and benefits cut, what Lancaster was mainly left with in terms of employment were things that have to be handled locally, often through public services: health care, education, police and law enforcement.

But because a belief in how the system is supposed to work, the American ideology of private enterprise and personal responsibility, is so strong and so ingrained, there is a knee-jerk need to blame others. In particular this means outsiders: immigrants and the federal government. Resentment in turn set in motion a downward spiral, as “Lancaster stopped spending on itself.” Why bother, when there was no longer any belief in community or a common good? And so infrastructure, human and material, rotted while “Even as many condemned both federal and state government programs and government spending, they ignored the fact that their town owed many of the jobs it had to both.”

This is a familiar problem, and one we might expect to get worse. The public sector has become a lifeboat. This breeds envy and resentment among those being eaten alive in the private sector, and also creates a dangerous imbalance in the economy. The government, or unionized public sector, is increasingly seen as the only game in town for safe, secure, well-remunerated employment. In the long run, that’s not sustainable economically or politically.

The future looks grim. The old social contract is gone and there is nothing to take its place but cynical self-interest, resulting in a few big winners and many more desperate losers. Alexander describes the case of one young man as representative of the sense of growing alienation:

it wasn’t just the poor or the working class who felt disaffected, and it wasn’t just about money or income inequality. The whole culture had changed. Brian was from a middle-class family, but he didn’t believe in any institution or person in authority. He didn’t feel like he was a part of anything bigger than himself. Aside from his mother and his father, and his brother, Mike, he was alone.

Well, we might say, at least Brian has a family. Even that, however, is in the process of being eroded. But what will take its place? Nothing that looks like collective action, from any side of the political spectrum. Not even religion, which doesn’t seem to play much of a role in the various lives Alexander examines here.

Which only leaves drugs, and anger.

A book like Glass House works because Lancaster is a microcosm. Of course not every town is like Lancaster, but the essential cultural and indeed moral change that Alexander describes is the same everywhere and is having a similar effect. The city of glass is a mirror for all our woes.

Review first published online March 9, 2017.

Who Rules the World?

Who Rules the World?
Noam Chomsky

While the nation state is still the primary political actor on the world stage, the true rulers of the world are the institutions of the “masters of mankind,” an expression Chomsky borrows from Adam Smith to describe the commanding heights of corporate capital. The masters of mankind, in turn, rule the world in accordance with certain doctrines, which broadly fall under the category of neoliberalism, or class war waged by the rich on the poor.

Chomsky’s method here is consistent with the rest of his political writings, being mainly an exposé of the hypocrisy of America’s imperial ideology, of the sort disseminated by the mainstream media. It’s not new, but then we’re still being lied to.

Minds of Winter

By Ed O’Loughlin

When the wrecks of the expeditionary ships HMS Erebus and Terror, lost while searching for the Northwest Passage in the mid-nineteenth century, were finally discovered (in 2014 and 2016 respectively), it was an event that marked the final mapping of some of the most mysterious geography in the Canadian subconscious.

The fate of the Franklin expedition is one of this country’s founding cultural myths, its very mysteriousness adding to its historical resonance. At the end of Ed O’Loughlin’s Minds of Winter the two main characters – Nelson Nilsson and Fay Morgan – watch a news story about the discovery of the Erebus on a television in a bar in Inuvik. The bartender responds in a manner that goes a long way to summing up the novel’s theme: “So that’s the end of that,” he says bitterly. “HMS Erebus. They had to go and find her. They had to solve a perfectly good mystery.”

What makes a mystery “perfectly good” is its power to work upon our imaginations. The search for Franklin’s missing ships did more to map the Arctic than Franklin himself ever could have on his own, and the mystery of what happened to his expedition has been an abiding subject in Canadian arts and letters. If the history of exploration is the story of a shrinking world, Franklin’s expedition offered, in O’Loughlin’s formulation, “something magical, a hole in the map, an escape from dull causality.”

Nelson and Fay aren’t explorers but they are both detectives. Nelson is looking for his brother, who has disappeared. Fay is looking for information relating to her grandfather. The two investigations are connected by a mysterious object, a nineteenth-century chronometer thought to have been lost with Franklin. More broadly, both are engaged in a “search for meaning,” a way of making sense out of the siren call of the north. But their researches only turn up “fragments, or footnotes, of some vision shimmering beyond their sight.” They may be chasing a myth as much as a mystery, the sort of thing Pierre Berton meant when he called his book on Arctic exploration The Arctic Grail (a work that O’Loughlin credits as his own chief research source).

The narrative structure is likened to that of the chronometer. As Fay continues her investigations she has “a vision of clockwork, of wheels within wheels, the hint of bigger wheels lurking behind them.” We skip forward and back in time, meeting figures famous and unknown, many of whom turn out to be related in eerie ways, their “stories converging at the poles, like meridians.” As with most modern novels dealing with such arcane connections there is also the hint of a conspiracy behind it all, with government agents, coded messages, secret devices, and obscure references to a Room 38.

The scope is truly epic, taking us literally from pole to pole and covering 175 years of history. Time present follows the investigations of Nelson and Fay, but the chapters take us back to earlier events involving people like old Sir John Franklin himself, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (another famous disappearing act), and the Mad Trapper of Rat River (whose identity remains to this day a point of speculation). The story also takes different narrative forms, ranging from newspaper reports to letters to a more conventional third-person.

There’s nothing unorthodox about any of this, though it’s certainly ambitious. Nor does O’Loughlin experiment much in the way of style, beyond presenting a story supposedly written by Jack London and taken from his unfinished memoir that’s done in a credible imitation of London’s voice. Instead of stylistic pyrotechnics there’s an economy of language and grounding in physical detail, casting a cold eye on the spare, climatically-determined human environment and making us feel the kidney-clamping cold and lungs lacerated by the “razor-blade air.” The title comes from the Wallace Stevens poem “The Snow Man” and there is a general sense built up throughout of his listener who beholds the “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Emptiness, absence, and mystery are pregnant with meaning.

O’Loughlin may present us with a mystery, or really several mysteries, without a solution, but closure is not the goal. In fact, closure is something to be avoided. The point is not to tie up the loose ends. It’s fitting that Nelson and Fay, both “prisoners of the north” in Pierre Berton’s phrase, are finally absorbed into the story, their identities dissolving as they themselves become mysterious footnotes in a new legend, conspiracy, or myth. Minds of Winter is a novel as much interested in unofficial as official histories, with people who slip through the cracks as in heroes. And it doesn’t want to ruin a perfectly good mystery.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, January 2017.