Chasing the Chinook

By Wayne Grady

The American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed that “Every word was once a poem.” “Bare lists of words,” he thought, could be “suggestive to an imaginative and excited mind.”

For Wayne Grady, every word might be an essay. The starting point for Chasing the Chinook is Grady’s belief that Canadian culture is expressed in a distinct Canadian language.

For those who don’t believe Canada has a language (or languages), he suggests that every time we peer into a gopher hole or dump a hockey puck into a corner we are “participating in a linguistic event that is distinctly Canadian.” That is, we are participating in Canadian, not American culture.

Luckily, this is not a rigid thesis. Grady does not see his essays as arguments. Instead, he borrows a definition of the essay from Michael Hamburger: “An essay really ought not to be on anything, to deal with anything, to define anything. An essay is a walk, an excursion, not a business trip.”

The style fits the form. Grady is an effective but still casual writer. The brief chapters in Chasing the Chinook are like little walks, with may diversions. Along the way there are many stops for anecdotes and digressions drawn from his impressive range of reading.

In terms of content, each of the 41 essays focuses on a word that is either demonstrably Canadian “or at least arguably Canadianish.” In most cases the connection is clear (as with “garrison mentality” or “filles du roi”), but even sympathetic readers may find the link is sometimes strained.

There are, for example, several inventions or discoveries made by Canadians that seem to have no particular relevance to Canada at all (such as “kerosene,” “polygraph,” and “Peking Man”). These essays, while enjoyable, don’t have much to do with nationality, words, or culture.

The same thing could be said about “ice.” Ice truly is interesting stuff, and there’s no doubt Canada has a lot of it, but it does not, as Grady suggests, stand in the same relationship to Canadians as sand to Saharans or air to birds. Canadian culture is not quite so large as that.

Objections like these, however, are part of the fun. Any cultural commentator capable of making lucid generalizations of some originality (and there aren’t that many out there) is bound to provoke disagreement. In doing so, Grady forces us to arrive at our own definitions of what is and is not Canadian. The result is a fresh, invigorating approach to that most familiar of our national pastimes.

Review first published November 14, 1998.


By Benita Eisler

As a legitimate contender for the title of first modern celebrity, George Gordon, Lord Byron has always been experienced as a seductive blend of life and art. I’m not a huge fan of either, but I did find this new biography by Benita Eisler to be a solid and engaging piece of work. Whether it is really necessary (there was another Byron bio published just last year), or had to be so long (Frederic Raphael covered the same ground in a punchy 200 pages), are questions that still need to be asked.

In addition to all of the standard pitfalls of biography, there are several dangers that are particular to Byron. The first of these has to do with Byron as case study. All modern biographers like to play at being psychoanalysts, and Eisler is no exception to the rule.

A good example of the kind of thing I’m talking about can be seen in her analysis of Byron’s attitude toward Lord Elgin, the man who became famous for plundering Greece of its marbles. Exactly why Elgin’s “dastardly devastation” roused Byron to such a pitch of “malice and hysteria” isn’t clear. The open door of unexplained motivation leads us into the Freudian guessing game. Eisler suggests that Elgin, as ambassador to the Ottoman court, somehow “represented hated patriarchal authority” (always lots of that to go around). Also, as a Scot, he personified the “maternal adversary” (Byron’s mother was Scottish), “bearing the genes Byron repudiated – if somewhat ambivalently – within himself.” You have to wonder how much of this the author expects us to take seriously.

In addition to putting the bard on the couch, there is also a danger the Byron biography will turn into a combination of sexual scorecard and travel itinerary. The two items may even merge, as when Byron’s Grand Tour hit the Levant, a pilgrimage that was planned as the 19th century equivalent of Third World sex tourism. Clearly, in some cases it’s not a great disappointment that the memoirs were burned.

A more subtle risk, and one not avoided here, is for the biographer to fall prey, even at this distance, to Byron’s notorious charm. Writing under the influence, the author errs on the side of generosity, focusing on the great man’s “suffering” while minimizing his culpability and recasting behaviour that was simply degenerate as Romantic rebellion.

A complete biography of Byron has to enter into the moral issues involved in his conduct to a greater degree. One can locate excuses for Byron’s life almost anywhere – heredity, deformity, a confusing childhood – but the fact remains that the man was despicable.

He was not, as his friend Shelley observed, a revolutionary so much as a libertine. Selfishness and irresponsibility may be taken as par for the course for most artists, but to these failings Byron added a record as a negligent father, an abusive husband, and a thoroughgoing pedophile. “Mad, bad and dangerous to know” glossed over a laundry list of sins.

None of this, of course, makes for a bad book – indeed, some would say quite the opposite. Even if you don’t care for Byron or his poetry you can still enjoy the story of his life. And readers will find much here to enjoy. Child of Passion, Fool of Fame is both very thorough and quite readable.

It is also, however, entirely unnecessary. I’m unaware of any important new material Eisler is adding to the record. In addition, her claim that “no 20th century biographer has troubled to examine (Byron’s) art” is incredible, and seems out of place in a book that doesn’t go in for a lot of textual analysis. More modesty would have been in order. Eisler’s work is strong enough to stand on its own without making such exceptional claims for itself.

Review first published July 17, 1999.

The Bre-X Fraud

By Douglas Goold and Andrew Willis

Last March, shares in the Canadian mining company Bre-X, once reported to be sitting on the largest gold reserves in the world, collapsed so rapidly that the computer system at the Toronto Stock Exchange crashed. In May, the stock, once valued at over $280 a share, was taken off the market. The company was worth nothing. There was no gold.

For those who have been living in a media vacuum for the last six months, the full story of the Bre-X fiasco is on the way. Despite the fact that investigators are still looking into the case, and that a host of lawsuits are only just getting started, there are a reported six books shortly due out on Bre-X.

The Bre-X Fraud, written by two reporters who covered the story for the Globe and Mail, is the first out of the gate. It is quick reading, divided into bite-sized (two- to three-page) sub-chapters and written in a spare, journalistic style that only occasionally slips. Much of the supporting material is weak (books like this should at least have an index), but this is to be expected.

Being so short, the book never attempts to deal with any part of the story in-depth. But as a brief overview of a complex and wide-ranging story, most readers will find it more than adequate.

As the authors point out, the Bre-X fraud “differed from past stock swindles only in its size and audacity.” Perhaps the only surprising thing about it was that it was pulled off by such a gang of losers.

Before Bre-X, David Walsh was a bankrupt slob with a Grade 10 education and a history of nothing but well-deserved financial failure. “All you had to do was meet him and you wouldn’t have bought the stock,” one investor later remarked.

The company’s chief geologist, John Felderhof, was a down-and-out has-been prospector with a reputation for exaggeration and heavy drinking. And Michael de Guzman, the Filipino polygamist who apparently committed suicide by jumping from a helicopter in March, looked up to Felderhof as a mentor!

This was hardly an all-star team.

The entire Bre-X story is truly a “fable for our times,” and in ways that the authors might have developed further. So many aspects of the case seem to define the ’90s: the creation of fantastic wealth almost by accident, the complete triumph of hype over substance, the fact that so many “experts” (particularly among the financial community) never had any idea what they were talking about, and, finally, the way the principals, now luxuriating in the Caribbean, have since cast themselves as victims and dupes so as to invite sympathy rather than contempt.

Except for de Guzman, whose body was half-eaten by maggots and wild pigs before it was fished out of the jungle, the men in charge of Bre-X did very well. Crime may or may not pay but in this case gross incompetence, ignorance, and totally irresponsible behaviour were richly rewarded indeed.

I hate to think that there’s a lesson in that.

Review first published September 6, 1997. David Walsh died in the Bahamas in 1998. The lawsuits I mention would drag on for a decade, with no criminal liability ultimately being found. The money, in the meantime, nearly all disappeared.

Blind Eye

By James B. Stewart

The genre of true crime may not be any stranger than fiction, but there’s no denying it’s a lot scarier. Exhibit A: The strange case of Michael Swango, M. D.

It is hard to locate exactly when Swango started to go bad, but we do know that he began being associated with mysterious deaths as early as medical school, where he was given the nickname “Double-O Swango” – a doctor with a license to kill.

During his internship at the prestigious Ohio State University Medical Centre, this pattern continued, concluding with the attempted murder of Rena Cooper, a 69-year-old widow hospitalized for a back operation. Shockingly, Swango was cleared of wrongdoing by a hospital board of investigation (despite the presence of three eyewitnesses), and, after having his internship cancelled, quietly allowed to continue his studies elsewhere.

Swango’s passion was poison, his modus operandi usually involving some kind of lethal injection. Yet despite his suspicious record, and even a criminal record for poisoning a group of his co-workers, he was able to repeatedly find work at other hospitals both in the U. S. and abroad (Stewart follows his trail all the way to Zimbabwe). By the time he was finally jailed (for fraud), he was suspected by the FBI of having killed 60 people, a figure that would make him one of the most prolific serial killers in American history.

If that was all there was to the story, then Blind Eye would simply be another case study in criminal psychopathy. As the title indicates, however, Stewart’s real target is the medical establishment that allowed Swango to pursue his criminal career for so long. And it is this part of the story that makes Blind Eye such a truly disturbing book.

What Stewart argues is that a buck-passing medical system shares a large part of the blame for Swango’s crimes. Poweful people, in positions of trust, routinely ignored clear evidence of danger and exposed the most vulnerable members of our society to mortal risk.

In fact, even after Swango’s apprehension, the Ohio State administration continued to stonewall both press and prosecutors. Nor was federal legislation in these matters any help. A national data bank set up in 1990 to monitor incompetent and criminal physicians has been a complete failure due to the medical profession’s almost total refusal to report on itself.

“The loyalty among physicians,” Stewart concludes, “makes police officers’ famous ‘blue wall of silence’ seem porous by comparison.”

It is a shameful record, and one that would normally demand some kind of institutional response. Normally, but in this case unlikely. Given the power of the establishment, it will be easier to turn a blind eye.

Review first published December 24, 1999. For an account of a very similar case, see my review of Charles Graeber’s The Good Nurse.

Better Living

By Mark Kingwell

Happiness has always been an impossible concept to pin down. For Mark Kingwell it is “eudaimonistic” (he is a philosophy professor), involving the “rational satisfaction” of a virtuous life. How he comes to this conclusion is the subject of this new book.

When it works, Better Living is a quick-reading piece of what has become known as cultural criticism – full of odds and ends ranging from a discussion of our obsession with obesity to the now de rigeur analyses of Star Trek and The Simpsons. It is organized around Kingwell’s own semi-satiric pursuit of happiness, and looks at current trends through a wide (but shallow) historical lens. Along the way the author discusses pop psychology bestsellers with titles like Become Happy in Eight Minutes, puts himself on Prozac, and even attends a special happiness “clinic” in Massachusetts.

Easy game perhaps, but it is the best part of the book.

In terms of style Kingwell displays a knack for making any platitude seem as exciting as the formula for cold fusion. Thus (are you ready?) “we must confront the possibility” that religion is the opium of the masses and that Star Trekis itself a form of soma” (i.e., television is a drug – emphasis in the original!). Another revelation is that the concept of “cool” has been largely manufactured by advertising agencies.

Really? I’d always wondered.

Better Living is also a very personal book. Most of the time this is a good thing. Kingwell does seem like a decent sort of fellow. But he is also a tortured soul. He is critical of the media, but is a TV junky and media personality himself; he hates the game of academic advancement, but remains a committed player; he rails against materialism and consumerism, but for some reason wants us to know that he owns two Armani suits.

Candor without self-awareness is an unexpected quality in someone who extols the importance of an examined life.

What blindness, for example, leads Kingwell to condemn the kitschy rubber doll facsimiles of Munch’s “Scream” as a “debasement of the artistic image,” then shell out to buy, not one, but two? At first he tries to rationalize his purchase (“I bought them to illustrate a lecture”), but then confesses that he now has them decorating his office! A very “cool” office indeed, I should think.

There is an important point to be made here. The tone of most cultural criticism is detached irony, a way of presenting oneself as in the world but not of it. Fair enough, but one has to temper one’s contempt for the uncritical masses with some belief in a shared humanity, a sense that we are all in this together.

A particularly telling moment occurs when Kingwell visits the CNE. The Exhibition strikes him as a depressing theatre of consumption, full of trashy goods and trashy people (who are described, quite frankly, as pigs wallowing in their slop). While he waits for his wife to buy something he notices a little boy in a “filthy” coat, kneeling in the “dirt.” The “grubby” wretch has mustard and ketchup smeared all over his face and is chewing a hot dog with his mouth open. And there he squats, beneath our gaze: “The entirely contented consumer.”

Offensive stuff, make no mistake. All too often Better Living reminded me of the attacks on the unwashed herd made by Modernist writers in the ’20s and ’30s. And to what end?

Ultimately Better Living is precisely what it seeks to deny – a self-help manual on happiness for high-brows. Call it Chicken Soup for the Academic Soul. There are, for example, “Eight Myths of Happiness” that can be read in Eight Minutes. And finally the whole thing collapses into Adspeak as we are exhorted to make sense of our lives through narratives and “become who we are.” (Yes! That’s it!)

As a diversion some of this may satisfy. But as a guide to better living it is better left alone.

Review first published April 18, 1998.

Bank Heist

By Walter Stewart

“Once a nation parts with control of its currency and credit, it matters not who makes that nation’s laws.” – William Lyon Mackenzie King

Bank-bashing has always been popular in Canada, and rarely undeserved. In this latest attack on the giants of Bay Street, Walter Stewart argues that our banks are too big, powerful, and arrogant. They operate inefficiently, are a scourge to small business, and offer terrible service to the public.

At times, Stewart seems merely cranky. Automatic banking machines (ABMs), for example, while clearly a device for gouging the public, are also a genuine convenience. But on more important points the news he brings is bad enough. Our financial system is now an oligopoly. The banks have digested the mortgage industry, the trust business, personal finance companies and security firms. “Conflict of interest” has no real meaning and competition is obsolete.

Ironically, despite this overwhelming consolidation of power, the banks continue to criticize government for being too big. They also like to give lectures on fiscal responsibility – even when 90 per cent of the federal debt created over the last 30 years has been due to interest charges paid to banks.

The core problem with the banking industry is one that we can see everywhere today – the failure to connect with reality. The banks, without any primary reserve requirements, are free to make money out of nothing (which is exactly what they do). They can thus continue to grow out of all proportion, indeed all relation, to the rest of the economy.

Those who have been watching the Toronto Stock Exchange’s spectacular rise may have noticed the same thing happening with stock prices. Many stock prices today have lost their connection to the notion of value, to something “real” (e.g., corporate assets or earnings). Nick Leeson, the rogue trader who brought down Barings Bank by speculating in derivatives later claimed it was “like trading ether.”

Reading Stewart, one gets the disturbing feeling that our banking system is a mighty glass tower built in air. This does not bode well for the one aspect of it that we tend to be most confident about – its stability. In fact, this stability is beginning to sound more and more like a refuge for scoundrels. John Kenneth Galbraith has suggested that almost any amount of injustice will be tolerated as the cost of stability in a “culture of contentment.” The same would hold true in an age of anxiety. In a time of resentment and discontent? Perhaps not.

Review first published August 30, 1997.

At Home With the Marquis de Sade

By Francine Du Plessix Gray

One of the big problem with literary biographies is the inherently boring nature of their subjects. Despite what we have been conditioned to believe by the cult of celebrity, a popular author is not necessarily a newsworthy or even interesting person. While it is natural to be curious about a favourite creative personality, few literary lions led lives requiring the kind of detailed analysis they regularly receive.

Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, was an exception to the rule. As a young man he first distinguished himself on the battlefield, and went on to become France’s most notorious libertine. A series of sensational trials led to a series of of incarcerations and daring escapes. Eventually he was sent to the Bastille, where he was removed for rowdiness just before the fireworks began. After another near escape, this time from the Terror, he became one of the chief orators of the Revolution (his name downgraded to humble Louis Sade). Yet despite losing nearly everything he was hounded by the authorities to his grave.

And, yes, he also wrote some dirty books.

At Home With the Marquis de Sade takes this material and turns it into a truly first-rate biography. Gray is totally at ease with everything about her subject, from the complex history of the period down to the terrain of Sade’s native Provence. Her research into original sources has been thorough, and in particular Sade’s correspondence (his most highly-valued writing today) has been capably mined.

If I had one objection it would be that the portrayal of Sade’s mother-in-law is not entirely fair. The fidelity of Madame de Montreuil’s rage was not without some justification. While she may have been a narrow-minded and selfish woman, she was not the Fury she is made out to be here. Despite a genuine belief in his own innocence, or at least that he was more sinned against than sinning, Sade was the author of his own misfortunes.

No one would deny Sade some place in the history of thought. After all, his name is now a part of the language. But in fact the Marquis was not that complex a psychological case. Essentially he was the spoiled little boy who never grew up: self-centered, emotionally petty, demanding of affection and impatient in his desires. And as for his books . . .

One way to judge a literary biography is to ask whether reading the life provides any incentive to re-read the work. In the case of Sade, however, this won’t do. Few readers who have slogged through The 120 Days of Sodom or Juliette will feel any inclination to repeat the experience, no matter how intriguing they find this biography.

Instead, Sade has to stand by himself, warts and all. Gray’s book gives us such a portrait, and let us see the man behind the myth.

Review first published December 26, 1998. For my further thoughts on the man, see my review of David Carter’s brief bio Marquis de Sade.