In the patois of the times, 'friend’means ‘an enemy with whom you have yet to do business,’ and a ‘vision’is ‘an idea in black tie’
While it was hardly a vintage year for business books, there were a few standouts and some unusual titles that should have made it onto the best-seller lists. Here is my selection:
Brown Cows, Sacred Cows by Rodney Touche—The sleeper of the publishing year, this wonderfully wacky history recounts the agonies of a company trying to develop ski facilities at Lake Louise, Alta., when confronted with bureaucrats who have no agenda except to spin out the dynamics of delay. The battle has been waged for 60 years, and it isn’t over yet. A literate and witty Calgary investment analyst, Touche recounts every hilarious detail of how he and others tried to face Ottawa down—and almost won.
A Splinter in the Heart— Poets don’t always make great novelists—writing that much prose is hard on the butt. AÍ Purdy is a spectacular exception. His tale of what happened in Trenton, Ont., the summer of the 1918 explosion of a chemical factory becomes a magic allegory for innocence lost and manhood achieved. This is the best Canadian novel of 1990.
White Knights and Poison Pills by David Olive—A cynic’s dictionary of business jargon, here is the ultimate raspberry to the past decade, which produced not only its own ethic but its own language. In the patois of the 1980s, “friend” means “an enemy with whom you have yet to do business”; “vision” is “an idea in black tie.” With wicked irony, Olive manages to synthesize the fiscal extravagances of a generation by dissecting its idioms. My favorites: “it is difficult,” a Japanese expression meaning “no,” and “the Campeau factor”—“putting ego before prosperity.”
Inside Guide to Canada’s 50 Best Stocks by Diane Francis—It is too easy to dismiss this compilation as a handy guide to which stocks will be the last ones to go down
the toilet in the current market crash. Instead, Francis’s selections deserve study because they are the shares to hold during this latest swing in yet another business cycle. “The extreme backlash against the market,” she rightly points out, “is as foolish as the extreme love affair many had with it while the bull was roaring ahead.”
The New Landlords by Donald Gutstein —Possibly because it was published by one of the smaller presses, Porcepic Books of Victoria, this essential study of Asian investment in Canadian real estate hasn’t received the attention it deserves. In an evenhanded and well-written assessment of the impact of East Asian wealth on this country, Gutstein documents the startling case that without our becoming aware of it, we have become squatters in our own land. This is unfortunate, but don’t blame the Oriental investors. They did only what we invited them to do.
The Roman Empire by Paul McKay—The subject of this badly crafted and far from adequate biography was, in the immortal phrase of Quill & Quire editor Ted Mumford, “something of a left-wing paranoid’s wet
dream”—anti-Semitic, union-bashing, indifferent to either environment or job-safety regulations, a corporate bandit with gutter ethics and no conscience. That was Stephen Roman, and it was entirely in character for him to try to atone for his earthly sins by building an ornate $25-million cathedral and buying his own clergy. McKay has done some useful research, but he has much to learn about structuring a book and making it sing.
Parcel of Rogues by Maude Barlow—The enduring mystery of Canada’s free trade deal with the United States is why we first gave the Americans everything they wanted—a gutted Foreign Investment Review Agency and destruction of the National Energy Program, among other concessions—and only afterwards negotiated the agreement. Maude Barlow, who is understandably angry about this and other governmental and private-sector transgressions, has written a powerful diatribe, accusing the politicians and businessmen of having betrayed their country. Her research is selective, but her voice rings true. The most devastating condemnation of free trade is her 29-page list of factories that have so far been closed as Canadian manufacturers rush to reestablish themselves south of the border.
Steinberg: The Breakup of a Family Empire by Ann Gibbon and Peter Hadekel— This is a perfect case study of how not to pass a family-owned business from one generation to the next. “The emotions that bind a family together,” note the authors, “can easily blow it apart when money and corporate power are at stake.” They have dug up valuable new facts about Michel Gaucher, the oil-tanker entrepreneur who ended the Steinbergs’ 72-year dynasty, and pieced together a cogent chronology of the family’s downfall.
Breakup by Don Braid and Sydney Sharpe—According to the authors, “Central Canada, as usual, focused on the ancient demons of language and unity,” while ignoring the West, which “like any neglected partner, prepares its mind for divorce.” What Braid and Sharpe have in mind is not western separation but “an almost imperceptible trend to economic union with the United States.” Their closely reasoned approach, firsthand interviews and persuasive prose build an unanswerable case— even if their prognosis is more useful than their prescription. They probably overestimate the benefits that would flow from a Triple E Senate, but this book is essential for any Canadian hoping to grasp what’s bugging the West.
1759: The Battle for Canada by Laurier LaPierre—The author invents nothing less than an exciting new way of recounting history. Applying current television news techniques to the printed page, LaPierre wanders in and out of his text, interviewing the characters he’s writing about, allowing his own emotions to lead him in an intellectually exciting quest for truth. The method works beautifully and the battle that decided Quebec’s—and Canada’s— fate is made understandable at last.
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