A season of nonfiction plenty

December 4 2000

A season of nonfiction plenty

December 4 2000

A season of nonfiction plenty


The fall seasons exceptional Canadian titles include not only Sharon Butalds Wild Stone Heart, The Storyteller by Anna Porter and Thomas Homer-Dixons The Ingenuity Gap—all previously reviewed in Macleans—but remarkably diverse books covering topics from the history of the screwdriver to death itself Some of the best, as reviewed by the magazines writers and editors:

Margaret Visser’s uncanny ability to illuminate the assumptions behind everyday, taken-for-granted objects has never been better displayed than in The Geometry of Love (HarperFlamingo, $35). In it, the author conducts a detailed tour of a single church, Rome's St. Agnes Outside the Walls, a building both ordinary in purpose—a place of Christian worship like any other—and extraordinary in fact, a 1,350-year-old structure erected over the burial place of a 12-year-old girl martyred in 305. The journey from the threshold to Agnes’s tomb deep beneath the surface takes readers through time and space, complete with eye-opening explanations of the objects met and absorbing excursions through their history. In the 17th century, what Visser calls “column envy”

almost cost St. Agnes four of its finest pillars when the family of Pope Clement VIII proposed moving them to its own funerary chapel. Only quick work on the antiquarian market by the abbot of St. Agnes’s monastery found substitutes in time. Visser is a practising Roman Catholic and does not shy away from explaining what effect St. Agnes’s contents and design—the latter as pregnant with meaning as the former—are intended to have on believers. But she has structured her gracefully written book to resemble a trip through a labyrinth: “In the end it is up to each person to make sense of what is encountered there.”

Witold Rybczynski’s gaze is focused on a far more mundane object—the screwdriver—in One Good Turn (HarperFlamingo, $24). It all began as

an assignment to write an essay about “the best tool of the millennium.” After several false starts involving the likes of eyeglasses and carpenter’s braces, Rybczynski was finally put on track by his wife, Shirley Hallam, who told him “you always need a screwdriver for something.” By the time he was through, the former McGill University instructor, now a professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania, not only traced the history of one of Western technology’s essential tools, but rescued several key individuals of the Industrial Revolution from undeserved obscurity. One of them—Peter Robertson, Canada’s own screwdriver genius —is singled out for a passionate hymn of praise in Rybczynski’s elegant and engaging treatise.

To the casual observer, the Qu’Appelle River is a secondary and unremarkable Prairie waterway that meanders 430 km eastward across central Saskatchewan, ending just inside the Manitoba border where it joins the Assiniboine. But in his remarkable new book, River in a Dry Land (Stoddart, $34.95), which was nominated for a Governor General’s Award, Regina naturalist Trevor Herriot proves casual observers wrong. He narrates a fascinating travelogue that includes history, geography, sparkling writing and provocative thoughts on mankind’s ability to desecrate the environment.

In her ambitious The Lion, the Fox

Robertson provides a frank and even funny take on the view from death’s door

& the Eagle (Random House, $34.95), journalist Carol Off puts a searchlight on the two great failures of recent international peacekeeping—the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and the massive genocide in Rwanda—as well as on the three Canadians at the epicentre of those catastrophes. Maj.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire (The Lion), now retired, and war crimes prosecutor Louise Arbour (The Eagle), now a Supreme Court justice, come off as heroes. Their efforts to save lives and punish the guilty were, in Offs opinion, stymied by the hopelessly bureaucratic United Nations, which ran rhe peacekeeping missions and set up the tribunals. But the author severely condemns her Fox, the telegenic Maj.-Gen. Lewis MacKenzie, UN commander in Sarajevo. She believes he convinced the world not to intervene militarily to stop the Serbian massacre of civilian Muslims in Bosnia. Off admits she is no military historian, but her book is sure to be debated by soldiers and civilians alike, as nations grapple with the changing nature of peacekeeping.

First it was words—A History of Reading, Alberto Manguéis 1996 tour de force. Now, with Reading Pictures: A History of Love and Hate (Knopf, $37.95), it is the image. Calgarybased—at least for the moment—cultural writer Manguel seems intent on putting his mark on the great trading stamps of Western civilization. These essays on the work and times of 11 artists as diverse as American abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell and 17thcentury Italian rake Caravaggio is the peripatetic author at his finest, zipping across centuries in search of meaning. The history of love and hate remains elusive, but his book is still a readable romp through the visual landscape. As for his central question: can pictures be read? Is there a code or vocabulary that

illuminates the created image? Or is it simply, as painter James M. Whistler once said: “Art happens.” Manguel seems to teeter between the two great notions, but at least he can tell a story. And the pictures are very nice indeed.

Historian A. B. McKillop was nominated for a Governor General’s Award this year for The Spinster and the Prophet (Macfarlane Walter & Ross, $34.99), the tale of the sensational plagiarism suit launched in 1925 against

literary giant H. G. Wells by a middleaged Toronto spinster. Florence Deeks spent four years in a Toronto library penning The Web, her history of the world from a feminist perspective. In 1919, publisher Macmillan of Canada rejected her manuscript. A year later, Macmillan’s New York City branch issued Wells’s two-volume blockbuster The Outline of History. Deeks, backed

by several experts, said Wells’s tome was cribbed from her work, right down to the sequence of details in key paragraphs. But with no “smoking gun” to link Wells directly to the manuscript, the Great Man was acquitted. McKillop reopens the case and in doing so explores the social climate in which Wells prevailed and a woman who presumed to write history was not taken seriously.

In Meeting Death (McClelland & Stewart, $34.99), Heather Robertson breathes life into a subject that most people prefer to ignore. With stunning honesty, the author begins by laying out her own rage and regret in a compelling account of her father’s final two weeks before he succumbed to cancer. It was an excruciating death needlessly made more difficult by the indifference of a hospital that sent him home to die— and by Robertson’s own unpreparedness to care for him. Her personal grief and passion infuse the book, a cleareyed look at the culture of death that explores the chances of avoiding her father’s too-familiar fate. A gifted storyteller and a dedicated researcher, Robertson offers an insightful, frank and even funny take on the view from death’s door. Now a volunteer at a hospice for the dying, Robertson has made Meeting Death essential reading for all but the immortal.

On July 4, 1988, Terry Evanshen was involved in an auto accident that left him with horrible physical injuries and put him in a coma for two weeks. When

he regained consciousness in an Oshawa, Ont., hospital, the Montreal native, then 44, remembered nothing of his past life. His wife and three teenage daughters were strangers. He had no idea that he had once been a top receiver in the Canadian Football League and was a member of the CFL Hall of Fame. In The Man Who Lost Himself: The Terry Evanshen Story (McClelland & Stewart, $34.99), Toronto writer and social activist June Callwood has written a compelling account of the former football stars attempt to regain his identity and sense of self. The book is a tale of individual strength and courage, and a highly readable account of the workings and mysteries of the human mind.

Nigeria, Ken Wiwa says in the opening pages of In the Shadow of a Saint (Knopf, $34.95), “should be Gods own country in Africa.” Instead, the big, populous, oil-rich West African nation is poor and underdeveloped, thanks largely to a succession of military dictators who have enriched themselves while imprisoning or executing their opponents. One of the victims was Wiwa’s father, Ken Saro-Wiwa, the saint in the title of his book. Poet, writer and businessman, Saro-Wiwa was hanged on Nov. 10, 1995, along with eight other men, for leading a campaign of civil disobedience against the environmental degradation caused by multinational oil companies. His son, who now lives in Toronto, has produced both a fascinating account of his troubled homeland, and a touching portrait of his talented father.

In Wild & Woolly (McClelland & Stewart, $34.99), Nova Scotia artist and author Linda Johns describes in loving detail the many birds and fourlegged animals that have shared her rustic life. In her wry and conversational writing—she has been compared, with justification, to James Herriot, celebrated for his All Creatures Great and Small—many of the creatures take on distinct personalities. Even those that do not, such as

the baby mice she discovers between the walls of an old building, still benefit from her compassion. Johns reunites the babies with their frantic mother. Now that’s an animal lover.

Author Walter Stewart is best-known for his journalistic tours of the corridors of political and financial power. In his new book, My Cross-Country Checkup (Stoddart, $29.95), he and

his wife log close to 25,000 km on their minivan tour of Canadas backroads. The trip reprises Stewarts 1965 drive along the newly opened Trans-Canada Highway, fodder for a series of magazine profiles. His new journey takes in more territory—this time far from any corridor of power—and produces a whimsical but always sharply observed portrait of ordinary Canadians. By staying off the beaten track, the author’s strong storytelling skills introduce readers to the heart of a nation.

The key to Lesley Krueger’s Foreign Correspondences (Key Porter, $29.95) is the subtitle, A Traveler’s Tales. That is to say the book, her fourth and first nonfiction, isn’t so much about travelling as it is about the traveller herself. There are exotic locales: the Vancouverraised author’s wanderlust sent her backpacking around the world before she married Globe and Mail foreign correspondent Paul Knox and accompanied him to Latin America. But getting almost equal space are the stories of her Swedish and Scottish grandmothers, each of whom immigrated to Canada as a young woman. It is all interwoven with Krueger’s musings on feeling like a foreigner, the importance of family mythology and the role of community. If, as has been said, the search for identity is the Canadian identity, then this is a very Canadian book. CU