From Canadian history and politics to the marvels of elephants to literary criticism, the season’s nonfiction
includes exceptional new books for those who prefer real people and places. Some of the best:
It was a happy moment when John Fraser—master of Massey College at the University of Toronto, National Post media columnist and quintessential Tory (regardless of whom he votes for)—hit upon the idea of updating and Canadianizing the 1918 classic Eminent Victorians. Lytton Strachey’s book was a quartet of sly biographical sketches designed to puncture Victorian certainties by mocking prominent 19th-century Britons. Eminent Canadians (McClelland & Stewart, 306 pages, $34.99), however, comes not to bury but to praise.
Fraser has taken four Canadians of the Victorian era and compared them with four of their modern compatriots: John Strachan, Anglican bishop of Toronto from 1839 to 1867, pairs with Terence Finlay, his successor from 1989; founding Globe editor George Brown with William Thorsell, editor of The Globe and Mail from 1989 to 1999; Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier (1896-1911) with Jean Chrétien; and Queen Victoria (1837-1901) with her great-great-granddaughter Queen Elizabeth II. Even those who can accept the idea of their two majesties being Canadian in any meaningful sense
may find the author’s other subjects just a shade too central Canadian. But that is all of a piece with Fraser’s basic thesis: Canadians ignore their history at their peril. The nation’s constitutional and political order dates back to its earliest days, the result of hard-won compromises that cannot be altered without great risk. Full of mordant, highly amusing gossip and surprising connections between past and present, Eminent Canadians is eminently readable popular history.
The prolific American literary critic Harold Bloom is now 70, and for the past few years the Yale professor has been reading “against the clock.” Presumably that is why his latest books have summed up the insights of a distinguished career. In 1998, it was his monumental Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, and now Bloom has written How to Read and Why (Distican, 283 pages, $37), a book equally enthralling. Bloom’s view of life is essentially tragic, and the value of literature to him lies in how it helps cope with the solitude that is the human condition: reading “is the most healing of pleasures—we read to strengthen the self.” To that
end, Bloom trains his own art, which he describes as making “what is implicit in a book explicit,” on favourite short stories, poems, plays and novels. He teases out meanings and allusions many others would miss and, best of all, shows readers how to do it for themselves. Clear your mind of cant is his i basic advice, and trust yourself. The Astonishing Elephant (Random House, 300 pages, $38.95) by veteran American journalist Shana Alexander fully deserves its title. She deftly catalogues the known facts, many of them deeply depressing, about one of the most majestic and intelligent creatures to ever walk the earth—such as the calamitous decline in their numbers in the past century. But the most extraordinary passages in Alexander’s book detail the mutual slaughter pachyderms and humans have wreaked upon each other in North America in the past 200 years. The few elephants brought to the continent by circuses and zoos have stomped, disemboweled I or smeared into walls dozens ol I trainers and spectators. And not I once, according to the scientists ! and handlers Alexander interviews, by accident, in response, humans have killed almost as many elephants—by shooting (up to 2,000 rounds at a time), electrocution, poison or, in one gruesome spasm of revenge, hanging. In 1916, so-called Murderous Mary, who had just killed her trainer, was hanged by a portable railway derrick in Erwin,
Tenn. By the First World War, every bull elephant in American circuses had been killed and replaced by more docile females, many of which were given male names to fool the public. (Although, as Murderous Mary proved, that was no surefire remedy for elephantine violence.)
Several striking episodes in this strange saga occurred in Canada, including the great Cranbrook escape of 1926, when four elephants bolted from a parade in the B.C. town and remained at large for three weeks in the surrounding woods.
After years of pressure from her publisher—and fans worldwide—to write an autobiography, British mystery novelist P. D. James finally relented. She has gone about it, of course, in a manner entirely befitting one of the foremost writers of the genre, an author whose stock in trade is the unexpected. Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography (Knopf Canada, 269 pages, $35.95) chronicles a year in her life, from her
77th to 78th birthdays (she turns 80 in August). Daily events serve as a springboard for her recollections of the past, philosophizing on the art and craft of writing, and musing on life in general. Her conversational tone makes readers feel as if they have had a long chat with a wise and witty, if occasionally stiff-upper-lipped, old friend. Time to Be in Earnest is part memoir and part diary—and pure delight.
On the Canadian Alliance front, there is Claire Hoy’s timely new biography, Stockwell Day: His Life and Politics (Stoddart, 176 pages, $19.95). It is a sympathetic but reasonably thorough treatment by a prominent rightwing journalist. Hoy does not shy away from Day’s more controversial comments—on gay rights, abortion and religious-school funding—as he discusses the Alberta treasurer’s pan-Canadian background. Born in Barrie, Ont., Day grew up in Montreal and Ottawa before moving west in 1967. Prior to entering politics in 1985, the university dropout worked variously as a deckhand, lumberjack, auctioneer, social worker and Pentecostal pastor. Day and his family spoke often to Hoy, and the book’s most interesting portions consist of Day’s frank explanation of his religious conversion and his views on the intersection of religion and politics.
Given the circumstances of Michael David Kwan’s early life, it is remarkable that he is still around to write about it 66 years later. Born in Beijing in 1934, Kwan was the son of a Swiss mother and a Chinese father, a wealthy railway administrator who was both an official in the Japanese puppet government and a spy for Chinese resistance forces. With his memoir, Things that Must Not Be Forgotten (Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 244 pages, $29.99), Kwan, a Vancouver translator and playwright, has written an eloquent, moving story of loss. As long as the warring Chinese forces of nationalists and Communists were united against the Japanese invaders, the elder Kwan’s dangers were simplified, though by no means lessened. At one point, his resistance work included sheltering a downed American flyer while he was living beside a Japanese admiral. Discovery would have meant execution for the entire family. The Kwans’ greatest peril came after the Japanese defeat, when China descended into renewed civil war and popular feeling ran high against half-castes and the rich. In 1946, David was sent alone to safety in Hong Kong, with only $ 100 and a scrap of paper with the address of his much older half-brother Tim. Kwan’s story is a window into the cataclysms that ravaged his native land in the mid20th century that is made all the more compelling by his child’s-eye view and dramatist’s gift for telling detail. EÛ3
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