Books

MAD, MAD WORLD

Canada's fall non-fiction list is rife with global skulduggery and personal scandal

Brian Bethune November 22 2004
Books

MAD, MAD WORLD

Canada's fall non-fiction list is rife with global skulduggery and personal scandal

Brian Bethune November 22 2004

MAD, MAD WORLD

Books

BRIAN BETHUNE

Canada's fall non-fiction list is rife with global skulduggery and personal scandal

IT’S HARDLY surprising to find non-fiction titles travelling in packs. Canadian pundits were bound to comment on the rapidly shifting state of the world, particularly to the degree those changes were caused by the actions of our eternal obsession, the United States. And it was inevitable that the widespread fascination, not to say schadenfreude, felt over Conrad Black’s spectacular fall would inspire writers to pen new accounts or update old tomes. Still, it’s presumably a coincidence that enough eminent people, from Sheila Copps to Norman Jewison, decided to justify their lives to make 2004 the Year of the Memoir. Some of the season’s notable Canadian non-fiction:

CURRENT AFFAIRS Iraq’s descent into bloody chaos since U.S. President George W. Bush declared “major combat operations” complete 18 months ago has only intensified the polemical war over the motives and justice of the American invasion. Despite the failure to find weapons of mass destruction—Washington’s original cause of war—supporters still insist the U.S. is saving the Iraqi people by turning dictatorship into democracy. Opponents see realpolitik at work, specifically a cynical grab for oil, an analysis presented with passion and impressive detail by Linda McQuaig in It’s the Crude, Dude (Doubleday).

She begins with the obvious. The U.S. has never shown any interest in Mideast democracy (on the contrary), while oil is a strategic necessity for both the American economy and the country’s military effectiveness. If Iraq had none, the U.S. would exhibit no more interest in its fate than it shows for sub-Saharan Africa. McQuaig then describes the almost symbiotic relationship between the oil sector and the Bush White House, particularly in the case of Vice-President Dick Cheney, considered Satan incarnate by the Left. With considerable restraint, McQuaig merely calls Cheney “perhaps the most powerful man in the administration.”

Case closed? Running throughout It’s the Crude, Dude is McQuaig’s palpable frustration with the reluctance—naturally strongest in America, but widespread among the country’s traditional friends—to admit what is undeniable to her. She’s surely right to point to the way the Bush administration has continually, in the teeth of the evidence, insisted on a link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, and to the apparently unshakable belief among Americans that their nationalone in human history—invades other lands solely for altruistic reasons. But there is a far more significant problem with the case for oil as prime motive: it doesn’t add up.

Consider Gwynne Dyer’s disturbing Future: Tense (McClelland & Stewart), an ultimately more convincing explanation for Iraq. You don’t have to invade oil-producing countries—at a cost of US$120 billion and 1,100 American lives (and counting)—to get oil, Dyer points out, “You just write them a cheque.” Most OPEC economies are so dependent on foreign exchange that they peddle their oil to anyone; in fact, half of Iraq’s oil exports went to the U.S., of all countries, in the month before Bush’s invasion.

Dyer finds the root of the assault in what he calls the neo-conservative project, “a halfcrazed manifesto for American world domination.” While its more radical proponents are found in the Republican party, there is considerable support across American public life for the idea that the U.S. should seize the unipolar moment—the respite between the implosion of the Soviet Union and the inevitable rise of China—to cement its currently unchallengeable global superiority. That means the U.S. must break free of the multilateral restraints it helped foster after the Second World War—including the AntiBallistic Missile Treaty—and find a new justification for the immense military might built up during the Cold War. “Rogue nations” and the terrorist attacks of 2001 providentially provided the pretext. And in the electrified post-9/11 atmosphere, “Iraq practically nominated itself” as a means of showing the world that all the rules had changed.

The danger in the situation is far greater than a possible surge in Islamist terrorism, according to Dyer, who insists: “The United States needs to lose the war in Iraq as soon as possible. Even more urgently, the whole world needs the United States to lose the war in Iraq.” If the Americans are still there five years from now, still engaged in their “adventure in unilateralism,” what’s now left of international institutions will be shredded. “The UN will start to die,” Dyer warns, as the other great powers start to take the old, bad steps to protect their interests that they took in the generation before 1914. Inherently dangerous alliances and arms races will follow.

Other exceptional books on the state of the planet include A War Against Truth (Raincoast), Paul William Roberts’ angry, deeply personal and finely written account of the Iraq invasion, and Rushing to Armageddon (M & S), in which Mel Hurtig issues an urgent warning against Canada’s involvement in U.S. missile defence plans. In A Short History of Progress (Anansi), the book version of this year’s CBC Massey Lectures, historian Ronald Wright offers an elegant and learned discussion of what the rise and fall of past civilizations predict about our own: nothing good.

IT’S THE CRUDE, DUDE Linda McQuaig; Doubleday; $35.95

FUTURE: TENSE Gwynne Dyer; McClelland & Stewart; $19.99

MEMOIRS It’s impressive what a headlinegrabbing spat with the Prime Minister’s Office can bring an ex-politician. Since Sheila Copps accused Prime Minister Paul Martin of having tried to gut medicare a decade ago—prompting noisy denials from the PMO—her book Worth Fighting For (Douglas Gibson/M & S) has received the most attention of the fall’s memoirs. It has easily outdistanced, at least in the national media, Never Retreat, Never Explain, Never Apologize (Key Porter), by political opponent Deborah Grey. But the two volumes make apt bookends: two women in what’s still a man’s business, both of whom flourished under one leader and struggled under his successor. As a Liberal and a cabinet minister, Copps moved in a power orbit well above Grey, but she also had farther to fall. Perhaps the saddest reflection of that is in their books’ forewords: Grey’s has an affectionate tribute from Preston Manning; Copps, tonedeaf to the end, includes a salute from Jean Chrétien so perfunctory that it’s derisive.

Grey is only 52, the age Copps will turn later this month. For a true life story, readers could turn to This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me (Key Porter) by Norman Jewison, 78. The acclaimed director of In the Heat of the Night and Moonstruck happily tells tales about some of the most famous actors of his time. For a Canadian, Jewison is a quintessential mid-20th-century American. He made movies satirizing Cold War paranoia and savaging racial prejudice in the Deep South, protested the war in Vietnam and practised a very Californian religious eclecticism. Jewison found his worst moment in Robert Kennedy’s assassination in 1968, and his apotheosis in his 1999 lifetime achievement Oscar. But he also moved back to Canada in 1978 and helped found the Canadian Film Centre, to better nurture a homegrown industry.

Other intriguing memoirs include Peter C. Newman’s Here Be Dragons (Douglas Gibson/M&S). Previously excerpted in Maclean’s, it retells with wit and honesty a public life lived in large part at the epicentre of Canadian events. The author of 23 previous books, including such classics of political journalism as Renegade in Power, Newman is equally open about his tumultuous private life. James Laxer’s offbeat account of growing up the child of underground members of the Communist party is the subject of Red Diaper Baby (Douglas & McIntyre). It describes, among other surreal developments, how the future NDP dissident and his little brother came to be the only kids on their Toronto block cheering for the North during the Korean War.

Far, far from the world’s sound and fury, and the rationalizations of most autobiographers, lies the still centre of There is a Season (M & S). This astonishing memoir, beautiful in its prose and terrifying in its honesty, is poet Patrick Lane’s account of a year in his life and garden. It opens in January of2000, with Lane barely two months out of the rehab centre he entered after 45 years of heavy drinking. For the first time in decades he feels alive but in agony, fragile and hopeful at the same moment, “as if I had come out from some shadowed place into light for the first time.” Standing in his garden, Lane knows that if he’s going to survive this new life it will be by the grace of his small patch of Vancouver Island dirt.

Without the blocker of drink and drugs, memories of his childhood’s “dark infinities” flood Lane, now 65, as he slowly tends his land. Images of a harsh life in the B.C. Interior in the 1940s include the dead baby Lane found in the woods, a friend’s father who prostituted his Down’s Syndrome daughter for 25 cents a customer, the rape of a native woman—and, stunningly, “moments of such joy that to remember them makes me reel through the thin air of the past.” Most revolve around his mother reading to him and his siblings—teaching him to treasure words, their rhythms and patterns, instilling them in his “bones and breath.”

Lane writes as evocatively of the birds, animals, plants and insects of his garden as he does of his past, including a tiny, perfect gem recorded near year’s end—a suspense-

filled, five-page account of two spiders mating. It’s a joy to watch Lane patiently weave himself back together, combining his two extraordinary talents—an acute power of observation and an effortless gift for words that is truly embedded in his bones. There is a Season is a masterpiece.

BIOGRAPHY Newspaper magnate Conrad Black’s troubles over the past year have inspired Richard Siklos to update and reissue his 1995 biography, Shades of Black (M & S), and have, presumably, considerably altered the direction of George Tombs’ longplanned study, Lord Black (BT Publishing), commenced in 2001. Only Wrong Way

(Penguin), by Globe and Mail reporters Jacquie McNish and Sinclair Stewart, is written entirely in response to recent events. All three books contain the same juicy bits about Black and his glamorous wife, Barbara Amiel, that have enthralled onlookers for years— the multi-million-dollar homes, the society parties, the jewellery and the other extravagances—and even in that regard they’re matched, and occasionally outdone, by the relevant chapters of Newman’s memoirs. But Wrong Way does the best job of placing Black’s fall in context.

In the post-Enron world of the past few years, which has seen a sea change in the very idea of corporate governance, Black vs. the shareholders was a modern-day version of immovable object vs. irresistible force. Black ran his companies in a high-handed fashion that would have driven medieval barons to rebel against their king, and shareholders already incensed by tales of fiscal shenanigans in other companies simply stopped deferring to him. A wiser, or at least more humble, man might have seen the coming storm and defused the anger with timely apologies and restitution. But Black stuck to his Napoleonic persona instead and proved, in the unlikely Waterloo of a Delaware court, that character is destiny.

THERE IS A SEASON Patrick Lane; McClelland & Stewart; $34.99

WRONG WAY Jacquie McNish & Sinclair Stewart; Penguin; $38