Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Until You Are Dead

I grew up in south-western Ontario, not far from the town of Clinton. This is solid, stolid olde Ontario, full of quietly prosperous small towns with a Legion hall and streets named after 19th century British worthies. Entirely bucolic. But like a David Lynch film, there was weirdness behind the Victorian façade.

The Steven Truscott case was part of local lore when I was growing up. The story of the seemingly normal 14 year-old who killed 12 year-old Lynne Harper in the woods near Clinton in 1959 was well-known. Truscott was convicted on circumstantial evidence and became the youngest person in Canada ever sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted to life in prison in 1960. An appeal in 1960 was denied. Doubts of his guilt grew, and in 1966 the Supreme Court of Canada reviewed the case. After three weeks of testimony the court ruled 8 – 1 against Truscott.

Books helped keep the story alive over the years. Isabel LeBourdais published The Trial of Steven Truscott in 1966. Bill Trent published The Steven Truscott Story in 1971 and Who Killed Lynne Harper? in 1979 (with Truscott’s cooperation). Jack Batten wrote about the problems with the forensic science used in the case in a chapter of his 1995 book Mind Over Murder: DNA and other Forensic Adventures.

Truscott was paroled in 1969. He married, had a family and lived anonymously in Guelph, Ontario until the CBC show, the fifth estate, took on his case. When the Truscott episode aired in 2000 a firestorm of publicity erupted, thanks to the questions raised in the documentary, including more likely suspects and important leads not revealed to the defence. The producer of the documentary, Julian Sher, published “Until you are dead”: Steven Truscott’s Long Ride into History in 2001. Sher’s book details the case’s convoluted history and the many wrong turns over the years: witnesses not called upon, suspects not investigated and important leads not followed.

The TV show and Sher’s book were instrumental in Truscott’s 2001 request to the Department of Justice to consider his case for exoneration. The justice minister then, Irwin Cotler, referred the case to the Ontario Court of Appeal. This court is now deciding whether to grant a new trial, uphold the conviction or exonerate Truscott.

And for the first time, the proceedings of the appeal are being filmed and are available live on the Internet via the CBC website. Quite fascinating viewing.

Novelist Ann-Marie MacDonald spent some of her childhood in Centralia, Ontario, near the events of the Steven Truscott case. She said the Truscott case haunted her (“I grew up with the shadow of that case”) and that the “ordeal of Steven Truscott, his spirit and courage” were the major inspiration for her award-winning novel, The Way the Crow Flies. Using the murder of a young girl and other key elements of the Truscott case, MacDonald tells a compelling story of secrets and lies and the loss of innocence. The quiet world of small town Canada in the early 1960s is beautifully evoked, set against the turbulent Cold War politics of the time.

Canadian icon Alice Munro actually lives in Clinton. She was born in nearby Wingham, and sets many of her stories in Goderich and other area towns. While often her stories lay bare the hidden secrets of small town anywhere, her most recent collection, The View from Castle Rock, is somewhat autobiographical, focusing on her Scottish relatives and the immigrant experience. Her previous collection, Runaway, or going all the way back to her classic quasi-novel Lives of Girls and Women, will give you a taste of seemingly normal small-town Ontario.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

How the Scots Invented the Modern World


While there are innumerable good reasons to have a wee dram, today is Robert Burns' birthday. And in celebrating the immortal memory of the great Scottish poet we celebrate Scotland, the Scots and the gigantic contribution that wee nation made to Canadian and world society.

US historian Arthur Herman perhaps overstates the Scottish case in his book How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It. But he makes a good case, especially in terms of the great era of nation-building in the 18th and 19th centuries when Canada and the US grew up, with Scotsmen leading the way. Duncan A. Bruce's book, The Mark of the Scots: Their Astonishing Contributions to History, Science, Democracy, Literature and the Arts makes slightly more modest claims for the Scots. Just slightly however!

The case needs to be overstated however, for despite the Scottish national image as overbearing, stingy and dour, as a national group the Scots have often been underestimated. Canada owes so much to the Scots, whether early explorers and fur traders like Alexander Mackenzie, politicians like our first prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald, inventors like Alexander Grahm Bell etc etc. Where would Canadian public libraries be without the early help from Scottish-American Andrew Carnegie? Some of these contributions to Canada are covered in the recent anthology, A Kingdom of the Mind: How the Scots Helped Make Canada, edited by Peter E. Rider and Heather McNabb [Published by McGill-Queen's University Press. McGill University - founded by Glaswegian James McGill. Queen's University - founded by Scottish Presbyterians, modelled on the University of Edinburgh!]

Of course, Canadian comic Mike Myers said it far more succinctly with his classic Saturday Night Live character of the angry Scottish shopkeeper: "If it's not Scottish, it's craaaapp!!"

Before I Wake

Out on the wet coast, rookie novelist but veteran bookseller Robert J. Wiersema had a heckuva 2006. His debut novel, Before I Wake, was a giant Canadian bestseller for most of the fall. Like Ami McKay, Wiersema benefited from fabulous word of mouth. Several people said “Have you read …?” to me during the year, referring to Before I Wake. And it even survived having a title that:

  1. No one (including me) ever remembers quite right [Before I Awake/Wake/Awaken etc]!
  2. Is the same title as several other novels (the Library has 3, including one from 2006)
The backstory is heartwarming. Wiersema is (or was I suppose) a bookseller at Munro’s Books in Victoria, BC. He was often in charge of author events, meeting the Big Names passing through. He cleverly developed a name for himself in the publishing world by becoming a prolific and sought-after book reviewer. When he had his novel ready to go, several publishers had some idea who this Wiersema guy was via his reviewing career.

But never mind all that – the book itself is excellent, a fabulous and thought-provoking good read. Wiersema, a model modest Canadian has noted that he won’t win awards for his prose style, but really, this is a well-written book.

From the book jacket:
“On a beautiful spring day, three-year-old Sherry Barrett is injured in a hit-and-run accident. Her devastated parents, Simon and Karen, wait by her bedside, hoping for a miracle . . . one that doesn’t come. Told that she will never recover, they agree to remove her from life support. And then the miracle occurs. Sherry doesn’t die. But neither does she wake.”
Lots more follows! But let’s not spoil it eh?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Birth House

What a dream year 2006 was for a couple of rookie novelists in Canada. Out on the east coast it was Ami McKay with her debut novel, The Birth House, a story of midwifery vs modern medicine in early 1900s rural Nova Scotia.

McKay’s novel was an astounding success thanks in part to strong word of mouth – “You must read this” – its status as a book club natural and its clear connection to history. Here’s McKay’s description of the inspiration for the book, from her excellent website:
"In 2000, my partner and I moved from Chicago to Nova Scotia where we bought an old farmhouse on the Bay of Fundy. By the following spring I was pregnant with my second child. As word spread ..., my neighbours began telling me tales about the history of my home, which was once a midwife's house. Not only had the midwife traveled to other homes in Scots Bay, she had opened her home to the women in the community as a birth house. She took them in and saw them through labour and delivery, and then both mother and child stayed in the birth house for a week or more after the birth. My neighbour encouraged me to visit a woman who had grown up in my house. Nearly 90 years-old, she explained that her biological mother had died three days after her birth and that the midwife had adopted her… She then began to recite the names of all the women who had given birth in the house as well as the names of their children. I was so inspired by her stories that I decided to have a midwife assisted home birth. My son was born at home in the middle of a March snowstorm, another child in the long lineage of babies born in my house. Not long after his birth I began the first scribblings towards what became The Birth House."

The Library’s two Book Clubs will be discussing The Birth House this year: The Seniors’ Book Club on March 14 and the Monday Evening Book Club on September 10.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Field Notes from a Catastrophe

It seems absurd to think about global warming on a day lake today. Currently outside it is -26° (with a breeze making it feel like -36°). Wearing ski pants to work seemed ludicrous until I walked from the parking lot in the back 40 and felt just a wee bit smug.

Western ski resorts are more than a wee bit smug, boasting about and basking in their record-breaking amounts of snow. But we live in a global village. There are signs everywhere. Ontario ski hills entirely brown. European ski resorts struggling. Glaciers roaring down hills. Robins in the Yukon.

Even a skeptic like Prime Minister Harper has had to acknowledge that something is afoot. Harper’s move of local star politico Rona Ambrose out of the Environment Ministry is an admission that climate change has become a top shelf political issue.

I come from a family of engineers, who are, shall we say, sceptical about global warming. “An intellectual fad” says one. “Peak oil is far more pressing” says another. So to prepare for the traditional family heated discussions around the supper table, I’m working my way through the bumper crop of “the sky is falling” global warming books from 2006.

Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, was the showstopper, with a colourful book to go along with it. The film is out on DVD now.

I’m currently reading Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert. It is a fairly slim book, based on three New Yorker articles that were a bit of a sensation last year. It is a calm book, soberly reviewing of the scientific evidence. A Scientific American review hopes it "is this era’s galvanizing text", a Silent Spring for this generation.

The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery appears to be the “hit” global warming book however. A scientist and writer, Flannery clearly and persuasively presents the scientific evidence on climate change, detailing what global warming has done and could do to our planet. A passionate and convincing call for individual action from all of us.

Also from 2006 was Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning by George Monbiot. Monbiot takes global warming as a given and thus this book focuses on what we can do about it. It is a British book but the ideas are applicable to all. One point he mentions – those giant LCD TVs that pretty much every Albertan home got for Christmas? They’re energy hogs, using 5 times as much power as old-fashioned CRT televisions! And much Alberta electricity is coal-generated (including Canada’s #1 emitter of carbon dioxide – the Sundance Generating plant, 70 kms west of Edmonton, burning 1040 tonnes of coal an hour).

Glum stuff. But it’s a new year. Lots of time to change.

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

With the new year the diet industry goes into high gear as folks look back at their holiday feasting with guilt. But instead of the negative resolve to “cut back” or “eat less” how about a positive resolution to eat better? More veggies. More fibre. Less processed food. More local produce. More organic. More food from outside one’s ethno-cultural group!

One book that was on many 2006 Best Of lists takes a close look at what we eat: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan. Pollan traces four meals, including a McDonald’s lunch and an organic chicken dinner, back to their origins. Pollan discovers that if we are what we eat, then we’re corn, as more than a quarter of the items in a supermarket contain corn.

An international organization in tune with the idea that we need to think about what we eat is the “Slow Food” movement. Slow Food began in Italy, “founded in 1989 to counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world”.

Mary Bailey, publisher of the Edmonton food magazine, City Palate, is a force behind Slow Food’s Edmonton chapter (or “convivium”). Her two-volume book, The Food Lover’s Trail Guide to Alberta, is a great place to start if you want to know where to go in Alberta to buy local food.

Another good book from 2006 associated with Slow Food is Piano, Piano, Pieno: Authentic Food from a Tuscan Farm by Susan McKenna Grant. The title is an Italian phrase that means “slowly, slowly, full”, and describes the idea of this cookbook – cooking thoughtfully and with purpose. Grant is a Canadian who bought and restored a Tuscan farm and now operates it as an agriturismo (an agriculturally-based inn).

**Update January 9th. John Allemang reviews The Omnivore's Dilemma in his Book-a-Day ($) column in the Globe & Mail today:

"The omnivore's greatest dilemma these days? To cook or to read.

Michael Pollan's big book about the perils of modern eating is the latest attempt to make us think harder about where our food comes from .... for Pollan, the pleasures of eating must begin with the dilemmas of full disclosure.

.... It's worth sidelining the slow-food dinners long enough to agonize with Pollan as he shows how our supply lines have been compromised. We humans can eat pretty well anything ... -- given a luxury of choice, we've abandoned what he calls "the stable culture of food," the deeply rooted traditions that bind us to the natural world, and taken up with an industrial model that values efficiency and cheapness above all.

At what cost, Pollan asks over and over again. His main target is the production-line technique of agribusiness, "what capitalism is capable of in the absence of any moral or regulatory constraint." ....

Pollan is utopian, but he's not naive. He surveys the organic-food trade with the same doubts he brings to massive Midwest feedlots. .... The solutions that make him happiest ... are wildly impractical models to say the least -- putting a bullet through a wild Sonoma County pig or joining free-range hens as they root through manure .... And yet compared with what passes for normal, they begin to make sense."