Friday, December 14, 2007

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

In the 1950s Agatha Christie's British publisher used the slogan "A Christie for Christmas" to promote her latest novel. Still pretty good advice I think. With many new attractive editions of her novels available they make a suitable gift for hard-to-buy-for Aunt Mabel in Moose Jaw or Granny P. in Parksville. And the brief quiet that sometimes follows the carnage of Christmas is perfect for a cozy murder mystery.
But the reading sophisticates among us should hold our sneers at Christie. As many have noted over the years, Christie's books go beyond cosy. An excellent new biography of Christie - Agatha Christie: An English Mystery by Laura Thompson shows that "her best books explore the darkest aspects of human nature with a chilling honesty – that they are the opposite of cosy" (review by Jake Kerridge in the Telegraph).

Which one to read? Yann Martel sent Stephen Harper a copy of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in his campaign to get the PM reading ( But even Martel pulls his punches, calling her books "a guilty pleasure". Yet The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, way back in 1926, was a pioneer in the use of the "unreliable narrator". Contemporary writers like Martel (Life of Pi), Ian McEwan (Atonement), and the whole raft of postmodern tricksters like Paul Auster (The New York Trilogy) make use of the device.

Ackroyd is often pointed to as Christie's best. It stars Hercule Poirot as the detective (in this one he is retired, growing vegetable marrows). In Thompson's biography she favours Ackroyd as well but gives top honours to
Five Little Pigs (1942) and The Hollow (1946), "perfect geometric puzzles and perfectly distilled meditations upon human nature". All three of the above are available at the Library in pristine new editions.

For a dissenting opinion on Christie, read A.S. Byatt's piece, "Why I Love Margery Allingham":
"I have never been able to read Agatha Christie - the pleasure is purely in the puzzle, and the reader is toyed with by someone who didn't decide herself who the killer was until the end of the writing".
She's wrong of course.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Rape of Nanking

70 years ago, on December 13, 1937, the Chinese port city of Nanking fell to the invading Imperial Japanese army. In the seven weeks that followed hundreds of thousands of people were raped, tortured and murdered in a war crime that was immediately known as the "rape of Nanking". Yet this horrific event had faded into historical obscurity, at least in the West, following the end of World War II. The publication of The Rape of Nanking by American journalist Iris Chang in 1997 changed history by bringing what Chang called "the forgotten holocaust of World War II" to worldwide attention.

Chang's book was the first full study of the Nanking massacre in English, and it was Chang who discovered important archival information such as the dairy of John Rabe, a German businessman and Nazi, who witnessed the massacre and led an international effort in the city to shield residents from the slaughter. The book became a cause célèbre, and a bestseller. But in Japan the book was not welcome, and I believe it has never been translated into Japanese. On the Chinese side the massacre continues to be a focal point for memorials, and a sore point with the Japanese government, who continue to reject calls for more atonement for Japan's war crimes. And there remain Japanese commentators who deny that the massacre happened at all.

Despite the success of the book and the changes it brought about, the author, Iris Chang, fell into a deep depression following the book's success and in 2004 committed suicide. A new film , Iris Chang: The Rape of Nanking, airing on the History Channel tonight (8pm MST), attempts to conflate Chang's story and the massacre, with only moderate success according to the Globe critic Kate Taylor ($). Taylor suggests that a "forgotten holocaust" requires a traditional documentary film. The film stars Edmontonian Olivia Cheng in the lead role of Iris Chang.

And a writer friend of Iris Chang's, Paula Kamen, who wrote an interesting memoir (All In My Head) about her battle with a chronic migraine headache, has just published a book about Chang called,
Finding Iris Chang: Friendship, Ambition, and the Loss of an Extraordinary Mind. As with Ann Patchett's memoir about her R.I.P friend Lucy Grealy (Truth and Beauty) the reviews have been iffy thus far. There is something slightly off-putting about writing about a dead friend, despite the noble intention to honour the person.

Finally, English thriller writer Mo Hayder was inspired by her reading of The Rape of Nanking to make use of it in her most recent thriller, The Devil of Nanking. Hayder also makes use of personal experience as a bar hostess in Japan to tell a suspenseful, haunting story about a young Englishwoman obsessed with the Nanking atrocities. She travels to Tokyo in search of a Chinese survivor who may have film evidence of the massacre. But there are many in Tokyo’s dark underworld who stand in her way of finding the truth.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Pearson's Prize

50 years ago today, Lester Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for "saving the world" (as the Nobel committee put it). In 1956 Pearson proposed the United Nations create and send a peacekeeping force to Egypt to defuse the Suez Crisis. Thus was born peacekeeping and with it Canada's enduring image, at least to Canadians, as peacekeepers. And general all-round nice guys.

The United Nations has a history and essays on Pearson's achievement at their site [here]. The Nobel folks have information [here]. But if you are anything like me, a reasonably well-informed person, you may have always been puzzled by the Suez Crisis (what did the Brits do or not do? Who were the bad guys?). If so you will want to pick up John Melady's new history of the Suez Crisis and Pearson's role in Pearson's Prize: Canada and the Suez Crisis. And then you and I can discuss Gamal Nassar's legacy knowledgeably!

Just browsing the Lester Pearson information out there, I'm reminded of what a great prime minister he was. A 2003 survey in the political science journal, Policy Options, had Pearson ranked as "The Best Prime Minister of the Last 50 Years" [pdf]. Mulroney 2nd overall (hmm, perhaps not this month!). Historian J.L. Granatstein's 1999 book, Prime Ministers: Ranking Canada's Leaders lists the PMs from "Great" down to "Failure":

1. Mackenzie King
2. Macdonald
3. Laurier
Near Great
4. St. Laurent
High Average
5. Trudeau
6. Pearson
7. Borden

That extremely authoritative source, the CBC program, The Greatest Canadian, has Pearson at #6, just ahead of, ahem, Don Cherry at #7 and John A. Macdonald at #8.

A look at Pearson's accomplishments certainly is convincing of his place as one of the great ones: brought in universal Medicare; established the Canada Pension Plan and a family assistance plan; increased old age pension payments and veterans allowances; established interest free student loans; introduced a national labour code, with a minimum wage; signed the Canada-U. S. Auto Pact; revamped immigration policy by moving to a race-free points system; established the Royal Commission on Women and the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. And of course, pushed through the adoption of the Maple Leaf flag over tremendous and bitter opposition.

Amazingly, Pearson did all this without a majority government and without incurring a deficit!

Read up on Pearson in John English's award-winning two volume biography, Shadow of Heaven: The Life of Lester Pearson: Volume One: 1897-1948 and The Worldly Years: The Life of Lester Pearson: 1949-1972. Pearson fanatics will want to pick up his three volumes of memoirs, Mike: The Memoirs of the Rt. Hon. Lester B. Pearson.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Life of Pi

Yann Martel is a bit of a nut. I mean this in the nicest of ways - he is after all a brilliant thinker and a fabulous writer. But really, what kind of person that has lived all over the world, from Paris to India, that has sold 6 million copies of a novel, would move to Saskatoon? (Yes, yes - the Paris of the Prairies, the City of Bridges - whatever, it is -30°C there today with the wind)
It was Saskatoon-style cold Wednesday night when 600 of us showed up at the Edmonton Westin to listen to Yann talk about the new illustrated edition of Life of Pi, a new book he is working on that focuses on the Holocaust, his advocacy project What is Stephen Harper Reading? and a discussion on the theme of "The artist as activist" with CBC Radio's Peter Brown.
When Yann used Don Quixote to illustrate a point he was making it struck me: that's it - Yann Martell is Don Quixote! Could there be a more quixotic quest than Yann's attempt to get Prime Minister Harper to read classic works of literature? For that is the aim of What is Stephen Harper Reading?, in which Yann mails a literary classic to the PM every two weeks, along with an essay promoting and explaining the book and why the PM should read it. The 17th book (The Island Means Minago - a book of poetry by the late Milton Acorn) was posted on November 26 and joins the 16 others in getting no response from the PM.

When I first heard about the project I thought it was presumptuous. Yann was ticked that Harper appeared not to give gathered cultural worthies celebrating the Canada Council's 50th anniversary their due in the House of Commons. Not the biggest slight ever methinks. And presuming that Harper doesn't read literature may be unfair, given that he is a smart guy with a couple of university degrees. Lit blogger Nathan Whitlock gained some notoriety, at least in the blogosphere, for his sharply worded criticism of Martel's project. But as time has gone by and the PM has chosen not to respond, I think Yann is right - the PM doesn't read anything beyond briefing papers and the National Post. Even George Bush has mentioned books he has been reading, most notably the novel, The Outsider (aka The Stranger), by Albert Camus.

As Yann noted at his talk, the Prime Minister may be like a lot of middle-aged men who claim they are too busy to read and if they do read it is facts, non-fiction, yessir, none of that made-up stuff. I know a lot of the middle-aged men I know feel novels are unmanly somehow. One of the good side-effects of the Harry Potter phenomenon was that it made it okay for men to read fiction. I remember listening to an older man go on and on about how much he enjoyed the Potter books. What he didn't really key into was that he was experiencing the joy of reading fiction, of experiencing STORY and narrative! And there is so much more of it available beyond Potter!

So Yann's project can remind us all that reading is important, that fiction and literature are important, even to the Prime Minister of Canada, and that we should all make some time to do it no matter how allegedly busy we are (c'mon, the TV writers are on strike!).

However, I don't know if Yann would make the best librarian, as it is important to find out what someone enjoys and suggest books along that line. We don't know what Harper might enjoy reading but I doubt it is The Bhagavad Gita, Voltaire's Candide or Strindberg's play, Miss Julia. I know the PM is a hockey fan - apparently he is even writing a hockey history book. While hockey doesn't have the associated literature like baseball does, there are still a number of books the PM could try:
  • King Leary by Paul Quarrington. This 1987 novel, which won the Leacock Award for Humour, is about old Percival Leary, once King of the Ice, one of hockey’s greatest heroes. From the the South Grouse Nursing Home Leary looks back on his tumultuous life, including using the “St. Louis Whirlygig” to score the winning goal in the 1919 Stanley Cup final. Out of print for years, the novel has been selected for the 2008 Canada Reads contest and will be reprinted.
  • The Good Body by Bill Gaston. This 2004 novel by acclaimed BC writer Gaston is a poignant and funny story about a minor league hockey goon who never managed to stick in "the show" of the NHL. He retires to his New Brunswick hometown, scams his way into university and trys to re-connect with the family he ignored during his career.
  • Finnie Walsh by Steven Galloway. This 2000 novel is narrated by Paul Woodward. Paul’s best friend is Finnie Walsh, a fellow hockey fanatic. Finnie is rich, Paul is not--Paul’s dad works the night shift at the mill owned by Finnie’s dad. One day the boys noisily prepare for the hockey season, keeping Paul’s dad awake when he should be sleeping, triggering a chain of world-altering and amusing events.
  • The Uninvited Guest by John Degen. A 2006 novel, nominated for the in Canada First Novel Award, which weaves together hockey, Canada, backgammon, Romania and the story of “Two-Second” Stan Cooper, a humble timekeeper whose slip-up during the 1951 playoffs in Toronto almost cost him his job. Degen noted that Hockey Night in Canada's Ron McLean mentioned the Giller winner, Late Nights on Air, before a Leafs-Senators game in November. He has started a campaign on his blog and on Facebook to get HNIC's "Hot Stove" segment to talk hockey novels ["Novel Night in Canada"].
  • Canadian rock legend Dave Bidini (The Rheostatics) branched out from writing occasional hockey-themed songs ("The Ballad of Wendel Clark") years ago to writing books about hockey. Most recently was The Five Hole Stories, billed as "the book that brings Canada's two favourite pastimes - sex and hockey - together at last". Calgary's One Yellow Rabbit theatre company created a play around the stories, performed at their High Performance Rodeo festival earlier this year. If that makes the PM's communication people nervous, there is Bidini's 2000 travel memoir, Tropic of Hockey: My Search for the Game in Unlikely Places. Disillusioned by the commercialization of hockey, Bidini set out to find the heart of hockey in odd places like Romania, Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates. The book was the basis for his award-winning hockey documentary, Hockey Nomad. Or last year's homage to the game, The Best Game You Can Name.
  • Finally, there is my friend Dale Jacobs' 1999 collection, Ice: New Writing on Hockey. An Alberta boy exiled in balmy North Carolina due to work, Dale used the hole in his heart from missing hockey to edit this collection of essays, poems and stories about hockey. Of course, years later Dale is back in Canada and the Stanley Cup has resided in that same balmy North Carolina recently.
Not having sold 6 million books, I can't afford to send these titles to the Prime Minister, so I direct him to the Ottawa Public Library or his hometown Calgary Public Library.