“Georges and Pauline Vanier: Portrait of a Couple” by Mary Frances Coady

georgespaulinevanier.jpegThe Vaniers were one of the truly great couples to serve Canada, and this book shows why. Georges Vanier was a military officer in Quebec’s celebrated 22nd Battalion (the Van Doos). He lost a leg fighting in the First World War and this book gives some terrible pictures of that fighting. Later, in Montreal, he met Pauline Archer, a member of another distinguished French-English family. They got married and this double biography gives a most sensitive picture of their radically different temperaments, as well as their religious beliefs and desire to serve – how they complimented each other.

Georges had a number of assignments overseas: working for the British government, for the League of Nations, as Canada’s first Ambassador to France, and finally as the first French Canadian to become Governor General of this country. They, and their five children, had some harrowing times, in particular fleeing Hitler’s troops in France. Vanier supported de Gaulle in his struggle for French Resistance and also tried to save many of the refugees and bring them to Canada.

While Georges ran a very serious, protocol-minded office, his wife was unusually outgoing and vivacious. It made them an ideal couple in a stuffy diplomatic world. The author is very skillful at bringing this out – and also showing what a strong part their Catholic background played. Both had come close to entering the Church, and their son, Jean, was to become the world-known leader of a movement to care for the mentally-handicapped, called L’Arche.

Coady teaches writing at Ryerson University in Toronto. She has written a brilliant book in this Portrait of a Couple.

Review by Anne McDougall

“The Spoiler” by Annalena McAfee

thespoiler.jpegThis is a timely novel about the British press, coming as it does in the throes of the Murdoch scandals as well as the folding of the long-time “News of the World.” It’s a hard-hitting story with a surprise ending, quite in keeping with the drama of the whole book.

Annalena McAfee, wife of the renowned writer Ian McEwan, writes about two women journalists, one a distinguished war correspondent with a wide reputation, just turned eighty, and the other a 30-year old correspondent for a weekend entertainment supplement for which she compiles lists of who’s in and who’s out of the news with the emphasis on personal scandals. When the junior writer goes to interview the famous writer, their backgrounds are so different they can hardly talk to each other. The senior woman maintains silence on her personal life but this does not stop the junior from an incredible adventure of spying on her.

Journalists always talk about “putting the paper to bed.” In this book it is their turn. In a rollicking revealing story the junior writer does turn up some shocking background, but this in turn backfires on her own driving ambitions. The whole story is set against the added threat of the Internet usurping the newspapers as this cast has known them and altogether makes for a fascinating read.

Review by Anne McDougall

“The Beauty of Humanity Movement” by Camilla Gibb

beautyhumanity.jpegIt is a pleasure to read a book that is gentle and yet fearless in facing the big issues.

Camilla Gibb writes this way in her new novel, “The Beauty of Humanity Movement.” The result is a very successful story set in the new Vietnam – that links personalities from both past and present. Most of us think of the American War in connection with Vietnam. But this country has suffered from a long French oppression as well as a thousand years of Chinese domination. Today it is emerging as a “new Vietnam,” building its own institutions while clinging to part of the past.

Gibb introduces three special personalities to show us this picture. Most endearing is Old Man Hung, who makes the best pho (beef noodle soup) in Hanoi. He is so well-loved that although the police won’t allow him to set up a restaraunt, he wanders with his cart from spot to spot and his clientele follow him bringing their bowls with them. A young, modern Vietnamese is the tour guide, employed at the best hotel to look after tourists, many of them American. There is also the attractive Vietnamese-American woman, now living in the U.S., who turns up with questions about her father’s disappearance during the war. He had been an artist in the Beauty of Humanity Movement that met at Old Man Hung’s restaurant but disappeared when such artists were taken to camps for re-education.

Gibb was born in England and has a PhD in social anthropology from Oxford University. She moved to Toronto where she now lives. Her earlier novel, “Sweetness in the Belly” became a national bestseller, winning prizes. Later novels have been translated into fourteen languages. This one should follow suit.

Review by Anne McDougall