“Mordecai Richler” by Reinhold Kramer

Mordecai Richler was said to deplore the cult of “writer as
personality”, believing his books were important, he was not.

Nonsense, says writer Reinhold Kramer, and in this biography of
Mordecai’s life, sets out to show how the colourful novelist’s life and
times had a profound and pervasive influence on his writing. They
turned him in fact into a personality in his own right, just as
interesting and provocative as his books.

Kramer’s book is a long narrative, beginning with the story of
Mordecai’s grandfathers escaping the pogroms in Poland in the late l9th
and 20th centuries, to settle in the New World. One of these men was
a wily junk dealer, the other a highly educated Orthodox Rabbi. They
made their home in the East End of Montreal . Mordecai struggled with
their values until the end of his life.

Mordecai grew up in the St. Urbain district, attending the Baron
Byng High School,and Sir George Williams University. Restless by the
second year, he had already started writing, and scraped together the
fare for Europe, sailing in l950. His bohemian life in Spain, and the
Left Bank, Paris, led to a wider circle of writers and artists, and he
was on his way, precariously, to selling the occasional article, and
getting his first novel underway. From here on, the book reads like a
flashback to the whole story of Canadian writing with the names we now
take for granted, in both film and literature. Richler even spent some
time giving a seminar at Carleton University.

Kramer is thorough and sensitive as he reveals the details in
Mordecai’s life that come through in his novels, with their names often
changed. Richler of course did succeed, particularly when “The
Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” was published. Thereafter he became
rich and famous and what were once his left-wing leanings became more
conservative. The steady streams in his life seem to be his insistence
on hard work, and his devotion to his wife, Florence, and very happy
home life with his five children. The book strikes a balance between
the reckless, irreverent Richler and the solid qualities lurking in his
satire.

Book Review by Anne McDougall

“The Uses and Abuses of History” by Margaret MacMillan

Margaret MacMillan is such a good writer that she makes the study
of history nothing but a pleasure. She did this in her best-selling
books “Nixon in China” and “Paris l9l9” which won prizes here and
abroad. In this new book she updates the Joanne Goodman Lecture Series
of the University of Western Ontario.

She regrets that just as history is becoming more important in our
public discussions, professional historians are abandoning the field to
amateurs. Political leaders too often get away with misusing or
abusing history for their own ends because the rest of us do not know
enough to challenge them. Surely this happened in Iraq….How many
people in the West know the history of what was once Persia? Or for
that matter the complications of Afghanistan?

She admits that history can be well taught, or badly. In China,
the Party keeps a close eye on the schools to make sure the lesson is
conveyed that history chose the Communist Party to lead China into its
present happy state. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington planned
an exhibit including the bombing of Hiroshima, but in the end had to
cancel. In Ottawa we know what happened at the War Museum over
another instance of illustrating bombing in Europe..

MacMillan admits the difficulties, but pleads for a better use of
history, first to understand those with whom we have to deal, and
second, equally important, ourselves.

She herself has had a long distinguished career in teaching
history. She recently left the position of provost of Trinity College
at the University of Toronto to become warden of St. Antony’s College at
Oxford University.

Book Review by Anne McDougall

“Musicophilia” by Oliver Sacks

Music of the right kind can serve to orient a patient when nothing
else can. So writes author Oliver Sacks, a physician living in New
York City where he is Professor of Clinical Neurology and Psychiatry at
Columbia University.

Ever since his days in l966 at the Beth Abraham Hospital in the
Bronx, when Dr.Sacks used music to bring life to patients immobile from
sleeping-sickness, he has widened his research and practice of musical
therapy and shares some astounding results in this book.

He tells of idiot savant children, feeble-minded but with
remarkable musical talent; blind piano-tuners, whom we have all met;
jazz musicians like Art Tatum; a stroke patient, speechless for years,
whom a music therapist heard singing and brought back until he could
use words. Patients with Parkinson’s, as well as Tourette’s Syndrome,
can get motor freedom from music. Drumming plays a huge part, in fact
rhythm (from the Greek meaning measure, motion and stream) helps with
learning and remembering. It also brings people together, in song and
dance, turning listeners into participants. Music, above all else, can
kick-start a damaged motor system into action. All this, Dr.Sacks
notes, before LDopa was discovered.

In the case of dementia, the response to music is often preserved
, even in advanced cases. Dr.Sacks gives sensitive illustrations of
Alzheimer’s patients who have made amazing recovery, through music.

This is a compassionate and impressive book, one of nine by this
distinguished author, including “Awakenings” which is the basis of a
recent film.

Book Review by Anne McDougall

“The Home we Build Together” by Jonathan Sacks

Ever since the l970’s, the trend of multiculturalism has been
sweeping societies of the West. Many people feel that while this is
meant to honour multiple identities, it also leaves too little to bind
us together.

In his new book, author and religious thinker, Rabbi Jonathan
Sacks, looks at society as a home that we build together. As Chief
Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation of Britain and the
Commonwealth, he includes the place of religion in this unifying plan.

He suggests the U.K. once thought of society as a country-house,
with newcomers finding their place as guests. But this became
condescending and unwelcoming. In the U.S. he says society became
more of a hotel, but this can turn into a cold melting-pot. The new
technology, Email, satellite TV, internet, he sees as driving us
apart. And so he stresses liberal democracy which honors the
distinctions of politics, religion and law without blurring them, but
concentrating on society, with its “neutral spaces” of universities,
libraries, parks to pull us together.

He writes of rebuilding the family, and community service through
religion. He tells how the Israelites built their first Tabernacle,
after being freed, and thus became a covenanted nation. He believes
the U.K. should institute a Britain Day, and teach the history of
their nation. Strange for a Canadian to read this when we feel
even more remiss about our own history lessons !!! and sometimes long
for another Expo 67 when the whole country felt pulled together.

Book Review by Anne McDougall

“Rockburn” – the CPAC

Ken Rockburn has been hosting programs at CPAC (Cable Public
Affairs Channel) since 200l – giving two shows “Talk Politics” and
“Rockburn Presents”. This book takes interviews mainly from the second
group. If you enjoy Rockburn on air, this brings back many memorable
moments.

John Doyle, of The Globe and Mail, praises Rockburn in a Preface
to the book for his skill at the long-form interview. It is true that
he gives his subject time to express himself, without interruption, and
this often results in intimate, heart-warming moments. Peter Gzowski
returns in all his wit and fun in one of the last interviews he gave
before his death in January 2002. Rick Mercer talks frankly about
being funny. Dennis Lee tries to explain how he feels a poem like
dancing, before it turns into words.

There are good pieces by Julie Payette, the Astronaut, also by
Cindy Sheehan, the American mother who tried to stop the war in Iraq
after she had lost a son there.

There is nothing sentimental about this book. It does however
appeal to any nostalgia we may have for recent years just past and some
truly interesting Canadians — from playwrights and actors to an
architect and visionary. Very easy to pick up…and well worth reading.

Book Review by Anne McDougall

“Whitethorn Woods” by Maeve Binchy

In “Whitethorn Woods”, Maeve Binchy writes about the new Ireland
where bustling commerce has taken the place of sleepy rural towns. But
this collection of short stories goes to the heart of a number of
families in Rossmore where the old beliefs and customs still rule the
day and bring conflict in their wake.

In this particular town exists an old statue in the heart of
Whitethorn Woods, put up in honor of St. Ann and long visited as a
wishing well by people from far and wide, searching for a husband,
longing for a baby, and so on. A new highway is threatened, which
would demolish the beloved statue. The family priest, among others, is
involved . Binchy gives the inside story in her winning, unsentimental
style and we are drawn in to their lives completely .

This Irish writer must be one of the most inventive story-tellers
alive today. Her novels and short stories, written since l982, have
won her the Lifetime Achievement award at the British Book Awards in
l999. A number of them have been adapted for cinema and television.

This book does not tackle the political effects of the European
Union on Ireland. It does not deal in a heavy way with the questions of
faith and religion on people’s lives. In a deft, humorous way it lights
up these questions through characters that you get to know and don’t forget.

Review by Anne McDougall

“The Raw Shark Texts” by Steven Hall

Disappointingly, the cover for the Canadian edition does not feature
the inkblot artwork of the original – which ties the title to the
Rorschach tests, an important link. The Raw Shark Texts is an
excellent novel from first-time novelist Steven Hall. If you are
tired of books that spoon-feed the reader and ties up every loose
end, this is the book for you (It’s also reminiscent of books like
Fight Club). It lets the reader think and figure for him- or herself
what really happened. This reads almost like a movie script (in fact,
the book has already been optioned for a film), as it starts with
vague unease and blasts into full-tilt action – a great summer read.

“Fire in the Blood” by Irene Nemirovsky

This is a short novel by the best-selling author of “Suite
Francaise”. You will find the same brisk, clear writing and incisive
study of human nature, as well as a surprising and endearing love story.

The setting is a small village in the French countryside.
Generations of farming families know all about each other and very often
keep these secrets hidden. The story-teller, Sylvio, is one of these,
until a totally unexpected murder uncovers a chain of events in his past
that brings him out of his reverie.

Like “Suite Francaise”, this manuscript was only recently
discovered by Nemirovsky’s biographers, and in fact was found in the
same suitcase ,saved by her daughters, that gave the world “Suite
Francaise”.

It is a pleasure to read such beautiful moody pictures of this old
French world and I find the characters well-drawn and completely
convincing.

Review by Anne McDougall

“Consumption” by Kevin Patterson

This is an up-close look at White and Inuit people living together.

A beautiful Inuit girl, Victoria, marries but never really accepts
the Scot, Robertson, who runs the Hudson Bay store at Rankin Inlet.
She had contracted tuberculosis at age 6 and was sent south to Montreal
for care at a sanatorium. When she returned l0 years later, she
was torn apart by the two cultures, in spite of Robertson’s general
acceptance by the community, as well as their three children.

The author is a doctor and has practised for a number of years in
the North. He writes sharply and sensitively about the physician in
this book. He also has great understanding of the Inuit who had spent
some l0,000 years “on the land”,i.e. the tundra stretching back from the
west side of Hudson Bay ,and had trouble with schools, store-bought food
instead of walrus meat, prefabricated wooden houses which in high winds
are not as snug as an igloo.

The tension builds to considerable violence, which is not resolved
until the end of the book. The characters are very sympathetic and
though Patterson doesn’t pretend to solve the difficulties of our living
together, he paints a picture which makes the reader very much hope we do.

Review by Anne McDougall

“Obama – From Promise to Power” by David Mendell

9780060858209.jpg With Barack Obama so much in the news these days, it is helpful to read this well-researched book by Chicago Tribune reporter David Mendell.

Obama himself wrote his own story ten years ago, “Dreams from my Father”, before he became famous. It came out again last year and was reviewed by Books on Beechwood last March. It tells the commendably detached story of how Obama struggled to find his own identity -with a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, U.S.A.

Mendell’s book goes on from there and shows how once Obama did settle on his identity he has become a remarkably steady character, not pushed around by the tremendous media pressure that has descended on him in his run for the presidency.

After graduating with honors from Harvard Law School, Obama became the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. In early working days he experienced the violent moods of inner city kids in L.A. After a year in Manhattan, he took a job in Chicago with an organization pulling urban blacks and suburban whites together in a plan to save manufacturing jobs in metropolitan Chicago. He worked for multiculturalism, believing blacks should enter the mainstream power structure and work for change. He himself decided politics would be a faster way to a achieve this and won a seat in the Illinois State Senate on Chicago’s South Side.

The rest of Mendell’s book is an exciting look at the game – and the fight – to win the Presidency of the United States. We meet Obama’s vivacious wife, Michelle, and two young daughters. For the rest we can watch television and see the pressure piled on this young family.The story of course is still mid-way. This is a very good background book.

Book Review by Anne McDougall