“Payback” by Margaret Atwood

“Payback”  by Margaret Atwood Margaret Atwood is world-famous for her fiction, non-fiction, poetry and books for children. These books have not all been “timely” — or even meant to be. But in “Payback”, she hits the jackpot. At a time when the whole world is going through a period of economic upheaval, she looks at the question of debt not just as a part of high finance, but as it has been part of our lives for centuries, in religion, literature and social human history.

Her book “Payback” came out originally as the 2008 Massey lectures. It was published just as the financial world was shaken by the collapse of a debt pyramid called “sub-prime mortgages”. Atwood points out this attitude had been building for some time. In l950 the first credit card was issued in Canada. By l955 the Canadian household debt-to-income ratio was 55%. By 2003 it was l05.2% and in the U.S. ll4%.

Debt could not exist, she notes, without our sense of fairness. This goes back a long way – to the Code of Hammurabi in biblical times, i.e. an eye for an eye. In old Egyptian and Chinese cultures it’s the Tao, or Way; in India the Karmic justice, i.e. return of good for good, evil for evil.

We are going through a period when debt has passed through a harmless and fashionable period and is reverting to being sinful, examples starting with the payment of dowries, selling people, and slavery. Atwood looks at Christianity and original sin and the question of the debt of sin. A chapter called Shadow Side examines what happens when people don’t pay their debts, e.g. debtors’ prisons.

She gives the book a lift when she looks at literature, e.g.Shakespeare and Hamlet: “neither a borrower nor a lender be”, and Charles Dickens, with lots of examples from Ebenezer Scrooge. Her last chapter is called Payback and she ponders how we look at things, wondering whether we should add things up differently and calculate the real costs of how we’ve been living. This leads to the huge world of natural resources and what we’ve been taking out of the biosphere. Perhaps another book?

Book Review by Anne McDougall

“Pierre Berton” by A.B. McKillop

“Pierre Berton”  by A.B. McKillop This is a big book about a big man, Pierre Berton.

Known to every Canadian who read a newspaper or watched TV over the last 50 years, Berton was one of the leaders who brought Canada out of the shadow of the U. K. and U.S. and helped shape our own history and identity.

He did it as a writer on Macleans and The Toronto Star, and on TV on the long-running Front Page Challenge. He published a string of best-selling books such as The Klondike, The Last Spike, The Comfortable Pew. Berton was born in Whitehorse, eventually went south to the University of British Columbia where he wrote for the college paper, and then settled in to the publishing world of Toronto. He was a devoted, if flamboyant, family man, with six children. They lived in Kleinburg, outside Toronto but Berton spent most of his time flying and speaking all over Canada, defending what he thought best for the country.

A. Brian McKillop is Chair of the Department of History at Carleton University. Like his earlier prize-winning The Spinster and the Prophet, this book gives a thorough and dazzling picture of the times Berton lived in, as well as a sensitive portrait of Berton himself. It is a fine combination of history and biography.

Book Review by Anne McDougall

“A Fair Country” by John Ralston Saul

“A Fair Country” by John Ralston Saul “Whatever our family tree may look like, our institutions and common sense as a civilization are more Aboriginal than European or African or Asian”- so writes John Ralston Saul in the introduction to his new book, “A Fair Country”.

The distinguished writer and husband of former Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson, has already published a number of essays, and also novels. In this book he looks at the 400 years of Canada’s history, and wonders why we are so hesitant to recognize what he sees as the strongest influence in our society: i.e. the Aboriginal idea of inclusion and recognition of diversity within the circle.

He shows that the early years brought the newcomers and First Nations together. Champlain said, “our young men will marry your daughters and we shall be one people.” Apart from New France, the Acadians, and also the settlers on the west coast particularly in the Okanagan Valley, intermarried with the First Nations. Peter Lougheed, successful premier of Alberta, married into a leading Metis family that combined a local Aboriginal network with the classic Hudson’s Bay Company background.

It was only when Victorianism took over, and Canada accepted an inferior colonial attitude, Saul claims, that we lost our self-confidence and realization of who we really are. This has returned, to a great extent he maintains, in the arrival of immigrants and our widening of the circle to include diversity and fairness to all.

In these days of uncertainty within our government, this is a most interesting – and caring – look at what Canadians have succeeded in doing in the past and what Saul maintains we can do again, if we recognize our strengths and build on them.

Book Review by Anne McDougall

“The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday” by Alexander McCall Smith

“The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday” by Alexander McCall Smith There are not many new ways of praising the wit and charm of Alexander McCall Smith’s books.

He of course is the Scots writer, living in Edinburgh, whose “No. l Ladies Detective Agency” became a world-wide best seller a few years ago. Since then, the retired professor of Edinburgh University has turned out stories from at least three series. The recent one is from the Isabel Dalhousie series. Its heroine gets increasingly sympathic, I find, as she pursues her role as editor of a Review on Ethics, but also devotes more time to her personal life, which involves real love for her slightly younger, musical partner, also for their young infant son. Added to this is the complication of running her household, presided over by a paid housekeeper, Grace.

Smith is completely at home in Edinburgh, as is Isabel Dalhousie, so you get a wonderful picture of the physical, as well as social, ins and outs of this marvelous city. Isabel is quite well-known in a number of circles, and is often asked about problems that arise, often of a legal nature. She can’t resist getting involved, and this happens in this book. The plot is intriguing, as are her efforts to offer help.

Smith strikes his usual balance of sympathy and common-sense and it makes for an utterly readable and enjoyable book.

Book Review by Anne McDougall

“Exit Lines” by Joan Barfoot.

Exit Lines by Joan BarfootIt can’t be easy to write a funny, provocative, as well as compassionate book about life in a Retirement Home.

Joan Barfoot succeeds in Exit Lines. The Canadian novelist concentrates on four people, three women and one man, whose lives had crossed in varying degrees before they entered the Idyll Inn. The building sounds a bit like Ottawa, with a river, ducks and the occasional canoe. This group of people get together for a glass of wine and very quickly build up a kind of loyalty. This will be severely tested, as time goes by, by one of their member’s startling request. Events unfold that challenge this request. The unfolding story shows up Joan Barfoot’s skilful writing.

This is her eleventh novel. She lives in London, Ontario and has been named for a number of prizes. Alice Munro says: “So much fiction turns out to be diversion, in spite of fancy claims, and doesn’t really look at anything. Well – this does.”

Book Review by Anne McDougall

“The Boxer and the Spy” by Robert Parker

I was given the opportunity to read an advanced copy of Robert B. Parker’s new young readers novel- “The Boxer and the Spy”. I thought it was a fun novel, and while not completely gripping, there were times when it was quite engaging.

I thought that some of the teen characters in the novel did not ring quite true at times (understandable, as he was a teenager during the ’50s), and that some of the plot complexity found in his adult novels was lost in the transition to more child-friendly books.

My advice to him would be to keep the plots just as complex and simply tone down some of the content because people my age reading a mystery novel will want a complex plot. That said, the novel still drew to a satisfying and enjoyable conclusion.

Thanks for this opportunity,

Thomas Gow

“Late Nights on Air” by Elizabeth Hay

Thomas Berger (MacKenzie Valley Pipeline) called the Arctic
wilderness “the last of North America – the eighth wonder of the
world”. Elizabeth Hay’s book takes you there, but she makes the
vastness intimate.

“Late Nights on Air” is the story of a half a dozen men and women
working in a radio station in Yellowknife. Thrown together
professionally, they get even closer when four of them undertake a canoe
trip down the lonely Thelon River.

The manager of the station takes on a young woman who had driven
from Georgian Bay, intent on experiencing the North with which she had
become infatuated. The manager had his own infatuation with a Dutch
girl, beautiful and eccentric, who ran away from her job to join a
radical young technician who was working on behalf of the Dene people.
The manager joins the three others for the trip down the Thelon.

This is the river, less known than the Nahanni, where the
Englishman John Hornby misjudged the running of the caribou and, with
two younger compatriots, starved to death – their cabins still standing,
testimony to the tragedy of their deaths.

Hay’s writing on the North is truly brilliant– the white bells of
Arctic heather, the old white wolf, the ice clogging the river in the
early stages, the grizzly bear, the 80-pound back -packs the men
carried, the overwhelming emptiness of the sky and Barrens. The quiet
days bring memories to all four, who share their loves and losses
between portages and settling down for the night. Hay is witty and
candid. The snatches of conversation make her characters very real.

Hay was herself a radio announcer. She now lives in Ottawa, and
has written four fiction and two non-fiction books, some winning
prizes. This one won the most recent Giller Prize.

Book Review by Anne McDougall

“Revenant” by Tristan Hughes

Tristan Hughes was born in Ontario but grew up on the Welsh island
of Ynys Mon. This, his third novel, is set in a remote Welsh village
by the sea. Perhaps his coming from another country made him
particularly observant and sensitive to his new land. The book
certainly evokes a vivid picture of the people and landscape of this
lonely little town.

It is the story of four friends, two boys, two girls, who grew
up together and made their own little gang. Each chapter is written in
the voice of one of them, with the notable exception of a girl called
Del, who was the ringleader in real life but missing from this account
of their memoirs. Hughes is skilful in drawing you into their lives
and particularly good with the childrens’ feelings.

He is both a writer and teacher himself, with a PhD in literature
from King’s College, Cambridge. He has taught American literature in
Cambridge, Taiwan, Wales and Germany . He won the Rhys Davies Short
Story Award in 2002 and praise for his first two novels which were
published in the UK. “Revenant” is his debut in Canada.

Book Review by Anne McDougall

“Nothing to be frightened of” by Julian Barnes

For something noone knows anything about – death – the British
writer Julian Barnes has managed 250 pages of fascinating copy.

He looks at faith in God and meditates on mortality and our fear of
death. But he also looks at the great paintings of Giotto, and wonders
if faith makes a difference in our ability to enjoy them. The same
thing applies to the great requiems in music.

He examines the philosophies of a number of writers, including
Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway and particularly the French
writer Jules Renard. At Oxford, Barnes studied Montaigne who, he
claims, is where our modern thinking about death begins. To be a
philosopher, said Montaigne, is to learn how to die.

Barnes spends much of the book looking at his parents, how they
died. He does this with humour and affection, as with his brother,
who teaches philosophy. He tells us this is not an autobiography,
but it does in fact tell us a lot about Barnes the man and the novelist.

He has a light touch, in spite of his subject, and the book is
frank, wise, and funny. Barnes has written ten novels, as well as
two collections of short stories. He lives in London, England.

Book Review by Anne McDougall

“Troublesome Young Men” by Lynne Olson

Most of us know about Winston Churchill’s historic defense of
England in the Second World War, either through his own
brilliant writing, or the scores of historians who have covered it.
Much less well-known is the story of the men who struggled for years in
a government committed to appeasement, to get Churchill into power and
put a brake on Hitler’s blitzkrieg.

Lynne Olson has done thisin”Troublesome Young Men”. It is indeed
a cracking tale, and hard to put down. The title comes from something
Harold Macmillan said to Churchill in l928. It would be twelve years
before Macmillan was part of the group that upset Neville Chamberlain
and got Churchill to lead the country.

Olson has done remarkable research, through British as well as
American archives, but also the personal papers of the people
involved. The human story is compelling. This is upper-class Britain
and everyone went to the same schools, university, and house parties.
The result is often a clash of loyalty when old friends find themselves
caught in cutthroat parliamentary tactics. The book makes clear
that England had not got over World War l, and did not want another
war. Chamberlain did everything he could to dull the press, and BBC, and
calm the populace, even as Czecholsovakia, Poland, and Norway were
falling to the Germans.

Many of the names are familiar: Anthony Eden, Duff Cooper, Violet
Bonham Carter, Lord Halifax; others less so: Leo Amery, Ronald
Cartland, Bob Boothby. Olson gives lively and affecting portraits of
all of them. Nor does she whitewash Churchill. His difficult sides
are part of the story.

Lynne Olson lives with her husband, Stanley Cloud, in Washington,
D.C. and has co-authored two books with him, as well as “Freedom’s
Daughters” on her own. She was an Associated Press correspondent in
Moscow in the 70’s and covered the White House during Jimmy Carter’s
presidency.

Book Review by Anne McDougall