“The Good Husband of Zebra Drive” by Alexander McCall Smith

goodhusbandofzebradrive.jpg There is another Africa behind the headlines in the daily news, and Alexander McCall Smith takes us there every time he writes about Precious Ramotswe and her No. l Ladies’ Detective Agency. The first book in the series was a runaway bestseller, and this one has just as much charm, as it follows the adventures of Mrs. Ramotswe’s husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, as he takes on a case and tries to track down an errant husband.

The story is set in a small village in Botswana (formerly Bechuanaland).. McCall Smith was born in Botswana, and taught law at the university there, before returning to live in Edinburgh, which is now his home. He captures the big sky, the dirt roads that run beside the Notwane river, where crocodile lurk at the water’s edge. He also draws us into the compassion of the society, as well as the sharpness of Mrs.Ramotswe as she goes about in her tiny white van, picking up clues from neighbours who trust her. Although tactful about her husband’s temporary switch from running a big garage to trying his hand as detective, you feel a certain relief on her part as he concludes his “case” and slips happily back to mechanics , where he is a pro.

McCall Smith has a number of series running out of his Edinburgh office; the Isabel Dalhousie series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series and the 44 Scotland Street series. Readers who love them all will welcome this new one

Reviewed by Anne McDougall.

“The Ladies Lending Library” by Janice Kulyk Keefer

ladies-lending-library.jpg This is summer cottage time in the Georgian Bay – but with a difference. The novel takes place in l963, and the families it describes came to Canada from the Ukraine, or Poland and are finding their way in a new life which challenges many of the old values and dearest memories. Not only have they just got settled in Toronto, or Hamilton, but now the problems of ill-equipped shabby cottages, endless chores of cooking and washing, as well as watching their l2-year olds as they rush down zig-zag paths to the beach almost overwhelm the mothers, as they wait all week for husbands to take the long drive up for the weekend.

Janice Kulyk Keefer concentrates on these women, waiting in Kalyna Bay, and forming a reading circle of what they considered daring titles to be kept hidden under their beds. Apart from a little gin and gossip, however, they are most excited by the new “Cleopatra” movie and the affairs, on and off the screen, of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

As the summer wears on we get a distinct impression of these newcomers trying above all to keep their group intact and conventional. The book’s ending therefore comes as a shocking surprise with the behaviour of the wife of the millionaire, and the strictest mother.

Janice Kulyk Keefer has won many prizes in Canada for her novels, short story collections, poetry and non-fiction. With this story she shows her skill and story-telling flair,as well as considerable sensitivity for a particular group of Canadians.

Review by Anne McDougall

“Two Innocents in Red China” by Pierre Trudeau and Jacques Hebert

twoinnocentsinredchina.jpg The subject is China – huge, baffling – but “Two Innocents in Red China” is a good book to tackle it.

We have the writing of not one but two Trudeaus: the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau who wrote the original manuscript with a close friend, Jacques Hebert in l960, and also Trudeau’s son Alexandre, himself a ranking film-maker and journalist, who has reissued the book 47 years later with an up-to-date introduction of his own.

Trudeau and Hebert were left-wing intellectuals living in Montreal at the time Quebec was emerging from the dark days of Duplessis domination. They had both travelled considerably by the time the Red Chinese government’s “Cultural Association” was issuing invitations . Trudeau had in fact been in Shanghai in l949 just before the Communists routed Chiang Kai Chek. In l960 five Montrealers accepted China’s invitation and set off for a trip of 5 weeks that would cover 5000 miles.

At that time the West was in the throes of the Cold War and did not recognize Red China, which was very poor and feared by Westerners. The Two Innocents were to discover what was really going on – or at least what their hosts wanted them to see. Between them, Trudeau and Hebert describe quite frankly, and often amusingly, what it’s like to visit factory after factory, nurseries, hospitals, prisons, under the always-polite care of an interpreter and a guide who never leave them alone to talk privately to a Chinese citizen.

What they see is a total emphasis on work – which Mao had realized would give the down-trodden peasant class a sense of pride, as well as build prosperity for the Great Leap Forward. Even the political leaders were required to work one month a year in a workshop or in the fields.The result, the Canadians report, is a sea of smiling healthy children who today of course have built the new China, host to the Olympics and leading the world in economic expansion.

Margaret MacMillan, herself the author of “Nixon in China”,calls “Two Innocents” a charming period piece that gives a memorable picture of a China that has largely vanished. Even in l960 Trudeau and Hebert looked in vain for much of spiritual value. They longed to dream beside a Buddhist temple, or emperor’s tomb, but were whisked off to yet another film on the Red Army,or endless cups of tea before visiting a commune. Trudeau does slip off one evening and wanders the streets alone, without finding a single night-club – no jazz, no Scotch. He was gently reprimanded for the rest of the trip.

Still, you feel considerable sympathy on Trudeau’s part for a country which he points out had been invaded 40 times in the last century and a quarter, and which was struggling to improve conditions which meant 94% of the population lived in only 2/5th of the country. When he became Prime Minister ,of course,. he was the first Westerner to recognize Red China, in l970.

His son, Alexandre, writes a 33-page Introduction with some thoughtful insights into his father’s life and interest in China. He had planned to take his whole family to China when Tiananmen Square forced them to cancel. Alexandre also updates developments in China, based on his own travels there.

Altogether this is a fascinating look at the enormous country that has been so successful it may stifle in its own environmental excesses – something Mao did not consider.

Review by Anne McDougall

“Divisadero” by Michael Ondaatje

This is a story of colour and pathos that hurtles from the Gold Rush country of northern California, through the brawling casinos of Nevada, to land in the gentle countryside of south central France.

Ondaatje tells the intimate story of a father, two daughters, and an adopted boy who get into a violent fight that splits them forever. Anna eventually turns to writing and working in the archives, which takes her to France in pursuit of an early writer, Lucien Segura. His life, and losses, reflect much of her own ,and we are drawn into memories which skip backward and forward throughout the book.

The author of “The English Patient” and “In the Skin of a Lion” has had a taste of chop and change in his own life. Born in Ceylon, he has lived for some time in Toronto, with much travelling in between. It gives space and grandeur to his narrative, as well as deep feeling to his characters.

Review by Anne McDougall

Saturday April 28th at 11am : “Leo’s War” book launch!

Leo’s War: from Gaspe to VimyGordon Pimm will be launching, and signing copies of his book “Leo’s War: from Gaspe to Vimy”, an account of a Canadian soldier’s experience in World War I told through letters to his family.

“Leo’s War provides a unique insight into a Canadian soldier’s life in the trenches during the First World War.

A. Blake Seward, creator of the “The Lest We Forget Project”.

“Leo’s War” is $21.95 in Trade Paperback.

“The Filled Pen” by P.K. Page

080209399x.jpg It is rare for a writer to share the experience with other people. Perhaps if they live long enough – P.K.Page is 90 years old – they feel more like it.

At any rate, “The Filled Pen” is an enchanting collection of essays in which the renowned Canadian poet dips into parts of her life as a poet, a short story writer, and a painter. In “A Writer’s Life” she tells of growing up in Calgary (her father in the Military) where poetry was hardly mentioned (even though her mother was an artist and she got plenty of encouragement at home). In New Brunswick she met poets, potters and theatre people, and moved up to Montreal to try her luck. She got a job in an office and then met the legendary Preview group who were starting a small magazine. This turned out to be a handful of mimeographed pages stapled together – long before the days of the Canada Council. But the members of the group marked a turning-point in Canadian poetry: Patrick Anderson, F.R. Scott, Bruce Ruddick, Neufville Shaw and Margaret Day. Preview published her poems; she met A.J.M. Smith, A.M. Klein, and the painters Jori Smith and Goodridge Roberts. In 1946 she published “As Ten as Twenty” and in l954 “The Metal and the Flower”.

P.K. Page married Arthur Irwin, the head of the National Film Board, and also Editor of Macleans Magzine. She travelled with him on diplomatic posts and tells how in Brazil she turned to writing her impressions of the country in prose. One of her happiest experiences was when she worked with her husband, a famous editor, on “Brazilian Journal”. In Brazil she also took up painting and much of her work is shown in galleries across the country.

This book is an intimate story of the growing-up of Canadian Literature written by one of its most distinguished practitioners.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

The Filled Pen, $21.95, is in stock in Trade Paperback

Friday April 13th at 1pm at Books on Beechwood

toitalywithlove.jpgKim Krenz will be reading, and signing copies, of Kate’s memoir; “To Italy with Love”.

This memoir was written by the late Kate Krenz, who was posted to Italy with her scientist husband, Kim, in the mid-sixties. It is a vivid portrayal of northern Italy, its people, and describes intimately the changes brought about by the Italian experience in a woman who was a product of twentieth century Canada. Kate was a woman of exceptional grace and charm, whose acceptance by the Italians allowed her insights into the Italian character that give these memoirs special value as a statement of Italian culture. This edition, entitled “To Italy, With Love,” has been produced by Kim Krenz, partly as a memorial to Kate, using her own words, but also as a graceful and sympathetic study of a country and its people, a study recording the love that developed on both sides.

To Italy with Love by Kate Krenz is not only beautifully written, it is beautifully produced as well. At 279 pages, this weighty volume boasts a 16 page, full-colour pictorial insert, including maps of Italy, French flaps, and luxurious paper quality. It would make a stunning addition to anyone’s bookshelf.

Excerpted from the publisher’s site 4th Floor Press.

“Ambassador Assignments” by David Reece

ambassador_assignments.jpgThis is an interesting book for anyone, but particularly if you live in Ottawa. You often meet someone here who has served at one time in a Canadian embassy abroad. Sometimes they have become so “diplomatic” in their jobs that they don’t talk very frankly about what they did. In this book, David Reece, who had ten postings himself with Canada’s foreign service,five as ambassador, has found nineteen diplomats who share their experiences, with candor and insight.

There are notes on the big posts, Washington and London, but also pieces on coping with apartheid in S. Africa, developing foreign policy on frontiers such as Burma. It is not all simply a matter of sending good dispatches back to Canada and building good relations at receptions and dinner parties. Accounts from China, and Lebanon, tell of real danger, when wives and children are sent home while the host country is facing demonstrations or revolution.

The book makes a very good case for the continued value of diplomacy, of good personal relations, of humour and frankness in dealing with relations between countries. Even in an age of Email and instant communication, the human element is still reassuringly important.

Thanks to Anne McDougall for the Review!

Reluctant Genius – The Passions and Inventions of Alexander Graham Bell by Charlotte Gray

Reluctant Genius Book Cover
This is the story of a Genius At Home. There are lots of books about Alexander Graham Bell and the discovery of the telephone. What Charlotte Gray has done is tell the story of this inventor and his equally inventive wife, who was herself deaf, but successful in making their home work.
Alexander Graham Bell was born in Edinburgh in l847, at a time when the Scottish Enlightenment was bursting with ideas in science,medicine, philosophy and the arts. Both Bell’s grandfather and father had worked in speech therapy. His mother was deaf. His father studied phonetics and encouraged his son in his hands-on experiments after school. Alec taught at a school for the Deaf in London. Double tragedy struck when both his brothers died of TB. His father moved the family to Brantford,Ontario. Here Alec turned frantically to experimenting with vibrations created by human speech. Morse’s electro-magnetic telegraphs had been in use for 25 years. The race was on to find a harmonic telegraph that would use sympathetic vibration to send several messges on a single wire simultaneously. Bell got a job in Boston, at the School of Oratory, Boston University.
One day he met a newly-enrolled deaf student, Mabel Hubbard. Bright and confident, she was the daughter of prominent Boston lawyer who was also President of the Clarke Institute for Deaf Mutes. By reading lips, Mabel had always functioned in the speaking world.She had no trouble relating to the young professor but was baffled by his dishevelled appearance and rough, impatient manner. Alec was fascinated by her gentle beauty, and driven to work day and night.
At home in Brantford, he hit on the key to creating an electric current to carry sound along a telegraph wire. The telephone was born. Back in Boston, Gray describes the struggle in which Mabel’s father, an astute entrepreneur, saw the possibilities in the young professor’s ideas, but also wanted to protect his beloved daughter. He helped Bell get the patent for his invention, before he agreed to Mabel marrying him. The rest is history…both Bells and Hubbards had made their fortune.
Gray then sketches in a marriage with huge potential difficulties, but bound by great affecion on both sides. Mabel learned to handle her husband’s periods of desperate energy when he would work until exhaustion made him sick. The consideration went both ways. Alec at all times included his wife in everything he did, reading her lips, never assigning her to the side-lines with sign language only. They had two daughters (and later two sons who died prematurely). In New York, and later Washington, Bell became a celebrity, sought after by people like Helen Keller. Mabel had a hard time getting him away from his work. With his father-in-law he backed two publications,SCIENCE, and the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC.
In l889, Bell travelled to Nova Scotia and found a spot in Cape Breton that stole his heart. His home, Beinn Bhreagh, was on the Bras d’Or Lake near Baddeck. It became a haven for his family for the rest of their lives. The daughters married happily and Bell became a devoted grandfather. He spent more and more time there and built a complete research laboratory. A wide range of experiments included a huge tetrahedral kite, and the JUNE BUG, the first flying machine to fly one kilometre in a public demonstration. In l9l5, Bell agreed to speak on the first transcontinental call at the New York headquarters of the American Telephone and Telegraphy Company.
On August 4,l922, Bell died at Baddeck. His wife developed terminal cancer and died five months later. Gray tells us in her Epilogue that she visited the Bell National Historic Site in l997 and immediately resolved to write about both Alexander Graham Bell and his wife. She does so with skill and grace. Born in England, Gray has lived in Ottawa for many years and published a number of successful biographies. In this one her voice is transatlantic – much as Bell’s was – and it works very well. It might have been better if she had told us up front what she intended to do, but it is well worth the deliberate pace by which she brings these remarkable people to life.
Thanks to Anne for the review!

The Communist’s Daughter, by Dennis Bock

Communist DaughterThis is a fictional account of a man whose life already reads like fiction. “The Communist’s Daughter” conjures up a daughter Dr. Norman Bethune never had and imagines six envelopes of letters he might have written to this girl in his last days with the sick and dying of the Eighth Route Army in China before he himself got blood poisoning and died.
Dennis Bock writes dramatically of Bethune’s trip in l938 by train, foot and mule to join the Red guerillas behind the Japanese lines. He met Mao Tse-tung. He got funds to build a hospital, as well as a portable operating table. He st arted a school for doctors and nurses and wrote medical textbooks at night after operating all day. Even the stoic Chinese had never seen anything like the tireless pace he set.
But Bock dwells on the other side of Norman Bethune: the lonely, isolated man who had had trouble with personal relationships all his life. In throwbacks we are told of his harsh Presbyterian pastor father in Ontario whose thrashings he never forgot. When Bethune went to Spain to fight the Fascists, he did brilliant work with a mobile blood transfusion unit which he invented. At the same time he undercut colleagues,who had him shipped back to Canada. Even the mother of his “daughter”, who was an actual person, not a fiction, seems to have been abandoned. Bethune married a Scottish girl, after the First World War, whom he met in London. He divorced her when he got tuberculosis in the U.S. They remarried, but she did not stay.
Bethune’s drive was for causes and it cut into any other loyalties. For Canadians it has made him an uncomfortable hero. For the Chinese, however,. he is one of the few Canadians they have ever heard of and they celebrate him at schools, in books, in statues.
Bock’s book is 70% fiction. He certainly embellishes Bethune’s already colourful life. I’m not sure he adds much to his emotional stature, but the book does round out this aspect, whether Bethune would have agreed or not.
Thanks to Anne for the review!