It has now been over a decade since the final full sequence of over 20,500 genes was mapped by the multi-national Human Genome Project. It is still surreal to fathom the enormity, and the seeming anti-climactic finality of this achievement. For the numerous scientists who collaborated on this project, their final aspiration was not simply the conquest of a biological puzzle per se but was rather in translating this newly compiled information into health for individuals and across populations.
The full realization of a personalized, “genomic medicine” is still very much an ongoing venture. Dr. Sharon Moalem's third book, titled Inheritance, seeks to imprint the relevance of genetic research on rare conditions to everyday life. As a practising physician and clinical researcher, Dr. Moalem's writing style is bereft of jargon, filled with anecdotes, and presumes little to no prior knowledge on the subject.
Citing the reality of over 6000 rare genetic disorders, Dr. Moalem sets up the advice of the British physician James Paget as his guide. Paget, writing in the British medical journal The Lancet, in 1882, wrote that “[n]ot one of them [rare diseases] is without meaning...[n]ot one that might not become the beginning of excellent knowledge, if we could answer the questions – why is it rare? Or being rare, why did it in this instance happen?”
The reason rare genetic disorders occur so infrequently is that complex, multicellular animals operate under the principle of “biological totalitarianism.” This is the mechanism that, when functioning as it should, “promotes cellular obedience at all costs, an obedience enforced by receptors on the surface of any potentially misbehaving cells.” Yet the paradox is that our DNA – our hereditary material and biological instruction manual – is susceptible to change through individual actions, and stimuli from the environment. The remarkable fact is that even a a very small change in genetic code has a significant transformation in its expression. Dr. Moalem recounts the story of a young boy in Lahore, Pakistan who had a small mutation in the SCN9A gene leading to his accidental death as he jumped off a roof on a dare, as he was completely devoid of feeling any pain.
There are various points in the book where the reader is encouraged to have their exome (partial) or whole genome sequenced as it has become relatively cheaper to do so. While this is true – in 2000, $10 million could barely sequence 1 person while the same amount, accounting for inflation, can sequence up to 400 people – there is still stubborn bottlenecks due to the complexities involved in computing and interpreting this genetic data. The practicality of access continues to be restricted due to these barriers, and are far more in abeyance in developing countries for the same reasons, amplified.
Dysmorphology is using careful observation of the physical appearance of the patient to deduce the probability of different genetic disorders. While this harkens discomfiting thoughts of a phrenologists' fingers tracing the contours of one's skull, Dr. Moalem outlines how noting certain features of the patient's face can yield useful medical clues aplenty. In fact, just last month, Dr. Moalem and his team won a hackathon event at MIT for developing a smartphone app that can help identify “predispositions to certain diseases based on facial structure.”
The possession of such intimate knowledge raises a slew of other issues. At a time when truly private spheres continue to diminish in a world of prevalent social media and connectivity, privacy concerns are inescapable. Dr. Moalem raises the thorny issue of “genetic discrimination” where someone could be turned down disability or life insurance based on their profile. Perhaps even the prospect of a romantic relationship becomes contingent on genetic capability; the possibilities for exclusion abound. The practise of gender-selective abortion is prevalent in China, and this is inadvertently abetted by the ultrasound technology that enables parents to identify the sex of the foetus. The case of Ethan, who does not even have the a trace of a Y chromosome, who was still born male is a caveat against eugenics of this kind. The personal ebullience of Dr. Moalem shines through in the passages where he praises the courage and patience of his patients with rare conditions, sincerely expressing how much they have to teach us, not just in biology, but in being human.
Availability of genetic data need not always be so irredeemably filled with pitfalls. Parents Amy Garland and Paul Crummey were placed under surveillance in the UK under suspicion of abuse when their infant son had numerous broken bones. It was only much later that the source was diagnosed as a symptom of osteogenesis imperfecta or OI, a genetic disorder which impairs the quality of collagen that constitutes healthy bones. The acknowledgement of the physiological fixity of transgender traits – whether they be kathoeys in Thailand or hijras in the Indian Subcontinent – have helped usher in increased social tolerance in very conservative societies.
Personalized genomic medicine seems like a panacea to rigid rules, and holds the promise of maximal individual care. In this way, genetic abnormalities can nullify many behaviours that are deemed harmless and even recommended. Having Hereditary Fructose Intolerance means that most fruits and vegetables could be toxic. A mutation of the CYP1A2 gene could make caffeine consumption dangerously raise blood pressure. Genetic variation on the MTHFR gene could mean that mothers would need much more than the recommended dose of folic acid to prevent neural tube defects in their babies, while also contending with the elevated levels of folic acid masking a deficiency in Vitamin B12. An interesting conundrum to explore would be whether an overly individualized approach to medicine could erode any authoritative clinical directive? Evidence exists that cigarettes' causation of lung cancer varies along the probability scale based on personal genetic make-up. Would tobacco or junk food companies now be exempt from blame if they can shift it to someone's genes rather than their unhealthy product?
While much of the prose is straightforward and plain, Dr. Moalem occasionally slips into sublimity:
Like shadows behind a rice-paper screen, we do occasionally catch glimpses of our inner workings. We feel our pulse race when we're excited. We notice a but scab over, then slowly disappear altogether. Through it all we are oblivious to the hundreds if not thousands of genes being continually expressed and repressed to make it all happen seamlessly until the inevitable happens.
The inevitable, mortality, happens to us all. Much of the advances gained, and the many more still to come that alleviate pain as illustrated by Dr. Moalem, are no doubt welcome. Yet in all the manic fear and control exhibited in seeking to be a “previvor” (a preventative survivor) there is a great unease in facing death and suffering. Perhaps not all of us can wrestle and attain the grace attained by Tolstoy's Ivan Illyich. But it would be a greater tragedy to not try at all.
It was well below zero outside and dark, and my breath, quickly turning to cloud, seeks its forebears in the heavens above. But even though walking in this landscape makes me at times fancy myself a walker in our mythic North, straddling alongside “the Dorset giants who drove the Vikings back to their long ships,” Bank Street, however cool, is still an incredible stretch of the imagination away from Al Purdy’s North, or the tundra of Lopez’s Arctic Dreams. Perhaps owing to that dissimilarity, I don’t carry food in my backpack, but instead a small copy of notes from the journals of Thoreau—that inimitable man, that Harvard graduate who gave up human boundaries to make himself at home in the woods. And I think I have Gary Snyder—the poet laureate of Deep Ecology—in there too, somewhere.
That Beat of a poet,
that bead-wearing monk
of a Zazen poet
Part mountain ranger,
Later, sitting in one of the front pews in Southminster United Church, the time at least 5 minutes past 7, I wonder why J.B. Mackinnon hasn't taken the stage yet. But, having come to a talk on nature, perhaps I had someone the likes of John Muir or Edward Abbey in my head, and am a bit surprised when Neil Wilson, the director of the Writers’ Festival, introduces J.B. and a young looking fellow in a plaid shirt steps onto the stage.
Mackinnon has just recently released his book The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be . As the title might suggest, it is a work of historical ecology, or the history of nature, today and into the future. The bookseller blurbs say that “The Once and Future World began in the moment J.B. MacKinnon realized the grassland he grew up on was not the pristine wilderness he had always believed it to be.” I feel however that it has its genesis a bit before that; before he realized that the wilderness he had seen in his childhood was far from “pristine” and closer to an illusion. When James once returned to his home in the interior grasslands of B.C., he discovered that the land had been turned into a housing development. It was this personal encounter with a memory hijacked by development that led him to his research, only to realize that what he remembered was in itself artificial.
In his childhood, he had seen the Red Fox as the biggest beast on the land, but when he started looking into the matter, he found out that the Fox wasn’t even a native species, and was instead introduced to the grasslands in the 1700s. In fact, it was the Grizzly Bear that was the biggest native animal.
How many of us have been fortunate enough to see a whale…in the wild? Mackinnon says that 150 years ago, the whale population was thriving, and the Great Whale used to swim into Vancouver waters. But by 1908, the abundant whale population had been hunted into obscurity. And by now, our present time, the disappearance is normal, as if this is the way it has always been. But, Mackinnon says, “if we are aware of their presence in the past, then their absence would seem abnormal.”
As he expands his research, Mackinnon finds that this capacity to readily forget is characterized by the term “Shifting Baseline Syndrome,” a term that was initially coined by fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly in 1995. Pauly describes the syndrome thus: “Each generation of fisheries scientist accepts as baseline the stock situation that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes. When the next generation starts its career, the stocks have further declined, but it is the stocks at that time that serve as a new baseline. The result obviously is a gradual shift of the baseline, a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance of resource species…"
Generation after generation our reference points slip, and we accept compromises for reality. “We excuse, permit, adapt — and forget” writes Mackinnon. What we need, he says, is a process of Re-wilding, reacquainting ourselves with the natural world. While the idea is not at all new—Thoreau firmly believed that in wildness lay the salvation of the world—Mackinnon applies it on a large scale, perhaps knowing full well that the human species, for the first time in its history, has become an inhabitant of cities—homo urbanus—as the majority of the world’s population now lives and dies far from the woods of Thoreau and Emerson.
Diana Beresford-Kroeger has come to speak about her latest book The Sweetness of a Simple Life and one thing she says early on in her talk holds my attention. “I’m not a very wealthy person,” she says, “nor do I intend to be.” This reminds me of Thoreau’s words in his Journals: “Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his tend toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.”
Fritz Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, published in 1973,is in the same vein of thought—voluntary simplicity and frugality—as Beresford-Kroeger’s thought and challenges our progress-based economics and the myth that happiness is purchased through higher levels of consumption. She belongs to an ancient family in Ireland, part of the Druidic tradition, and has long committed herself to the protection of the world’s forests, as can be seen from her earlier work. She now tells us a story about her search for the sacred tree of the First Nations People. The Red Cedar tree, also known as the Tree of Life for its diverse benefits, was almost completely wiped out of existence—like the whales and the grizzlies of B.C.—as a result of European and post-European contact. While it might be difficult for us to imagine the significance and sacredness of a tree, some would say that that sense of sacredness and meaning can be evinced through the portrayal of the “Tree of Souls” in James Cameron’s film Avatar.
The subtitle of Beresford-Kroeger’s book reads “Tips for Healthier, Happier, and Kinder Living Gleaned from the Wisdom and Science of Nature,” and that might by itself paint a portrait of the lady on stage. She speaks with the wizened air of a grandmother, doling out advice to her eager-to-run-around child, advice that though might seem silly and naïve, contains truth nonetheless.
In the end, we must remember the beginning, and all that has passed since. We need a process of “active remembering,” to keep alive the wisdom of the ages, and not be deluded into accepting our own present-day reality as the absolute truth. Those who have spoken about the need for a simpler existence, unfettered by modern day contrivances which sell on account of their plastic packaged purpose of “simplicity” and “happiness,” these speakers are chastised for propagating a return to the stone-age. But this accusation itself is based on what Mackinnon has spoken of as the shifting baseline and totally abnegates the past. The now-as-it-is becomes the norm. But “when we talk about a ‘norm,’” says Gary Snyder, “we’re talking about the grain of things in the larger picture. Living close to earth, living more simply, living more responsibly, are all quite literally in the grain of things… I will stress, and keep stressing, these things, because one of the messages I feel I have to convey—not as a preaching but as a demonstration hidden within poetry—is of deeper harmonies and deeper simplicities, which are essentially sanities, even though they appear irrelevant, impossible, behind us, ahead of us, or right now."
“Right now” is an illusion, too.” Snyder’s point connects the thought and purpose of Beresford-Kroeger and Mackinnon: we need to remember that we once lived simpler lives, and that was better for all of us. And that no matter how outrageous it might seem now, given especially our proclivity for social amnesia, it is still possible to live that way.
Lynn Coady's award-winning book, Hellgoing , brings together nine self-contained stories that take a realistic and thought-provoking look at a wide range of human relationships in today's world. We are pushed or pulled into something like a voyeur's role, observing in close-up fragments of ongoing or evolving relationships between an array of distinct characters; be they as couples, with family or friends, or crossing paths in professional or casual encounters. Reading these stories can at times be a bit of a rough ride, rarely smooth, easy or pleasant. While they might leave us with a sense of unease they also stimulate us to consider more deeply the underlying questions and issues that the author raises. Are they a reflection of contemporary reality or, at minimum, of certain aspects of it? Among the comments on the book's back cover the National Post's quote reflects my own experience closely: "...There is a searing honesty here about humankind's inability or unwillingness, to make an effort at connection, but the author's own humanity rescues her vision from descending into despair or nihilism." I couldn't state my reaction any better.
At the recent Ottawa International Writers' Festival Lynn Coady participated in an in depth discussion on short story writing. The story from the collection that she read that evening, "Mr. Hope", has remained etched in my mind more than any of the others. It is written from the perspective of a young female teacher, returning now to her first school, who is reliving her childhood memories, her experiences in school and her first encounters with her teacher, Mr. Hope. Coady exquisitely captures the feelings of a young girl. Interweaving the vividly reimagined child's perception with that of the hindsight of the adult looking back, the author tells a story that not only conveys narrative tension and inner drama, she convincingly brings out the girl's emotional confusion and conflicts in a way that will, in some way or another, sound familiar to most readers.
Among the other stories, some characters stand out for me more than others, such as the nun in a hospital who uses her counselling to get an anorexic girl with a religious obsession to take "some food." The title story tackles another important and well-known subject: deep and lasting family tensions going back to the protagonist's childhood. A "reunion" brings them to the fore as if the decades in between had been non-existent. Events, however, demand a different response so many years later. While all stories are written from the distance of a third person narrator, they do often cut through the surface of the characters' 'normalcy' and expose what lies underneath.
Coady's stories focus more on the women's mental state of mind than that of their male counterparts. There is, for example, Erin who has discovered that "twenty-something" sex is no longer adequate (or never was) and her new partner is a willing if somewhat reluctant participant in the new excitements. Coady pinpoints many of the ambitions and anxieties that younger women experience, be they a publicity assistant whose constant texting might interfere with more important news, or a young author participating in a writers' retreat. While romantic love is totally absent from Coady's story collection, however, she is an astute observer of people and scenarios and her depiction of her central characters is not without a sense of humour or irony.
There was a lot of excited chatter in the church before the event began—then lots of applause when Sean Wilson, OIWF Artistic Director, introduced Ian Rankin. The funds raised are used to support the OIWF's literacy programs across Ottawa, and Sean Wilson noted that 500 students will benefit from the program next year—thanks to Ian Rankin (and to everyone else who'd attended!)
Host Alan Neal, who has interviewed Rankin several times, started a very natural conversation about Rankin's well-known character, John Rebus. "We're more alike than we've ever been," noted Rankin, adding that he was young, unmarried, and without children when he wrote the first Rebus novel. Today, however, he is noticing that the years are catching up with him. In one of the books, Rankin explained, another character essentially calls Rebus a vinyl guy in a digital world, and he feels that way himself sometimes. "I can be more empathetic [toward Rebus now] than was previously the case," he said.
Much to the audience's delight, it became quite clear that Alan Neal has a bit of a crush on one of Rankin's other characters, Detective Sergeant Siobhan Clarke. Although it pained him, Neal had to ask why John Rebus and Siobhan Clarke have never jumped into bed together. Aside from the fact that their relationship is more "avuncular", Rankin was quick to point out that "it would be a terrible experience for both of them—especially her." Rankin also explained that he would rather not write those scenes. When his editor asked him to remove a sex scene in his third book, Rankin was relieved. "I'm not keen on following Rebus into the bedroom, either," he admitted.
As the discussion turned to some of the fundamental elements that make up Rebus's character, Neal asked if Rankin shares Rebus's hunger for truth. Rebus needs to know the truth for his own satisfaction so that he can move on to the next thing, but Rankin said that he actually likes loose ends. He mentioned Caledonian Antisyzygy (a term he highly recommends for playing Scrabble, even though you likely won't find enough tiles with the letter "y") and that it's something that he likes to explore. Often, he'll read the newspaper or an article in a magazine, picking away at it by considering what it "says about us as humans, as Scottish society," and he will work through some of those themes and contradictions in his work.
For his most recent novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible, Rankin was inspired by some stories and anecdotes of retired cops who worked during the 1970s and 80s. He is often invited to police retirement parties and joked that he has to run to the washroom to jot down notes on toilet paper when a retiree's story sparks an idea. Overall, though, the stories made him think about Rebus and how he would have been as a much younger man. Was there a time when he was more idealistic? Did something happen? The new novel delves into some of Rebus's past, so Rankin said that he scrolled through all the (microfilm) issues of The Scotsman from 1983 and picked out things that he thought would catch Rebus's eye. "I was looking at Rebus's 1983," he emphasized, "not mine." (Nobody could picture Rebus dancing to Spandau Ballet, as it turned out...)
As a special treat, Neal invited Laura Smith on stage as she had won a contest to have her name as a character in Saints of the Shadow Bible . To earn that honour, Smith contributed to a fundraiser contest for the Ottawa-based Shepherds of Good Hope—which is happening again this year! Neal pointed out that the "Laura Smith" in the novel is a significant character (a crime reporter, in fact) and she actually gets to challenge Rebus. Rankin and Smith read a scene aloud that involved an interaction between "Laura Smith" and Rebus—and then the real Laura Smith quipped that her parents had likely purchased every copy of Saints of the Shadow Bible in Calgary since her name is in it.
Finally, the discussion turned to Rankin's writing habits. "I'm murder to live with when I'm writing a book," he said. He doesn't work with notes or even do much pre-planning, so he is working everything out (the main plot, all the sub-plots, character interactions, and how everything fits) as he writes the first draft, which he writes quickly so that he doesn't forget anything. "If you don't know who the killer is when you write the book, chances are good that the reader doesn't either," he said with a laugh. He also joked about a time when he was finishing the first draft of a book and still hadn't figured out who the killer would be. There were four or five characters, he said, "and I thought: Well, it could be any one of you..."
It may be encouraging (or not!) for aspiring writers to know that even with a solid body of work completed, Rankin still doesn't feel like a master novelist. "I really thought it would get easier, [but] it gets harder," he explained. "Every time I start, it's like I have to learn all over again. It's why I don't teach creative writing—I don't know how to write creatively!"
After some questions from CBC's All in a Day listeners and a couple from the live audience, there were more rapturous applause before everyone leapt out of their seats to form the line for Rankin's book signing. Neal was an excellent host, Rankin was a fantastic guest—and after we got home (and my husband had had some single malt in Rankin's honour), we agreed that it was a great night and that we would definitely encourage people to attend the event if Rankin comes back to Ottawa with his next book.
"Good things happen from good things," Joseph Boyden said during the luncheon that brought one hundred people together on a Sunday morning in Ottawa. The main attraction? Prominent and popular author Joseph Boyden, there to discuss his new book, The Orenda . Besides serving as an enjoyable get-together, complete with a copy of Boyden’s book for each participant, this event was also a fund raiser for the Writers Festival School Literacy Program. “The impact of this program has been phenomenal,” explained Sean Wilson, Artistic Director of the Writers Festival. The luncheon raised enough money for the program to enable 500 more students to experience an encounter with a "life" author, to have a hands-on session with one of Canada's best writers.
Our separate room in the Metropolitain Brasserie was packed and the buzz of the conversations suggested that everybody had a great time chatting with each other and with the author, who tried to meet as many people as possible. During the main course, all eyes focused on Boyden and Wilson as they embarked on a lively discussion that later expanded into a Q&A session. We could have stayed much longer, but there was a book signing and another event scheduled for the afternoon. Even then, Boyden took time to chat while signing his book and was a willing subject for the many photos taken by fans.
Photo credit: Friederike Knabe
Boyden's new book, The Orenda, was the subject matter of the majority of questions and comments. The conversation revealed the author’s personal insights into the writing and the background for the new novel: it was his conviction that this was a book he had to write. For those who had heard him before, or had already read The Orenda, his answers provided more depth and context and increased our appreciation for his writing and his choice of themes.
It would be nearly impossible to report on the wealth of reflections that were shared in this discussion. For me, there are several memorable aspects of Joseph Boyden's message regarding The Orenda and its importance as a novel on our pre-Canada history, as follows.
History matters. Yet the past doesn't mean much to our life today unless it is connected to the present in a meaningful way. For example, Boyden sees an important link between the past as captured in The Orenda and the Idle No More movement today. As a child Boyden learned to view history as boring. Many young people feel that today. Our interest in history only changes when we can bring immediacy to the past and make relevant connections. Boyden admitted that he is fascinated by the past and how it links to the present and the future. For example, the last line in The Orenda makes that vision very clear: it brings the past, the present, and the future together. Or in the words of one reviewer, "The Orenda is much more than a timely novel. It is a timeless one; born a classic."
In response to a question on whether the novel contains a political message, Boyden answered that his preoccupation is first and foremost to tell a good story. To him, good story telling brings a message to life. Characters and narrative work closely together. For example, in this novel he introduced three diverse individuals: Bird, a respected Huron (Wendat) warrior chief; Christophe, a Jesuit priest (locally referred to as Crow); and a young Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) girl, Snow Falls, who was captured and adopted by Bird after a raid that brutally killed many of her people including her parents. Why did he choose three characters? He was fascinated by triangular relationships. Also, it was appropriate to do so in the novel, as each represent their specific culture. There is no black and white, there are no bad guys. Crow is not simplistic; he learns slowly and he appreciates the different world visions and spiritual belief systems. That being said, he is also unaware of many things—for example, the fact that it was he who brought disease to the indigenous population.
Joseph Boyden felt very strongly that he wanted to demonstrate that before the Canada of 1867, complex societies had lived on the land for a very long time. He says, “In the sixteen hundreds these were as populous as European societies." Before first contact with non-indigenous peoples, there was a balance between the different indigenous societies. The Huron and the Iroquois were agricultural with sophisticated social structures. The appearance of the Europeans threw off the traditional balance in many ways.
Many in the audience were curious about the girl, Snow Falls. How did she come into the story? Well, he said, "She walked out of the mist into the story and talked to me.” He admitted, smiling, that characters do things he does not always expect, especially in the case of Snow Falls. She often did things that Boyden wasn't planning to write, but she insisted and he could only argue with her and try to find a solution that would help him write her out of trouble. In general, though, with seven older sisters, the author said he has no problems getting into the mind of a girl; instead, he found writing the male characters much more challenging.
In closing, the author said much research went into The Orenda, but in the end, the dialogue is more important to him than where the research takes him. Above all, Boyden’s first priority is to tell a good story. And when reading this new novel, it is easy to see that he accomplishes that goal.
The room was packed by the time I made my way to the Writers Festival venue. As a typical university student, I arrived five minutes before it started, but I should have known this would be a popular event. I took the only seat available which happened to be next to our special guests for the evening. As I settled in, I heard the three authors talking and laughing together, no doubt bonding over their love of writing.
It’s been said that all emotions stem from love and fear. These two emotions, though vastly different, can be expressed strangely similar ways. Rupert Thompson, Wayne Grady and David Gilmour are well acquainted with love and fear, and each drew from these emotions as they penned the works slated for the evening’s discussion.
Thompson, a first-timer to The Writers Festival, read from his book Secrecy . The scene described the first meeting between a boy and girl in 1690s Italy. It held all the emotions of first-time butterflies but held a hint of mystery. His smooth English accent captivated the audience (myself included), and took us back in time.
Up next was Grady, a regular to the festival, who shared from his first novel Emancipation Day . This short reading impressed me. It gave a small taste of Nova Scotia and provided a first encounter between unlikely lovers. The excitement lingered in the air as Grady read about characters’ tension in meeting for the first time in a blues club.
Last, but certainly not least, David Gilmour approached the podium to share from his book Extraordinary . The book focuses on the fear of death and the fear of lost relationships. He shared the opening pages where a brother describes his estranged relationship with his sister and sets the stage for the night to come.
The audience was filled with wonder as each author transported us to a new place and time. The discussion gave us a glimpse into the mind of an author, something that has always been a mystery to me. The main topic of discussion was the amount of background research involved in putting these characters and stories together. From research, the conversation transitioned to focus on the life of each man, the personal connection to the characters they wrote.
Gilmour especially intrigued me, and one thing he said has stayed with me since that night: “You can get over a woman by turning her into literature but I think the same can be said about trauma.” His book was based on the death of his sister and this was a way for him to approach his feelings and work through them. This got me thinking, what if we all began to write through our feelings? How much would that change our perspective on a situation?
As the event came to a close, it was time for the audience to leave, but we were left with a gift: a small bit of the life of a writer and the inspiration to pursue what seems difficult.
With a full house at Knox Presbyterian Church, CBC’s Laurence Wall introduced to the Writers Festival stage Canada’s renowned historian, Margaret MacMillan. Born in Toronto and schooled at such formidable institutions as the University of Toronto and Oxford University, MacMillan brings a sizable resume to the table. In 2002, she was named Provost of Trinity College at the University of Toronto, and more recently, the Warden of St. Antony’s College at Oxford. The War that Ended Peace is not her first acclaimed novel; it follows in the footsteps of her previous bestsellers Nixon in China and Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World .
The War that Ended Peace explores the reasons for the grand calamity that comprised the first World War. According to MacMillan, historians have reached no consensus as to why this war occurred in the first place, and particularly, on whom to lay blame. To make relevant its lessons for today’s world, MacMillan examines what the Great War of nearly a century ago means at present: if Europe could so casually slip into a war of such magnitude without premeditation, could we do the same today?
To set the stage, a recap of European history. It was 1914. The preceding century had seen a time of [relative] peace and stability in the region, as well as the transition from an agricultural society to an industrial one. Industry led to a burgeoning middle class, a population the ruling classes feared, if for sheer force of their numbers. The elites sniffed a revolutionary current—the potential for the proletariat’s revolt. To stymie revolt and maintain power, they entered war with the notion that “a good war will brace us up, overcome divisions, and unite society.” Also at play was the rise of Social Darwinism and its influence in terms of ideology: “the fittest/strongest nations will survive at war,” and “war is the highest form of human activity.” Rather naively, there existed in Europe a strong sense that the war would not last long. MacMillan chalks this up to a human tendency to dismiss contradictory evidence. The populace reviewed the prior century’s skirmishes—such as decisive Napoleonic battles and the Franco-Prussian War, where attacks led quickly to surrender—and expected World War I to bring the same. There was also a general failure to take into account what the change in war weapons ushered in by the Industrial Revolution would bring. More accurate and longer-reaching munitions meant offensive strategy became difficult, and the presence of mustard gas and tanks changed the face of warfare as Europe knew it.
Three of the war’s major players, England, Germany, and Russia, were governed by three cousins with chips on their shoulders: King George V, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Tsar Nicolas II. England’s and France’s colonial conquests had inspired jealousy on the part of Germany, who wanted a piece of the world’s “pie.” Germany’s Kaiser was eccentric, always knew best, interfered with everything, talked incessantly, and generally overcompensated for a physical deformity suffered in childbirth. Tsar Nicolas, on the other hand, was small in stature, raised by an authoritarian father who disregarded his son’s ability, thus relegating him to a life of impotency. When his father passed away, Nicolas was left steering the ship with little to no experience at the helm. In his weakness, Nicolas was rigid. MacMillan colourfully characterizes the two men as incompetent heads of state, well suited to be “postmasters in small towns,” but nothing more.
When all is said and done, Austria, Hungary, Germany, and Italy are pitted against France, Russia, and England. Though MacMillan says historians have enough facts to paint a clear picture of the war, they will always disagree on why it actually occurred. The takeaway from the Great War, according to the author, is the need for the world’s established powers to work hard at helping emerging powers enter the world stage. She likens modern China to 1914 Germany, and the United States to then-England, and stresses the importance of good relations to avoid a casual step off a precipice into grand-scale war.
In conclusion, it would take years to examine all of the causes and factors associated with Europe’s slip into war—much more time than we were afforded that evening! That said, I thoroughly enjoyed this insightful glimpse into the Europe of 100 years ago, along with the pleasure of joining the scores of history lovers seated alongside me to glean even a fraction of Margaret MacMillan’s years of study and expertise.
A chilly October night in Ottawa in the nation’s capital, and what better way to warm up than a discussion about national politics at Knox Presbyterian Church, only a few blocks from Parliament Hill. Given the cast (John Ibbitson of the Globe & Mail, Susan Delacourt of the Toronto Star, Paul Wells of Maclean’s magazine, and host Rosemary Barton of the CBC.), ‘State of the Nation’ always figured to deliver interesting discussion. But with the Senate scandal in full swing? Oh, it promised withering good fun, and insight besides.
The evening was an opportunity for the authors (all three guests were promoting their most recent books) to talk about the current political direction of Canada. Ms. Delacourt explored citizens increasingly viewed and spoken to as consumers by politicians in Canada, charting the growth of consumerism and its diffusion into politics starting in the 1950s. Mr. Ibbitson outlined his (and Darrel Bricker’s) argument that a fundamental and permanent power shift has occurred in Canadian politics, from the “Laurentian Coalition” elites based in the St. Lawrence River watershed to western Canada and the large populations of recent immigrants surrounding major cities, particularly the 905 belt around the GTA. Mr. Wells summarized his “political history of Stephen Harper” as Prime Minister: how he operates politically, how he wins, and how he has developed as a leader while in power. Ms. Barton then posed a number of questions about consumerist politics and current events in the Senate and their potential implications before inviting questions from the audience.
Arguably the most engaging discussion centred on the current Senate scandal, Stephen Harper’s (mis)handling of it, and the impact it might have on the next election. All three authors felt that the crisis was real, and comparisons were drawn with other crises faced by the current government, most notably the coalition crisis of late 2008 (when a minority Conservative government was at risk of being supplanted by a Liberal-NDP coalition). Much of the evening involved mutual agreement, at least in broad terms, but here there was visible divergence among the authors, and it made for some interesting back and forth. For example, Ms. Delacourt felt that Mr. Harper had actually lied in 2008 about the functioning of Canada’s democracy but this was challenged by Ibbitson; Ibbitson felt that current Senate scandal was a more significant crisis than 2008, while Delacourt and Wells argued the opposite.
If there was anything to criticise about the discussion, it was perhaps an excessive focus on Stephen Harper himself. True, he looms large in Canadian political life, is a polarizing figure, and Mr. Wells’ book is about Mr. Harper in particular; but a bit less focus on him and a bit more on wider trends would have been welcome, say a deeper exploration of Ms. Delacourt’s distinction between consumers and citizens. But this was a minor point. The discussion was generally thoughtful, insightful, and witty, from four journalists who are not only well-informed from following Canadian politics for many years but able to view themselves and their profession with a degree of humour and circumspection. They displayed mutual respect and sought to avoid partisan or inflammatory language while still speaking honestly. A political discussion like that counts for much in these times.
The sold-out event featuring authors Denise Chong and Charlotte Gray and hosted by CBC’s Lucy van Oldenbarneveld was the second entirely local event within the fall 2013 Ottawa International Writers Festival. Both authors have international reputations and have published a number of works in the past.
Denise Chong spoke about her latest book Lives of the Family: Stories of Fate and Circumstance. It focuses on a time during the mid-twentieth century when families emigrated from China to Canada and specifically to the Ottawa Valley area. She talked of the political backdrop to families leaving China during the 1940’s and later. The families were rebels, in a way, for they chose to settle away from the Chinese communities in Toronto, Vancouver and New York. She was interested as to why the families moved to the Ottawa Valley and she wanted to bring into “sharp relief” the experiences of the Chinese immigrant. Through her research, which includes conversations with family members, Denise searches to “reveal the precise moment when a life changes”.
Denise read some excerpts from her book and described several other portions. She told of the shock of settling in a new country and of the isolation the families faced. One young woman and her mother, in planning a move to Canada, had 12 new dresses made and bought 12 new pairs of high heels. When they arrived in Ottawa they were driven to Carp where they ended up pumping gas for a living. The dresses and shoes were of little use.
Denise had attended another Writers Festival Event earlier in the week and she heard author Michael Winter speak about writing about people’s lives. Michael’s words resonated with Denise. He said ‘life is messy, it is chaos and doesn’t have structure”. Denise tries to take people’s messy lives and give them structure. Charlotte agreed we all have unstructured lives.
Charlotte Gray’s latest book The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master and the Trial that Shocked a Country is a departure from her previous work as the focus of this book is a true crime. A domestic servant working in the house of the famous Toronto Massey family murdered her boss. Eighteen-year-old Carrie shot Bert Massey in cold blood as he walked up the steps to his home in January 1915. Charlotte was interested in not only the crime itself but also how the circumstances within Canada at the time may have impacted the trial. It was early in WWI, women were demanding the vote and immigrants were arriving from places other than the British Isles. These factors had a role in the trial and the verdict.
The discussion that took place after the book readings was very interesting, frank and open. I found hearing about each author’s experience in research to be fascinating. Charlotte’s leads for a story, at times, come from a chance meeting when she is out walking her dog in Ottawa. Denise spoke of hearing about family history from people in their 80’s and 90’s who have never told anyone of such events before. They realize that if they don’t tell now, the event will go to the grave with them.
Both women are very interested in exploring the human side of their subjects. They feel some of what those they interview have felt. And if it is a painful, emotional story they “weep” with those they are interviewing but at the same time a part of them is thinking “this is really good stuff”.
Denise Chung and Charlotte Gray are our local “really good stuff”. My hope is that you will read their books and discover for yourself.
Although this relatively early Monday event was more sparsely attended than some of the evening events of the Writers Festival, I’m certain that those of us who were present can agree: Masterclass with David Gilmour was an excellent selection for our lunchtime extracurricular activity.
The event appropriately began by addressing Gilmour’s recent controversy, in which a large portion of the internet exploded with claims of homophobia and sexism after the publication of an interview with Gilmour in Hazlitt . Although Gilmour’s words in the aforementioned interview were perhaps not ordered in the best way, it is fairly clear that the claims are not true. To be specific, Gilmour’s implication was not that women writers aren’t valuable; rather, that the literature he identifies most closely with (and thus that which he enjoys the most) is literature written by middle-aged men. Gilmour also makes clear that he would be a second-rate teacher of women writers, and that the work of recent Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Alice Munro will undoubtedly be around for the next century.
After clearing the air of the allegations, host and Writers Fest Artistic Director Sean Wilson opened the discussion about how reading impacts writing, and specifically, which books have been most influential for David Gilmour. Gilmour began by specifying that, even on his best day, he couldn’t write a page as good as Tolstoy’s worst. He spoke quite lovingly of The Great Gatsby, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose style—first person, past tense narrative—as that which Gilmour has been trying to imitate for the past twenty years.
He claims that The Great Gatsby falls into a similar category as that of Bob Marley; both seem as though they were written or recorded yesterday. The “minting” of The Great Gatsby’s prose, Gilmour said, feels like it was published in The New Yorker last week.
Despite his love of Gatsby, however, Gilmour did make it abundantly clear that there are plenty of so-called classics that he doesn’t like. For example, Gilmour considers Ulysses by James Joyce to be a “punishingly dull book”, and that it would be best read during a very long prison sentence. In a brief conversation with Gilmour after the event, I discovered that we share a dislike of George Orwell’s 1984, which was a vast relief for me. Gilmour also confessed to me that he may or may not have taught 1984 without reading the entire novel.
Although I’m certain that Gilmour reads abundantly more than the average person, he admitted that he does not finish ninety percent of the books he starts. Gilmour’s philosophy is that if an author can’t ‘get it right’ on the first page, they likely can’t get it right at all. Further to that end, Gilmour believes that the true test of greatness for novels is whether you can read them a second time. There are, as Gilmour pointed out, “shadows and light on the pages” of great novels that move to reveal new things on a second read.
It is clear that David Gilmour’s approach to reading has greatly impacted the works he has produced, and his opinions about various novels are fascinating in and of themselves. Masterclass was a delight to attend.