Category Archives: Books & Reviews

Literature, culture, fiction, non-fiction, writers, authors and the craft of writing.

The Bully Pulpit


Theodore Roosevelt“I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!”

US President Theodore Roosevelt uttered those words in office (reported in the February 27, 1909, issue of The Outlook magazine), coining the phrase ‘bully pulpit’ in referring to the presidency as an ideal platform from which to expound his ideas and advocate his causes.

Of course, in his day, bully – a word with which Roosevelt was very fond – as an adjective meant ‘excellent,’ ‘first-rate,’ ‘jovial’ or just ‘good’ – a usage we still share when we say ‘bully for you.’ His bully pulpit, however, was a moral platform.

Roosevelt wasn’t commenting on having a platform of influence from which to bully people in today’s more common use of the noun to describe “a blustering, quarrelsome, overbearing person who habitually badgers and intimidates smaller or weaker people.”*

Both uses of the word bully come from the Dutch boele, meaning ‘lover’ and it was originally a term of endearment. They migrated to their odd, double meaning in the 17th century.

National Post reviewI came across the term recently in the title of Doris Goodwin’s book, “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt , William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism,” which I picked up last week, mostly for its references to the historical development of journalism.** But the politics also interest me and, since I am not as well-versed in American history and politics of that era as I am in other periods, I wanted to educate myself.

Roosevelt is fascinating in that he was a Republican and very progressive – yet it’s a party today we associate with backwardness, the entitlement of the 1%, racism, promoting anti-Christian policies while pretending to be devout and religious***, anti-environmental, anti-science, intolerant, corrupt, petty, mean-spirited spokespeople for whichever industry or corporation buys their votes.

Yet remarkably, in Roosevelt’s day, the Republicans were the progressive party, and it was under Roosevelt that the government put limits on corporate greed, stifled the robber barons, sponsored economic and monetary reform, protected the environment and created national parks, passed socially progressive laws for education and labour… quite the opposite of today’s narrow-minded and suspicious Republicans.

In part, I wanted to read Goodwin’s book to understand, if I can, how the GOP fell from such socially responsible heights to become the despicable, misanthropic and misogynistic party it is today. As the New York Times wrote in reviewing Goodwin’s book:

Let her transport you back to the turn of the 20th century, to a time when this country had politicians of stature and conscience, when the public believed that government could right great wrongs, when, before truncated attention spans, a 50,000-word exposé of corruption could sell out magazines and galvanize a reluctant Congress. The villains seemed bigger, too, or at least more brazen — industrial barons and political bosses who monopolized entire industries, strangled entire cities. And “change” was not just a slogan. “There are but a handful of times in the history of our country,” Goodwin writes in her introduction, “when there occurs a transformation so remarkable that a molt seems to take place, and an altered country begins to emerge.” The years covered in this book are such a time. It makes a pretty grand story.

In his career as a politician, Roosevelt had a very good, close relationship with the media. He engaged them in debate and discussion, created a separate room for the media in the White House, and challenged reporters over their stories – Roosevelt also coined the phrase ‘muckraker’. But it was a relationship based on mutual respect and civility. As Goodwin writes:

…Roosevelt had established a unique relationship with numerous journalists. He debated points with them as fellow writers; regardless of the disparity in political rank, when they argued as authors, they argued as equals. He had read and freely commented upon their stories, as they felt free to criticize his public statements and speeches.

Goodwin calls the relationship between Roosevelt and the media “collegial” – the New York Times suggests ‘symbiotic” as a better choice. As the NYT tells it, Roosevelt

…allowed reporters to question him during his midday shave. Editors and writers who caught his attention would be invited for luncheon conversations that might last until midnight. With his many favorites, Roosevelt exchanged voluminous correspondence, sometimes two or three letters a week. He shared early drafts of his major policy speeches and legislative proposals, and they briefed him on their reporting projects before publication.

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How Marx Presaged Today’s Canada


“The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country,” wrote Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels, in 1848, in the Communist Manifesto.

I came across this paragraph in Prof. David Harvey‘s book, A Companion to Marx’s Capital, recently and the quote from the Communist Manifesto struck me as very modern; one that presaged our current internationalism and the changes affecting Canada today.

No one on this continent has been unaffected by the rampant, unchecked, corporate globalism that has seen thousands of North American factories closed, jobs discarded, and production moved to Asia in order to render more profits for shareholders and bigger bonuses for CEOs. This utterly ruthless and unrestrained capitalism is the one politicians on the right proclaim as the only viable economic policy to pursue.

We think of this as a recent trend, and yet Marx warned about this more than 160 years ago:

…it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations.

Doesn’t that sound like something written about modern globalization? It’s important to understand what Marx meant by capitalism, too: production and trade for the sole source of accumulating wealth (capital). He wasn’t criticizing the market economy, the buying and selling of commodities, the exchange of goods, and a free market. It has nothing to do with your ability to buy a flat screen TV or an iPad or a $250 pair of running shoes.

I’m not sure what he would make of eBay and Kijiji, but I suspect he would have approved of the ability of the individual to adopt and survive in this sort of commodity market where the ‘use-value’ of any items was determined by a mutual agreement between buyer and seller rather than determined for the amount of profit it would make for the elite.

I was struck by a piece in the Toronto Star this weekend by Thomas Walkom, titled, How to save Canadian capitalism from itself:

The economy is not working. A new one needs to be built.
It is not working on a global level, where the world continues to falter.
It is not working at a national level, where incomes stagnate, unemployment persists and good jobs are outsourced abroad.
As a study released Friday by the United Way shows, it is not working at a Toronto level.
That study makes the point that, even within Canada’s premier city, the gap between the rich and poor is growing.
Experts may tie themselves up in knots over the precise trajectory of inequality, depending in part on what is measured and when.
But the general point is beyond dispute: On its own, the free market is providing increasingly less equal rewards.

Which is exactly what Marx predicted would happen: the gap between haves and have-nots is widening. Walkom adds:

Failing a social revolution (which, I suspect, most Canadians don’t want), the alternative is to save capitalism from itself.

Marx predicted social revolution as the inevitable result of this growing inequality, but in this he has been proven only partially correct, and arguably even wrong at times. Cultures in Western nations have a natural inertia against revolution. We tend to be easily swayed by material comforts and convenience. Marx didn’t foresee the internet or 500-plus TV channels, didn’t foresee pornography, game consoles or other things that distract us from thinking about Big Ideas, let alone social upheaval. A culture that is too lazy to walk three blocks to a store for milk is not likely to rise up.

Marx’s communism simply doesn’t work here – at least no implementation has to date. But neither, it seems increasingly, does our unrestrained capitalism. There has to be some reasonable place between them, some place where capitalism’s more predatory urges are blunted, yet its entrepreneurial tendencies are not. As Azar Gat wrote in Foreign Affairs:

Capitalism has expanded relentlessly since early modernity, its lower-priced goods and superior economic power eroding and transforming all other socioeconomic regimes, a process most memorably described by Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto. Contrary to Marx’s expectations, capitalism had the same effect on communism, eventually “burying” it without the proverbial shot being fired.

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Marx, Darwin and Machiavelli


The Age of IgnoranceWhat do these three men – three of the world’s greatest thinkers – have in common? Science? Economics? Politics? Their impact on culture and society? Their foresight or insight? Their importance to the development of modern thought? Their continued relevance today? The depth and breadth of their wisdom? The quality of their writing?

Yes, they are or have all those things, but the answer is simpler: they are among the least read authors that people attempt to speak knowingly about. All three of these authors are frequently demonized or misquoted by people who have never read their works, nor do they intend to do so, lest actual knowledge prove their preconceived ideas about them wrong.

Yet here we are in a world of complex, challenging politics at all levels where the sage advice of Machiavelli is most needed. A world where pseudoscience is spreading like a virus, and there is a rising tide of vocal anti-vaccination idiots and creationists; where the keen observations of Darwin can help us understand the scientific facts of biology. A world where the gap between the rich 1% and the rest of us grows obscenely wider every day and Marx’s insight into capitalism and wealth would surely give us some guidance on stemming this trend.

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people I know, or whom I have some reasonable acquaintance, who have demonstrably read Machiavelli’s shortest work: The Prince. The number I personally know who have read The Discourses? None. Art of War? History of Florence? None. Yet many people, even those I know, confidently say that Machiavelli wrote “the end justifies the means” (he didn’t) and have called politicians “Machiavellian.”

The number of people I personally know who have read Origin of Species – arguably the single most important scientific work in the last two centuries – none. Descent of Man? Voyage of the Beagle? None. Yet some people confidently scoff at the notion of species evolving, and dismiss his ideas as “mere theory.”

Ditto with Marx’s Capital. Even my left-wing friends, with whom I hung out in the 70s and 80s, struggled to get past the first couple of chapters. Most had read The Communist Manifesto, to be sure, but I haven’t met anyone in the last three decades who can say he or she has (or can remember it beyond its opening line). Yet many people talk knowingly about Marxism and Communism.

And I’m not talking about the crazies, the conspiracy theorists, the barely literate bloggers, Fox ‘News’ or the venom-spewing wingnuts like Ann Coulter. I’m concerned about people we meet every day; friends, coworkers, family. People who should know about what’s happening in the news, understand the connections and consequences and the big ideas behind the events.

People who should be able to use their words correctly and not resort to bumper-sticker ideologies as substitutes for actual understanding. So instead of conversations and discussions about big ideas based on knowledge, we trade angry epithets, accusations and insults.

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The Maxims of La Rochefoucauld



Certain good qualities are like senses: people entirely lacking in them can neither perceive nor comprehend them.

MaximsYou might think that was written about local politics, or a comment on the local blogosphere. But no, it was written in the mid 17th century by Francois, du de La Rochefoucauld. It is number 337 in his famous book of Maxims, a work that stands beside other timeless classics of advice, reflection and epithets; like Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and Balthasar Gracian’s The Art of Worldly Wisdom. I found a copy in a local used book store recently and have been digesting his words of wisdom.

La Rochefoucauld published five editions of the Maxims in his lifetime between 1665 and 1678. During that time he edited, deleted, added to and rewrote much of it, refining it every time. But as he did so, he found more and more to say, stretching from 317 maxims in the first edition to 504 in the last.

Later editors took more from his other writings; his unpublished notes and his memoirs, raising the total to 647 or even more (647 in the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Leonard Tancock, published first in 1959; mine is the 1984 reprint ).

France went through a lot of change and catharsis in the 17th century, from the brutal and exhausting civil way of La Fronde to the renaissance of Louis XIV, the Sun King, and a blossoming of art, culture, theatre and literature. It was the age of Moliere and Cyrano de Bergerac, the great salons of Paris, the Musketeers (about whom Dumas would write his great novels, two centuries later). It was also a time of great political upheaval, war, shifting allegiances, treachery and violence.

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The Book List Game


Classic booksIn a recent story titled “Neil deGrasse Tyson Selects the Eight Books Every Intelligent Person on the Planet Should Read,” the eminent astrophysicist listed his top eight book titles – from a Reddit conversation that was going on back in December, 2011. Here are the books he chose back then (check the linked story above for his comments on why he picked these titles):

  1. The Bible;
  2. The System of the World, by Isaac Newton;
  3. On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin;
  4. Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift;
  5. The Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine;
  6. The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith;
  7. The Art of War, by Sun Tzu;
  8. The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli.

I certainly can’t argue with his choices as worthy of being read, although they wouldn’t all be my top choices. I have all of them but the Newton on my bookshelves.  This list was much discussed at the time it was first released. Open Culture commented:

The list, which has generated a great deal of interest and discussion, leads you to think about the very nature of not just what constitutes essential reading, but what defines an “intelligent person.” Should every such individual really read any book in particular? Does it matter if others already acknowledge these books as essential, or can they have gone thus far undiscovered?… he makes the perhaps daring implication that an intelligent person must connect to a widely shared culture, rather than demonstrating their brainpower by getting through volume upon little-read volume, written in the most labyrinthine language, expounding on the most abstract subject matter, or grappling with the knottiest philosophical problems.

A followup discussion with other recommended titles was published by Open Culture in April 2014. And in republishing the list again after two years, it has re-opened the discussion in 2015. To which I weigh in, first by commenting on his choices.

I have a suspicion that the Bible was slipped in as a political sop to prevent him from being targeted as a godless atheist or some such name by the fundamentalists. Can’t have non-religious scientists. While I know many people who have read some part of it, I have met few who are not in the religion business (ministers, priests and rabbis) who have read it in its entirety. I haven’t read it cover-to-cover, either, but have read a good deal of it in several translations.

Not that it’s a bad book to read. It formed the foundation for Western culture, law and morality until the mid-19th century and still plays a vital role in it, despite the trend to secularism these past 150 years. Just that it’s not in the same intellectual grouping as the rest and makes me wonder what his criteria were for the rest.

Actually I recommend all people should read the core of the world’s religious and spiritual literature – the Dhammapada, for example, is one of my favourite titles. The Bhagavad Gita, the Diamond Sutra, the Koran, the Tao Teh Ching, the Nag Hammadi codex, the Talmud, the Kalamas Sutra… we should all read these books so we can better understand the faiths of others and engage in informed discussion about them – not simply pursue ideologies or knee-jerk, media-induced reactions.

But I also recommend people read Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens to get a look at alternative views on religion. Having no religion should be an intellectual decision, not a puff of lifestyle negativity, like a diet fad.

And that raises the question about philosophy: why are there no works by major philosophers – no Plato, Aristotle, Montaigne, Sartre, Voltaire… although one can suggest that Machiavelli was somewhat of one, at least a political philosopher. And why not recommend The Discourses – a more comprehensive and broader approach to power and politics – instead of The Prince?

Similarly, Gulliver’s Travels is a marvellous political and social satire that still has resonance and humour today despite almost 300 years since it was first written. But it is written in a style that is no longer popular, its humour may be too dated (and obscure) for some, and can be seen as rather too rambling. Don Quixote is as much a satire on the human condition, so why was it ignored? Was there nothing more modern that was worthy?

Choosing one work of fiction from the millions of books written is tough. Is Swift a better choice for the sole novelist than Joyce? Or Tolstoy? Hugo? Herbert? Clavell? Austen? Shelley? Melville? Conrad? Clancy? Cervantes? Dumas? Woolf? Lawrence? Achebe? Orwell? Melville? Hardy? Dickens? Each writes about the human condition, although not necessarily as a satire. And which of their works to include? Why would you pick Anna Karenina over War and Peace?  Pride and Prejudice over Sense and Sensibility?

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Heart of Darkness


Heart of DarknessHeart of Darkness can be a difficult read. Not just for its brooding setting and the sense of morbid inevitability. Conrad’s semi-autobiographical 1899 novel is replete with racism and breezy colonialism: the insufferable superiority of white, Western culture. The casual ability of so-called civilized men to commit savagery in the name of some higher cause is clearly expressed; a forerunner to the brutality of two world wars.

Listening to it as an audiobook, yesterday, as I drove again to Toronto, I almost flinched every time the reader pronounced the “N” word. No amount of rationalization about the times and the era made it less uncomfortable, less offensive.*

Yet once you have touched the sticky web of Conrad’s story, you find it hard to pull away. You are drawn inexorably inward, along the journey. So you listen (or read on), and realize the layers and the complexities he wove into the tale. It seems so simple at first, a mere nautical tale shared among friends, but it builds in layers and texture. His sometimes subtle, sometimes pointed criticisms of the politics and the imperialism. His observations, his piercing eye into human behaviour; his acidic comments on the nature of civilization. All, of course, expressed during the infinitely slow progress to find the mysterious Kurtz.

I can’t remember when I first read Heart of Darkness. Sometime in the 1970s, I think, around the time I was reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Achebe’s book is set in the same period as Conrad’s and might be considered a counterpoint: the evils of colonialism described from the native perspective. Achebe himself despised Heart of Darkness, calling it “deplorable.” Yet his 1975 criticism sparked renewed scholarly interest in the book. It was reprinted in mass-market paperback (my copy, printed together with Conrad’s Secret Sharer, is dated 1978).

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Jack Finney’s Time and Again


Invasion of the Body SnatchersEver read Jack Finney? I knew the name, but I never read any of his books. I knew he was the author of the 1955 pulp novel, The Body Snatchers.  This became the basis for the 1956 movie, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That is one of my all-time favourite B-films, one I can watch almost endlessly. I like it even more than the 1978 re-make. I have both (of course), and even have have the subsequent – and less impressive – remakes: Body Snatchers (1993) and The Invasion (2007). Plus a few of the below-B spinoffs like Invasion of the Pod People.

But I never got around to reading Finney’s original. Not sure why, since I’ve read in the past and still read a lot of the pulp sci-fi/fantasy novels of the 1930s-60s.

A couple of years ago, I came across an unabridged audiobook of Finney’s Body Snatchers on sale at a nearby Chapters store. I often listen to audiobooks when I travel outside town and thought this would be amusing. Instead, I was impressed by how good it was, how well written. Well above the usual pulp standards. This was the work of an accomplished, talented writer.

And I was pleasantly surprised to find I liked the audiobook better than the movie. A lot more. That’s some accomplishment. Sure, I usually prefer like books to their movies, but seldom do pulps scale the heights above their B-flicks this way.

I liked it so much, I played it for Susan – who doesn’t like the movies or the scary genres – and she agreed: it is very well written. Not scary as much as dramatic. Finney has a remarkable eye for detail.

Yesterday, on my trip to the city, I started to listen to it for a third time. It struck me again as such a well-crafted novel I decided to stop at the Chapters on the way home and see if they had a copy so I could read it. Of course, they didn’t (Chapters, I think, has gone steadily downhill as a bookstore since they decided to add geegaws and lifestyle tchotchkes to their stock at the expense of space for books…). But that store had another of his novels: Time and Again (1970). Which I bought.

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Human Smoke


Human Smoke“The truth of history,” Napoleon wrote in his memoirs while exiled on St. Helena, “is a fable agreed upon.” Agreed upon mostly by the victors, one should add. The losers seldom agree with it.

In 1865, Mark Twain added in his work, Following the Equator: “The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.” Two centuries after Napoleon, Dana Arnold wrote in Reading Architectural History:

Historical reality is then a ‘referential illusion’, in which we try to grasp the reality… In this way history becomes a Myth or an ideology as it purports to be reality. Indeed, storytelling is often seen as one of the most important functions of writing histories and fundamental to the nature of the discipline.

When I was growing up, like so many millions of other post-war children, I was taught the history – the accepted, official history that was indelibly stamped on every page of our textbooks, and woven into our national identity – of World War II. The absolutely defined, cut-and-dried good=us vs. evil=them. Our bravery, their cowardice. Our sacrifices, their terror. Our victory, their loss. History was like a game of cowboys-and-Indians: two sides, one struggle, one outcome.

As a child of two veterans – whose own fathers had been veterans in the previous war-to-end-all-wars – and nephew of other veterans, I was inoculated with the “right” history that coloured our own family sense of honour, pride, loyalty and duty. Our bloodline fought the good fight and we were damned proud of it.

It was only decades later, when I started playing wargames and writing for a military history magazine that I started to read wider and deeper into the history of the century before I was born. And in doing so, learned that there were many more facets to the story than I had ever been led to believe. It proved both fascinating and unsettling. There’s more we’re not taught  than what we are taught. Continue reading