Sunday, 22 September 2013

Digression: Books I'm Profiling—J.B. MacKinnon's "The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be"

   There's lots to admire in The Once and Future World, not least of which is J.B. MacKinnon's apparent ability and willingness to maintain optimism in the face of so much terrible news—scarcity! extirpation! extinction! deprivation! loss! incipient catastrophe! etc—relayed through his book's extensive research.
    Instead of the understandable negativity and despair that could come with comprehending how much environmental bad news our species is responsibly for, though, he proposes ideas that could redirect our trajectory (and that of the natural world) so that the whole planet doesn't end up looking like a dry wasteland on the verge of total collapse (cue the desert shantytowns of any Neill Blomkamp film). 
   Sobering yet hopeful, the book deserves all the attention it receives.

My profile of James and his book appeared in variety of Canadian periodicals.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Charlotte Gray's "The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master and the Trial that Shocked a Country"

    In The Massey Murder Charlotte Gray describes a murder that took place on a chilly Toronto evening in February 1915. A young maid shot her employer—who happened to be a car salesman and, more importantly, a lesser branch of an influential and image-conscious bourgeois family in a city that was experiencing growing pains as it reluctantly left Victorian standards behind and embraced modernity.
    With an abundant "list of characters"—temperamental men of substance with axes to grind, arrogant court officers, theatrical lawyers, dogged and bigoted newspapermen, society ladies with vested interests, and one "timid eighteen-year-old" domestic servant who left no written accounts—Gray spins an endlessly intriguing account that satisfies a reader's need for dramatic intrigue with a procedural slant. 
   A lesser storyteller could have made the story interesting enough, but Gray's artful rendition of the times, the city, and the wonderfully (soap) operatic cast with schemes aplenty makes the book a deeply satisfying read from Chapter 1 ("Bang!") to the thoughtful final section ("Aftermath").
   She also has an eye for detail, one of which has stayed with me months after finishing my advance copy. The two-sentence scene makes Toronto of 1915 (ie, "a society in which seams of hypocrisy and prudery ran deep") seem as alien as medieval Japan:
   "In 1912, during another typhoid outbreak, the Star sponsored a "Swat the Fly" contest in an attempt to reduce the spread of disease from garbage to food. A girl named Beatrice Webb collected the prize after killing 543,360 flies." The number of hours she dedicated to the search for over 500,000 flies remains undisclosed.

   (Elsewhere, my published comments about the book appear in one of those publication with unsigned reviews.)