Thursday, December 13, 2007

Touch the Top of the World

By Erik Weihenmayer

The sub-title of this book says it all: A blind man’s journey to climb farther than the eye can see.

I’m always a little leery of autobiographical books as they are frequently little more than the results of a narcissistic impulse gone wild. I can only take so much Me! Me! Me! at once, especially when it’s written by someone whose only real accomplishment has been being born and becoming a star or rising to some high political position through family contacts. I’m reminded of the expression, “he was born on third base and thought he hit a triple” every time I pick up one of the latest “best sellers” of that ilk.

But this book was different. Sure it’s simply written, and some passages are a bit hard to accept at face value, for example when he describes doctor’s visits when he was less than two years old as if he is recounting them from first-person memory. But those are minor nits. The real story here is how a young man, totally blind since his teenage years, refuses to accept the limitations of blindness. He discovers his passion for mountaineering and through his climbing comes to terms with his disability and, one may say, his life.

It’s a story of struggle and passion, success and failure, fear and bravery. His descriptions of his experiences on the mountains put the reader right there with him, feeling for the next hand hold or foot placement to avoid a potentially fatal slip, or at best a wild swing on the end of a rope several thousand feet above the rocks below.

It’s also a story about friendship and respect. His climbing partners put their lives in his hands, and he in theirs, every time they climb together, so one can only marvel at the level of respect they must have for his abilities and skills on the mountain. And their friendship helps carry them all through some very difficult times on the mountain, and back on the ground.

I devoured this book, right up to and including the final chapter where the author describes his summiting of Mount Everest in May 2001 – the first blind climber to ever reach that peak.

Truly an excellent read.

Saturday, November 3, 2007


By Pat Barker

Appropriately, I bought this novel in the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres and read it while touring some of the First World War battlefields of the Ypres Salient and the Somme. Perhaps heightened by my physical proximity to some of the locations and events described in the book, I found that it offered a particularly chilling and compelling perspective on the war and its psychological effects on many of the young men who experienced its horrors first hand.

At the core of Regeneration is the relationship between
Siegfried Sassoon and Dr. W. H. R. Rivers, an army psychologist, during Sassoon’s hospitalisation at Craiglockhart in 1917. According to official military channels Sassoon was suffering from shell shock, but in reality he had run afoul of the military authorities when he had the audacity to question the political motivations behind the war in his Soldiers Declaration, which had become public. Wanting to avoid the publicity of a courts martial, the authorities had him diagnosed with shell shock (How else to explain his Declaration?) and sent him to Craiglockhart to be rehabilitated under the care of Dr. Rivers. (This is all factual.)

While Sassoon, Dr. Rivers, and many of the other patients at Craiglockhart are historical figures, Barker has woven them into a fictionalized account that is compassionate and disturbing. Through her writing the reader shares the wartime experiences of some of these young men and gains a far deeper understanding and appreciation for their resulting mental conditions. Her descriptions of some of the “treatments” offered at Craiglockhart also provide an insight into the primitive state of psychotherapy at that time, equally disturbing to our modern sensibilities.

This is the first book in Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy. I will surely read all three. This is a good read, and particularly recommended if you have an interest in the stories of the men and women of The Great War.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Too Many Books - not a review

Having just finished a series of rather ‘heavy’ books – most recently Chantal Hebert’s French Kiss: Stephen Harper’s Blind Date with Quebec – I wasn’t up to yet another political, biographical, or military history book. It was time for a break, and so with the temperatures outside hovering around the 32C mark, it was off to the bookstore in search of some summer reading - a good page-turner.

Robert Ludlum’s The Ambler Warning was on prominent display so the decision was easy and I’m now enjoying this classic Ludlum thriller. But that will only last a few days and then it will be back to the store to choose something else from the myriad titles available – truly a daunting task given the number of new books being published every year.

According to Bowker there were 375,000 English language books published in 2004 ( Of that number, approximately 18%, or 67,500 were “Adult fiction, poetry, drama and literary criticism”. With poetry, drama and literary criticism being, I assume, a small part of the total, let’s say that adult fiction accounts for 50,000 of those new titles. With a further assumption that fiction has, on average, a shelf life of two years, that means I will have 100,000 titles from which to choose a few books to keep me company on the dock this summer.

100,000 titles. Even if I had the time to read 2 books a week, I could, at best, read 100 books next year - 1/10th of one percent of the books that are available. Clearly the odds are stacked against me picking the best fiction out there so I will do what most of us would do, which is to go with what we know. It’s not unlike eating at MacDonald’s or staying at The Holiday Inn - it may not be 4-star, but you know what to expect. Ditto with the popular authors - Ludlum, Grisham, P.D. James, Follett, Crichton, et al. While the list of books published by these authors can still be somewhat overwhelming (and confusing when books are republished years later with different titles) it’s at least manageable.

So when I’m done with The Ambler Warning, I will return to the bookstore, head to the fiction section and look for authors I know. If, in the process, I happen to come across something by another author that looks interesting, I may pick it up, but that will be by chance only. A pity really, as I know I’m missing lots of good reading, but I’m also missing a lot more bad reading.

Life’s too short to waste on bad books, so we make our choices accordingly.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Oil On The Brain

By Lisa Margonelli.

Well I’ve been somewhat remiss in the past week, not keeping my blog up to date. My only excuse is this nasty summer cold which has made me feel about as much like writing a blog entry or two as getting a root canal without anaesthetic (and I’ve had two of those so I know whereof I speak). But on the good news side of the ledger (mom always said to look for the silver lining) I have been able to spend some quality time reading my latest book – Oil on the Brain: Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline.

Now this isn’t a book that would tend to jump out at you from the shelf – the cover is somewhat nondescript and the title is, well, not a real grabber, but recently while I was waiting for the spousal unit at the local Chapters, I picked it up and started browsing. Hooked!

The author takes the reader on a global tour of the oil business, literally from the pump back to the well and the oil-producing countries that are the source of this “black gold”. It's quite a trip, described with humour and spotted with interesting and fascinating facts. For example, did you know that it takes 1 ½ gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of gasoline? Or how about the explanation of how a US gallon of gasoline that weighs only 6 pounds manages to pump 19.5 pounds of CO2 out of your exhaust pipe (it’s in the way the carbon atoms link up with two oxygen atoms after combustion).

But most compelling are her descriptions of how oil has shaped, and some may say ruined, the social structures in countries where it has become the premier, or only, source of external revenue, generally in US dollars. Countries like Venezuela, where the national oil company PDVSA is actually larger than the state and provides schooling, housing, and medical services to the population – services that rightly should come from the state. Or Chad, where Exxon signed sweetheart deals with illiterate leaders as the country spirals into civil war. Iran, Nigeria, China, Saudi Arabia – it’s a long list and the author visits each of them in turn to uncover the corruption, graft and sundry abuses heaped upon the populations by, variously, oil multinationals, their local governments, and western governments (i.e. U S of A) quenching their unending thirst for oil at any cost.

It is an easy read, but a disturbing one, and it certainly gives one a far different perspective on the entire business than one gets at the pumps at the local Esso station.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

State of Fear

By Michael Crichton.

At first I was somewhat put off by the online reviews which ranged from “a several hundred page rant” to “worst book I have read in a long time” to “it rivals and surpasses Gore's inane rant in its true science and rebuttal”, but given the storyline it’s not surprising there are strong emotions expressed in the reviews. In the end I decided to give it a shot.

Regardless whether you are a climate change believer or not, if you can put aside your own perspectives on the science and read it simply as a piece of fiction, then it’s classic Crichton with lots of twists and turns, life-threatening situations and improbable escapes, and the good guys winning in the end. It delivers what a Crichton reader has come to expect – both good and bad.

That’s not to say there’s no validity to Crichton’s underlying message. If nothing else, it should get the reader thinking about what we know for a fact versus what we know because we’ve been told it so many times by the media, by various celebrities (hence the reference in one review to Al Gore), by our political masters, and by some (most? many?) scientists about the nature of the current environmental crisis. Whether the earth is in crisis or not, and the extent to which such a crisis will affect mankind’s future, is something that few of us have the knowledge or skills to be able to make our own determination of fact, so we have come to rely on the environmental movement to educate and inform us. But keep in mind that they have a vested interest in maintaining a state of fear among the population – that’s what drives their government funding and charitable contributions and in fact, keeps many of them employed. So the message is to not simply take everything at face value but to question, question, and question some more. That’s not to say they are wrong, but keeping them honest is the only way we will ever get to the truth and be able to take whatever steps are required to manage our precious earth for generations to come.

Bottom line: If you’re a Crichton fan, you could do a lot worse for a good summer read, just don’t take the science too seriously as Crichton also has a vested interest.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things

By Gary Geddes.

This book had such great promise that it was with deep disappointment that I abandoned it half way through – an extremely rare occurrence for me.

The premise is that Canadian author Gary Geddes follows in the footsteps of a 5th century Afghan monk who fled Kabul to China, and who, according to legend, actually sailed to North America and back to China 1,000 years before Columbus. It sounds like a great adventure story, and it should be, but the telling of it left me absolutely indifferent. I felt no sense of empathy towards Huishen and what he might have experienced all those centuries ago, and Geddes’ own experiences were recorded in such a superficial and rapid-fire manner (I was here, and then I went there, and then I did this …..) that I was never engaged enough to care.

It was like your Uncle Albert and Aunt Ida showing you the pictures from their whirlwind, 14-countries-in-7-days vacation trip to Europe - a series of snapshots with little in the way of connection other than the obvious time line, no tension and no drama. In a word, boring.

Life’s too short to spend it reading uninteresting books – give this one a pass, unless you enjoy Uncle Albert’s slide shows.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Time To Say Goodbye

By Reed Scowen

When I started reading this book I was immediately impressed with how well it resonated with me – a Quebecer born and raised, who experienced the sometimes violent separatist activities of the 60’s and 70’s and the less violent but no less damaging separation threats of today. If you only read one book about Quebec’s relationship with the rest of Canada (ROC), this is the one. Written by a bilingual English Quebecer from the Eastern Townships who was for many years a member of Quebec's Legislative Assembly, Time to Say Goodbye is clear, concise and sometimes even funny. (When discussing Quebec’s requirement for English signage to be in a smaller font than the French equivalent, Scowen says: “It has not been proven that the English of Quebec have better eyesight than the French.”)

The basic premise of Time to Say Goodbye is that after years of talk about Quebec’s secession, massive infusions of cash into Quebec provincial coffers and Quebec-based businesses, enforced bilingualism throughout the federal civil service (and some provincial civil services), political concessions to meet Quebec’s aspirations as an international player in its own right, French immersion training in virtually all of Canada’s English-speaking schools, etc., etc., etc., we are no closer now than we ever were to satisfying the political elite, the academics and the majority of the population of Quebec. In what is perhaps the best quote in the book, Scowen says: “It’s time for the rest of us to understand and accept that Quebec has already left Canada. Their name still appears on the door and they send somebody around regularly to pick up a cheque. But they don’t live here any more.”

Scowen discusses the fundamental differences between Quebec’s perspective and the views in the ROC to illustrate how the two solitudes will never be able to come to a stable, long-lasting understanding. While we will never see or hear debate at this level, he claims that being a Quebecer (as defined by Quebecers) means being Quebec born and bred and living exclusively in the French language – anything beyond that is superfluous – whereas being a Canadian means being part of a broader, tolerant, multilingual, multi-cultural, and safe society. Certainly Quebecers want many of those things too, but only in a French context. In other words, language trumps all else in matters related to Quebec while language is virtually of no import whatsoever in the ROC.

So our response has been to encourage (or legislate) bilingualism across the country in the hope that Canada will become fluently bilingual and ergo, the problem will be solved. This will never work simply because it completely ignores the fact that Canadians outside Quebec have no incentive to become bilingual other than to appease Quebec or compete for a federal government job. There is no equivalence in the relative importance of the two languages – Scowen uses the example of an Airbus and a taxi as both being transportation, but certainly not equivalent – so there is no economic or other reason for Canadians in the ROC to learn and use what is, in effect, a dying language.

He obviously goes into much more detail on these points, supporting many of his arguments with hard statistics, personal experience, and anecdotal evidence, but the bottom line is that regardless of how debilitating the relationship is (on both sides) Quebec will remain part of Canada “… as long as the rest of the country provides them with an appetizing buffet and an open bar”.

If he's correct (and I believe he is), it's now time for Canada to close the bar and pack up the buffet. The sun will still come up tomorrow, except that it will now signal the dawn of a new and brighter future for both Canada and Quebec. Au revoir. Bonne chance.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Misquoting Jesus

by Bart D. Ehrman.

In a word - fascinating.

It's not surprising that the words we read in the Bible today are different than the words originally captured back in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. - or even more recently than that. It's a well-known fact that these words have had to endure through several translations from one ancient language to another, and the vagaries of being hand-copied by hundreds, if not thousands of scribes over the centuries until the invention of the Gutenberg press in 1450, so changes are not only expected, they are inevitable.

What this book does is provide a history of that progression and many examples where ancient writings and the currently accepted version of the New Testament (the book focuses primarily on the new Testament) disagree. The author then explains the methods used to identify the inconsistencies and the various approaches taken to try to determine how and why the changes occurred, and which version best represents the author's original intention.

What I found most interesting is that this wasn't a simple exercise of establishing time lines from which it could be determined that the oldest text was necessarily the correct (or more correct) one. Manuscripts would leap-frog each other, and in some cases, more recent texts would be based on much older originals, now lost.Equally fascinating was the discussion of why scribes might change the text they were working on at the time. Certainly there were situations where simple transcription errors could result in significant changes being made to the message, but equally there were cases where changes were made intentionally, either at the behest of the patron (whoever was paying to have the manuscript transcribed) or the scribe himself, based on his own, personal beliefs and their cultural or political environment at the time.

All in all a very good and interesting read for anyone (Christian or not, religious or not) who has any interest in how the word of God, as represented in the New Testament of today, came to be.