Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Pierre Berton, "Flames Across the Border: 1813-1814" (1981)

The second volume of this series is just as good as the first, if not better. It continues the tone and approach of the first volume, essentially establishing a near seamless link with the first book.

As Berton explains in his 'Author's Note', his effort considers "the war from a Canadian point of view, [and] is not intended primarily as a military or political history... This is, rather, a social history of the war, the first to be written by a Canadian. I have tried to tell not only what happened but also what it was like; to look at the struggle... as a combatant struggling in the mud of the battlefield; to picture the war from the viewpoints of private soldiers and civilians as well as from those of generals and politicians; to see it through the eyes of ordinary people on both sides - farmer and housewife, traitor and spy, drummer boy and Indian brave, volunteer, regular, and conscript." In this respect, Berton was very successful.

Additionally, he notes, "I have invented nothing. Dialogue is reproduced exactly as reported by those who were present." This attribute is one of the most engaging about Berton's writing in general, and in particular, about this series. As I mentioned in my review of the first volume, he really does capture a sense of the personality and tone of those whose lives he describes.

Of course, the books are not without their limitations, however minor these might be. For instance, I read the first and second volumes back to back, however, about 50 pages a day, and by the end of the total 900 pages, have to admit that the names and events were all starting to mush together. The focus on individuals does sometimes allow the larger flow of historical events to get lost. This may, in some respects, be Berton's subtle way of speaking to the outcome of the war, and the relationship between individuals and national decision-making, particularly in an era when decisions made in London, or Ghent by the final treaty-makers, might not reach North America for two months. (The taking of Michilimackinac before the Americans there knew they were at war is another good example.) On the other hand, his interest in the stories of individuals may have overcome the trope within which these lives were narrated: the War of 1812.

Nonetheless, a really great overview or introduction to the Canadian perspective on the War of 1812. Eminently readable, not mentally taxing, and informative.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Pierre Berton, "Invasion of Canada, 1812-1813" (1980)

I have always been a bit leery of reading Pierre Berton's Canadian histories. There's just something about them that smacks of pedestrian, Reader's Digest, "sacrifice the truth for a good story" writing. I have to admit, however, that having read two in the last year (this is the third), that they are really good night-time reading. This one, like Vimy (the last Berton book I reviewed), keeps the narrative moving along, and yet makes a complex topic like the War of 1812 completely understandable. Even more, and I think this is particularly important when talking about a war two-hundred years past, he manages to capture a real sense of immediacy, humanity, and contemporaneity in his descriptions of the soldiers, generals, reservists, and aboriginals. I was really pleased to see that in this book, unlike many of his others, that he actually cites sources, an invaluable gesture to historians who would follow in his footsteps, or inspired by his narrative, desire to seek out the primary information that he based his story on. Of the total six Berton books I have read in my life, I think this ranks as the best so far.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Stanley Barrett, "Is God A Racist?: The Right Wing In Canada" (1987)

When it comes to academic research on the far right in Canada, Barrett's book is foundational. He was the first to really try and objectively assess the extent of far right activity, and to develop a sense of how various groups intersected, as well as what motivated them. His contribution is significant.

The book does much to capture a sense of the groups that had been active in Canada's far right up to the early 1980s, ranging from standards such as the Ku Klux Klan and Canadian Nazi Party, through to somewhat more innocuous groups such as Citizens for Foreign Aid Reform. He also attempts to give some biographical background on then-leading members of the Canadian far right, such as Ernst Zundel, Wolfgang Droege, Paul Fromm, and John Ross Robertson, etc.

As the first to really tackle this subject, Barrett notes that he did encounter some resistance from academics, who felt he was giving the far right a platform and attention that they did not deserve. This may be the reason that he is sure to position himself as opposed to the ideology of the groups and individuals involved.

As interesting as this book is, there is something dissatisfying about it, that I can't quite put my finger on. If anything, it feels, perhaps, as if it lacks a thesis... an argument. As an anthropologist, maybe this is what is expected. I'm not sure. I would prefer, however, that the book takes a bit more gritty, aggressive approach.

The final two chapters do make a pretty admirable effort to tie up the loose ends of analysis, and to summarize the commonalities between the organizations and persons looked at. Barrett also makes some interesting assertions about the logic that seems to animate the racism he observed. In particular, he asserts that the primary rationalization for the racism he identified was rooted in religion (Jews as Christ-killers, etc.), and only secondarily on claims to science (e.g., biological difference between races, etc.).

Friday, 7 January 2011

Fred McClement, "The Strange Case of Ambrose Small" (1974)

Ambrose Small disappeared mysteriously from the streets of Toronto in 1919, the same day as he and his wife sold their chain of Canadian theatres for over $1.5 million. He handed over a cashier's cheque for $1 million dollars, transacted some other business around the city, and was never heard from again. His disappearance wasn't made public for over two weeks. His body was never found. His fate remains a mystery.

This book, written in the early 1970s, is clearly intended for a popular audience. It lacks footnotes, and makes little effort to indicate sources. That being said, there is almost no writing about the case, so most of the sources were likely newspapers of the time, covering the story or subsequent court cases. In 1960, the provincial police closed the case and tragically disposed of their files related to it.

Overall, this book provides an interesting, if brief glimpse into the rarified Toronto/Canadian upper society during the First World War era. It captures some of the sense of Catholic/Protestant clashes, and the moral ambiguity that revolved around popular entertainment. Unfortunately, the book leaves many questions unanswered, but given its size, the nature of the source material, and the intended audience, it offers an enjoyable, casual read.

John Osbourne, "I Am Ozzy" (2009)

Ok, so this is a bit of a departure from the fare I traditionally write about here. I am a big Ozzy fan, however, and this bit of fluff seemed like a nice palate-cleanser for 'on the subway' reading. And it was. There's nothing here that will greatly surprise fans of Ozzy or Sabbath. Most of the stories have been told before. They are entertaining nonetheless, and much of the tone of Ozzy's speaking voice is kept in the text (I presume these are more or less transcribed stories told by Ozzy to some nameless assistant). There is more information than I expected about Ozzy's personal life - his first wife, his kids, and Sharon's role in his life - and much less about the dynamics, discoveries, and excesses of his musical career. For those who've never known much about Ozzy, this is a simple, informative, and pleasing primer. If nothing else, it's a short, simple book that won't tax your brain, while giving you some intriguing insights into the development of the 1970s music industry, and a rock icon who has been reduced to a bit of a parody.