Sunday, 16 February 2014

Michael Ignatieff, "Fire and Ashes: Success (and Failure) in Politics" (2013)

Reading Michael Ignatieff's reflections on his fairly short, failed bid to become Canada's Prime Minister repeatedly led me back to two questions:

1) Why did he write this book?
2) Could he have been as naive or as idealistic as he seems to position himself in this book?

Fire and Ashes describes Ignatieff's conversion from ex-pat Canadian Harvard University professor with rather privileged roots (predecessors include an advisor to the Imperial Russian tsar, and Canadian academic George Grant [best known for writing Lament for a Nation]), to a rather out-of-place 'team manager' attempting to corral a national political party scarred by years of in-fighting, tilting towards declining support, and struggling to find a consistent, compelling identity into a lean, mean, effective political campaigning machine. It is also an assessment, if not some kind of apologia, of personal and professional failure.

Ignatieff, of course, finds a silk purse in this sow's ear. Whether for the sake of his ego, or better sales, I'm not sure. His ego seems intact. Book sales, not so much.

Underlying Ignatieff's narrative, reflections on flawed perceptions, mistakes made, and suggestions for improvement of Canada's political system, is a sense that that he made this strangely simplistic choice as much out of boredom, or the desire to face a good challenge unlike any he would face in a classroom, as he did from a burning desire to engage in public service, to change the country, or best an opponent. The gravity of his decision, and the ways he justifies his seems akin to the same sort of logic other people might apply to deciding to train to run a marathon, or learn a new language. I can't help but wonder what Ignatieff really, in his quietest moments, believed he was putting at stake.

Additionally, although he is sure to remind the reader that he was involved in Pierre Trudeau's 1968 election campaign, he had little other practical political experience. Yes, that's right, his most recent qualifications and training seem to have been thirty years previous. Since the 1960s, it seems he had not been involved in Canadian or American politics, other than as a commentator. How he could have expected to run a solid leadership campaign for 'the natural governing party' of Canada speaks both to his own powerful idealism and naiveté, as it perhaps does for the paucity of solid contenders vying for the quickly rusting crown of the Liberal party's leadership. Without meaning to insult Ignatieff, but if this clearly intelligent but nebbish expat constituted the Liberal Party's best threat to the Harper Conservatives, something was rotten in Gritsville.


John Gray offers a fair assessment in the Independent.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Tobias Churton, "Aleister Crowley: The Biography" (2011)

While Crowley's life might present some fascinating episodes, and raise equally fascinating questions, Churton's stilted writing and over-the-top hagiography is difficult to wade through. That Churton could be so self-confident to label his book "THE biography" - as if no other has been written, or could be written - suggests a problematic approach from the outset.

The core of Churton's perspective lies in his belief that many of the questions about Crowley's life can be answered by the proposal that Crowley was working as a British spy. This is a fanciful proposal, for which the documentary proof is wanting. Additionally, while he doesn't come right out and state this (at least not in the hundred or so pages I've read) Churton seems to be taking the position that Crowley may have actually been able to engage in... supernatural... acts. Finally (but perhaps not least troubling), Churton seems to lose track of his narrative, making references to claims that seem quite significant in a dismissive way, but for which no intimation has been previously provided. Let me explain what my butchered writing surely confused. On pg. xxx, Churton states that "by... Crowley was hooked on heroin." Churton has never stated before this page, however, that Crowley was ever taking heroin. Of course, he was not obligated to tell us this, and he may not know when Crowley first tried heroin. That being said, surely his life, notes, letters, etc., must have included some inkling. If not, perhaps it was a worthwhile open question to introduce earlier in the narrative, at least to prepare the reader.

The Telegraph ran a light, though fair, review by John Preston, in Sept. 2011.

Billy Graham, "Nearing Home" (2013)

Penned by one of the world's best-known Christian evangelists, now 93-years old, Graham's short, simple, reflection on coming to the end of one's life is subtitled "Faith, Life, and Finishing Well." It is a book that likely resonates with the large American (and Canadian) population of relatively well-off, educated, economically secure people who have entered retirement, and are now facing questions regarding meaning, purpose, and reward.

In this respect, I don't feel as if I am the intended audience for Graham's book. As someone with aging parents, however, the book has a different application for me. It has helped me to feel a greater sense of knowledge about issues they might be thinking about, from their perspective. It also makes me feel a little grief at some of the choices that they have made.

Graham's advice is based in and revolves around his Protestant, evangelical, Christianity. If you know Graham, there's no surprise there. Graham is one of the best-known American evangelists. He has enjoyed the confidence of Presidents, and a widespread media presence. Unlike many of his peers over the last few decades (such as Jim Bakker or Oral Roberts), he has largely avoided embarrassing revelations of definitely unChristian behaviour. For a non-Christian, the frequent quoting of scripture in his book is a little off-putting. His text reads a little like (and is) an extended conversation with a devout but kindly evangelical Christian grandfather.

While some of Graham's advice seems simple and obvious (e.g., have a plan established for how you want your assets distributed, etc.), some is more thought-provoking. He spends time discussing the responsibilities of seniors; the role they can plan in leadership, provision of wisdom, history, and as role models, as well as leaders in faith. Cast as a difference from the idea of retirement as a period of indulgence, pleasure, and leisure, placing a mantle of religious duty and social opportunity on the shoulders of the growing numbers of seniors is a provocative, productive initiative. To give credit where it's due, Graham's book also allows sensitive readers to ask themselves whether they are using their own lives - whatever age they might be - as well as possible, not only for their own ends, but for those they love, their community, and if they have it, for the purposes of their faith.

Here's an excerpt.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Graeme Smith, "The Dogs are Eating Them Now" (2013)

A brilliant reflection on over a decade of (interrupted) on-the-ground coverage of Canada and its allies war in Afghanistan. Eminently readable, compelling, and disturbing.