Svend RobinsonSvend Robinson: A Life in Politics

Graeme Truelove
New Star Books, 2013
305 pp.

Graeme Truelove’s biography about UBC alumnus Svend Robinson works towards an explanation of “the ring thing” — the then Burnaby MP’s 2004 theft of a diamond ring valued at $21,500 — but along the way, Truelove pens an historical lesson in left flank Canadian politics. While this will no doubt infuriate some of the MP’s detractors, for those with a left-leaning political conscience Robinson’s life story as told by Truelove promises to inspire the same spirit of social, economic and environmental justice the articulate and outspoken MP served during his 25 years on Parliament Hill.

Robinson protested clear-cutting of old growth forests in Clayoquot Sound, publically denounced Pinochet in Chile, heckled President Ronald Reagan in the House of Commons, was the first openly gay candidate to be elected as an MP, negotiated the release of Canadian hostages taken by Saddam Hussein, went on a fact finding mission in China following the Tiananmen Square massacre, assisted Sue Rodriguez in ending her life with dignity, and tabled Bill C-250, which made hate propaganda targeting homosexuals illegal. The list goes on.

First elected as an MP at twenty-five years old, Robinson took on women’s issues, the prison system and aboriginal rights but what drew attention to the young MP was the Chilean political refugee he took into his home in 1979. Galindo Madrid was threatened with expulsion from the country. Robinson offered him sanctuary and dared the RCMP to remove him. The stunt made headlines, raising the issue of Madrid’s predicament with the general public. Immigration relented and Madrid became a Canadian citizen.

Tactically engaging in unparliamentary behaviour to solicit attention for an issue of concern became a hallmark of Robinson’s career. He came to be known as a self-aggrandizing attention seeker. But Svend Robinson: A Life in Politics offers insight into how a dedicated politician used drama to draw media attention to important causes. Robinson, according to Truelove, ran himself into the ground doing so. Archival research and interviews from many of Canada’s most important politicians, including Brian Mulroney and Jack Layton, add to the substantial historical contributions of this book. Truelove is a talented writer who has chosen a controversial and important person to write about.

Into the SilenceInto the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest

By Wade Davis (UBC Professor of Anthropology)
Vintage Canada Edition, 2012
573 pp.

As the world reflects on the hundred years since the first World War, Wade Davis’ book Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest accomplishes what Franz Kafka said all books should do: “be an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us.” This historical account straddles the period before and after the war. It contemplates the cultural constructs of heroism and national pride and pits the drive to conquer the highest pinnacle on earth against the backdrop of a previously unchartered Tibet.

The tale is made all the more poignant by the tender and intelligent reflection Davis uses to weave together the most remarkable of biographies with the desolate landscape of war, the tireless expansion of the British Empire, the mysticism of Tibet, and the spirit of man. Most remarkable, though, is the shape and pulse of the telling. Davis’ 10 years of research and writing cascade in a riveting adventure story impossible to put down.

The 600 deaths a day and 1,700 daily casualties Britain suffered throughout the four years and four months of the war are an essential starting point for understanding the psychology of the men who made the first attack on Everest. The language used by both men and media to describe the three assaults on Everest made by the National Geographical Society in the early 1920s are caked in battle. The mountain, which had been noted as the highest summit on earth as early as 1806, became, as Davis writes, “a symbol of continuity in a world gone mad.”

Davis uses official records, newspaper reports, the mountaineers’ personal diaries and letters as well as extensive interviews with ancestors to tell the story of all three attempts. What results is a prism that shines light on a series of formidable personalities and subjects as diverse as the geography of Tibet’s most sacred and beautiful places as well as its flora and fauna, the effects of altitude on human physiology, the benefits of juniper wood over yak dung for fuel, and “the gestalt of death”. This is an exhilarating and enlightening read.

The AgeThe Age

By Nancy Lee, MFA’00 (UBC Creative Writing instructor)
McLelland & Stewart, 2014
pp. 281

In 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev said that, “never, perhaps, in the postwar decades was the situation in the world as explosive and hence more difficult and unfavourable as in the first half of the 1980s.” It is in this period that Nancy Lee’s debut novel, The Age, is set. Its commentary about a doctrine of military strategy known as MAD, the mutually assured destruction of the United States and the Soviet Union, provides the novel’s core conflict.

As Soviet warships enter the Atlantic, Gerry, a Vancouver teenager, seeks acceptance from a group of would-be terrorists including Gerry’s best friend, Ian, his lover (and Gerry’s love interest), Megan, an electrical engineer from the Eastern Block named Andri and his pregnant girlfriend, Michelle. Equally frustrated with the shortsightedness of warmongers and the apathy of the everyman, the group believes that a bomb set off during a peace march will send a message explosive enough to right the wrong-headedness of war.

Gerry’s fear about the future and discomfort about the past lead her to drastic measures and anxious imaginings. Alongside the central narrative runs a dystopian tale about a young boy and older woman who eke out a life after a mushroom cloud of smoke ends life as they know it. This story is borne of Gerry’s anxiety about what would happen to a baby, like Michelle’s, birthed at the end of the world.

As a child, Gerry’s father abandoned both her and her mother, who Gerry now resents. She looks to her father’s father, Henry, for consolation. Henry sums up the central narrative of the novel when he says, “You do the right thing for the wrong reasons, the wrong thing for the right reasons, who can make sense of it all?” Gerry comes to realize that even if you do something for the right reason, somebody might get hurt.

The Age is a painful, dramatic and moving coming of age tale. Written with exactitude, Lee reveals the Cold War resonance in current global conflicts and the difficulty of integrating the reality of a violent world when experienced at a distance.

The ConfabulistThe Confabulist

By Steven Galloway, BFA’98, MFA’01 (UBC Creative Writing instructor)
Alfred A. Knopf, 2014
pp. 301

Steven Galloway’s new novel, The Confabulist, tells the story of Harry Houdini through the eyes of Martin Strauss, a character based on the McGill student whose punch to Houdini’s stomach led to the ruptured appendix that killed him in 1926. This masterfully told tale includes adultery, espionage and murder. It points to the power of illusion and the fine line between what is real and what is not.

Martin Strauss is stricken by an illness that threatens to erase his memories but before this happens, he feels compelled to explain his life’s actions to Alice, the only person he has left. Yet even before the onset of illness, Martin Strauss realizes he doesn’t know what parts of him are real and what parts are made up. Strauss confabulates. He fabricates, distorts and misinterprets his memories.  In this way he is like Erick Weisz, who became the infamous Harry Houdini by creating a persona. Strauss killed Houdini – not just once, but twice. Of this, he seems sure. As a result, he runs away from Clara, the woman he loved, and becomes embroiled in a web of intrigue. His first person narrative flips between past and present and runs parallel to Houdini’s story, as told by an omniscient narrator.

Galloway pulls upon extensive research and includes Houdini’s love of wife and his mother, his many trysts, his friendship with Arthur Conan Doyle, his attempt to destroy the spiritualist movement, his recruitment as a spy, and thrilling acts like the milk can escape and breaking out of a Siberian prison van.

Galloway’s exacting prose cuts to the core of human frailty and self-deception. “Magic,” he writes, “is about believing in what we understand is not real because we want it to be.”  The Confabulist raises the question of whether or not democracy is real, but in the end Galloway reveals that it is not the illusion put forth by the machinations of powerful men that affect the world but rather the power parents have over their children’s view of themselves. “Being a parent,” writes Galloway, “is a monumental thing.”


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