James M. Tabor
Drowning, fatal falls, premature burial, asphyxiation, hypothermia, hurricane-force winds, electrocution, earthquake-induced collapses, poison gases, rabid bats, snakes, troglodytic scorpions and spiders, microbes that cause horrific diseases: there are so many more, and more gruesome, ways to die descending in a supercave than there are while engaged in its mirror opposite, ascending one of the world’s 14 8,000-m mountains. Even when things are going well, at least by cave diver standards, when they are able to crawl forward on their bellies for kilometres at a time or rappel down 300-m drops, they are working in pitch blackness. Small wonder, then, that humans stood atop Everest by 1953 and even landed on the moon in 1969, but at the turn of the 21st century had not yet reached the deepest place on earth.
Wherever that might be. Another difference between those seeking earth’s extremes, perhaps the most crucial, is that the ascending mountaineers can see where and how far they must go, while the cave explorers, groping in the dark, can’t even be sure if they are in the right place. Tabor’s extraordinarily tense story follows two 2004 expeditions racing to be first to the bottom of the world. American Bill Stone has placed his bets on Cheve Cave, located in southern Mexico and dangerous even for a supercave. Ukrainian Alexander Klimchouk is trying his luck in Krubera, a freezing cave in the Caucasus mountains.
The two leads in this modern-day reprise of Amundsen and Scott’s race to the South Pole are complete opposites: Stone distrustful of bureaucracy, impatient, single-minded, seemingly unconcerned with the toll he was exacting from team members, family and friends; “Father” Klimchouk, calm, methodical, a team-oriented mentor. And also exactly the same: driven, hyper-competitive, with the same tragedies, triumphs and frustrations in their backstories, and prepared to take just about any risk to win. By the time one team leader crosses the once-scoffed-at 2,000-m-deep level to a point beyond which there is no passage, and names that spot Game Over, the reader is almost as wrung out as the cavers. BRIAN BETHUNE
EMPIRES OF FOOD
Evan D.G. Fraser
and Andrew Rimas
Forget the old stages of human history, the familiar stone, bronze, iron age sequence: University of Guelph geographer Fraser and journalist co-author Rimas make a convincing case that food—or rather, food surpluses—best explain the rise and fall of civilizations. If cultures produce more than farmers eat, and find a way to store, transport and exchange that extra, then urban centres can flourish. Trouble is, food empires have always, so far, grown to the limits of their carrying capacity, hanging on precariously until the weather changes or pests strike, and the whole thing collapses. It’s happened everywhere, as Fraser and Rimas demonstrate in their entertaining tour of past disasters. And maybe it’s happening again: in five of the past 10 years the world has eaten more than it has produced, causing us to draw down on our grain stocks. There may yet be a lot more food to wring out of technological progress; then again, there may not be.
Fraser and Rimas are conscious that modern-day doomsayers have, so far, been dead wrong. In the 19th century, as the British and American navies came close to blows over guano islands off Peru, dire warnings were sounded that a shortage of natural nitrogen fertilizer—guano is the finest available—was about to starve the world. But then two German scientists invented the Haber-Bosch process for creating artificial nitrogen fertilizer, which is why the planet has gone from supporting 1.6 billion people 100 years ago to 6.6 billion now. Thanks to Haber-Bosch, soil degradation—once an inevitable by-product of ramping up food supplies—is no longer a problem for us; now we can produce food out of nothing but dusty ground and a sack of chemicals. But Haber-Bosch has created a new dependency: it requires huge amounts of natural gas. And in an era when the long-term trend—at best—is toward escalating prices for oil and gas, argue Fraser and Rimas, the rest of the century seems set for a race between reaching peak population (at least another two billion people) and the inputs and creativity needed to feed them. BRIAN BETHUNE
MADE BY HAND
Almost everyone can agree there are some things that are better homemade (fudge comes to mind) and others (wiring your house) better left to the experts. There’s still a vast middle ground though, the arena in which diehard do-it-yourselfers flourish, the sort of people celebrated by Frauenfelder. And the sort of guy Frauenfelder—a nerd’s nerd, the founder of boingboing.com—is himself: a chicken-raising, espresso machine-hacking, wooden spoon-whittling DIYer. There is no possible way the opposite sort of diehard—those occasionally referred to in Made By Hand as HAP (hire a pro) lovers—can approach this book without a degree of wary cynicism. That’s only accentuated when the author earnestly and repeatedly proclaims that mistakes and flaws are all part of handmade heaven. (Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?) Hence the game determination the author exhibits after his daughter, home-schooled in fractions but ignorant of how to pace herself during exams, fails a big math test; when a coyote eats one chicken and wounds another; when the injured bird is painstakingly nursed back to health, only to fall victim to a raccoon.
Yet it is precisely in the story of his chickens that the author disarms his would-be critics. The tale of Darla, Jordan, Daisy, Rosie and the children’s two favourites, Ethel and Hazel, is by turns funny (the free-range eggs brought the unexpected aesthetic challenge of eating something one’s “pet had excreted”), sad (it was the two favourites that died), and weirdly engrossing—what it takes to get antibiotics into a chicken’s stomach has to be read to be believed. By the end of the story it’s evident that Frauenfelder has gained what he wanted above all from the DIY experience: almost the whole of his quotidian existence, from the smallest decision on, seems weighted with moral issues and consequences in a way his past life was not. When you do something yourself, he sums up, “the thing that changes most profoundly is you.” Call it the Tao of chickens. BRIAN BETHUNE
Short, inglorious, hugely unpopular at the time and largely forgotten now: most Canadians probably have no idea that, once upon a time, this country invaded Russia. Perhaps it’s the mutiny that’s to blame. As a battalion of 898 men of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (Siberia) marched to a Victoria troopship on Dec. 21, 1918, dissent was very much in the air. The Great War had been over for six weeks but two-thirds of the marchers were conscripts still bound by the Military Service Act of 1917, and most of those draftees were from Quebec, where even the defence of France had found little traction. As for fighting Communism in Russia, the expeditionary force’s purpose, much of Canada’s working class looked on the early days of the Bolshevik Revolution with hopeful eyes. Victoria was full of protest meetings echoing with shouts of “Hands off Russia!” When the troops reached the corner of Fort and Quadra streets, a platoon of Quebecers refused to go further. Their colonel fired his pistol over their heads—in the main street of Victoria, no less—and ordered his more obedient soldiers, mostly from Ontario, to remove their belts and whip the mutineers along. “They did it with a will,” recorded a Toronto lieutenant, and backed by 50 other troops with fixed bayonets, forced everyone on board.
As it began, so the entire shambolic enterprise continued. Some 4,200 Canadians ended up in Vladivostock, where—because of the disorganized state of the railways and the anti-Bolshevik forces the Canadians had come to aid—they did little but garrison the town. By June 1919, the Canadians were home, save the 20 who died, mostly from disease. Isitt’s extensive analysis of why we were there—mostly trying to deprive revolutionary workers at home of an international beacon—is convincing, as is his ironic conclusion: the blatant class warfare of the expedition did more to incite radicalism at home than it did to suppress it in Russia. Less than six months after the Victoria mutiny, a rising tide of industrial unionism would spark the Winnipeg General Strike. BRIAN BETHUNE
SWINGING FROM MY HEELS: CONFESSIONS OF AN LPGA STAR
Christina Kim and Alan Shipnuck
Christina Kim, who turned pro at 18, has a reputation as the sassy-mouthed party girl of the LPGA. So it’s no surprise that the 26-year-old’s new book includes an anecdote about a reporter eventually declining to soften one of Kim’s profane quotes (originally, they’d settled on “Snuff the naysayers”). Using the 2009 golf season as the backdrop, Swinging From My Heels, co-written by Sports Illustrated’s Alan Shipnuck, focuses heavily on weight issues, the aftermath of a breakup with her former caddie, and friendships with fellow players, including Michelle Wie. (Not mentioned is Kim’s contemporary Erica Blasberg, who threatened to quit the LPGA tour hours before she was found dead last month.)
Though Kim’s distinctive style is muted when recalling hundreds of shots taken during the season, her lighthearted voice returns when she ditches shop talk and focuses on the emotional aspects of life on tour. She skims over early struggles with her one-time coach-manager father and seems anxious not to perpetuate the stereotype of young Korean-American women in the LPGA as dutiful puppets for overbearing fathers. Another stereotype—lesbianism in the LPGA—is dismissed as a non-issue (“Contrary to what many people think, we are not the Lesbians Playing Golf Association.”)
Though dubbed “Confessions,” the revelations aren’t all that salacious. She writes of some boozy celebrations and naughty sex talk between holes, but the book reads like the confidences of a giddy teenager—an account of meeting pop star Jason Mraz is gleefully adolescent. Despite the goal of portraying an outspoken woman who won’t apologize for who she is, Christina Kim has little to apologize for. duana taha
ELIZABETH TAYLOR, RICHARD BURTON, AND THE MARRIAGE OF THE CENTURY
Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger
Blame Cleopatra for TMZ.com. When Burton and Taylor fell passionately in love on the set of the expensive Egyptian epic, it created a new demand for scandalous photographs, and helped popularize the term “paparazzi.” Kashner and Schoenberger give a full picture of the stars’ affair, their hurried wedding in Montreal, their divorces and remarriages, and the tremendous amount of drinking the two did at every point. But they’re also telling the story of how celebrity culture was perfected: their lives became part of their public images, and their movies paralleled the gossip, “blurring the boundaries between what was real and what was imagined.”
The book also gives a fuller than usual portrait of the couple, probably because Taylor co-operated with the authors. Fearing that the world was forgetting Burton, whom she worked with even after their second and last divorce in 1976, she provided unpublished details from her autobiography—including a claim that she was threatened with a gun by Eddie Fisher, her previous husband—as well as letters Burton wrote to her. The new information sharpens the contrast between the lovers: Burton, the sharp-tongued pseudo-intellectual, liked fame but hated the destruction of his privacy, while the shrewd Taylor figured out how to exploit the paparazzi to increase her own popularity and wealth.
Because the “Liz and Dick show” lost its interest over time, the book can’t help but do so as well. It has to tell one too many stories of bad movies the pair made together (with the exception of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Taylor’s weight gain, and Burton’s self-loathing. But one thing that never loses its fascination is the story of modern gossip and its effect: when Taylor visits Burton’s grave shortly after his death, and is ambushed by “a phalanx of reporters and photographers,” it’s a chilling scene of people being destroyed by the culture they helped create.