The former Canadian general and head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, Dallaire has always been brutally open about the horrors he saw there and their effects upon him. Only “constant therapy and an unrelenting regimen of drugs” keep the memories at bay, he writes in his new book. But nothing has managed to soothe the shock Dallaire experienced when he saw preteen killers, armed to the teeth with machetes and rifles, advancing upon him.
In some 30 wars across the world, he notes, hundreds of thousands of child fighters—their ranks endlessly renewed by kidnapping or by scooping up kids orphaned by AIDS, famine or violent conflicts—have become “the ultimate, cheap, expendable, yet sophisticated human weapon.” Children are, in fact, horrifically perfect for the job. They’re small enough to transport easily in large numbers, yet big enough to handle modern lightweight arms, and heavy enough also to set off land mines so adults can safely follow. They have no real sense of fear and, when indoctrinated young enough, their capacity for loyalty and for barbarism exceeds that of adults. The girls—40 per cent of child soldiers—double as sex slaves and, in long-lasting wars, as mothers of the next generation of fighters.
For Dallaire, almost as bad as the war situation he describes with such cold eloquence is the fact that the world seems to be doing little about it. The better to bring home the emotional truth of his subject, he crafted three fictional chapters on the abduction, indoctrination and killing (by a UN peacekeeper) of a child soldier. Dallaire pulls off fiction with considerable skill, but readers who are more interested in solutions will be relieved when he turns to practical suggestions. One in particular would make children far less useful to their adult controllers: a serious effort to stamp out the trade in lightweight weapons.
- BRIAN BETHUNE
It seems impossible that a love affair between a celebrated middle-aged playwright and a middle-aged historical biographer could ignite a tabloid-worthy scandal. But it did in 1975 when British literary lions Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser fell wildly in love. Fraser, who had six children, quickly shed her MP husband; Pinter’s actress wife, with whom he had a son, proved more resistant. But this marriage of true minds brooked no impediments. Within months, they had moved in together. In 1980, they wed.
“Beguiling,” one of Fraser’s favourite words, is an apt descriptor of her diary-format memoir of their 33-year union in which they travelled across continents, sparred lovingly over comma placement, read Shakespearean sonnets and marched for civil liberties. In this epic love story, they are the central characters. Everyone else—be it Samuel Beckett, Jude Law, Salman Rushdie, Nigella Lawson, Václav Havel or their own children—has a walk-on role, though Fraser dispenses a few telling details, including overhearing Diana, Princess of Wales telling Shimon Peres she’d love to visit Israel: “anything for some sun.”
Fraser also offers a few crumbs to Pinter scholars about his creative process (he wrote only when inspired) and evolving political convictions. Mostly, though, he’s uxorious—showering his wife with flowers, poems, jewellery and impeccably chosen books. It is rare to read of a modern marriage maturing into such singular devotion. If there were major tensions, they are not shared here, though Fraser does recall finding a place card Pinter kept from a dinner party, on which she’d scribbled an affectionate chide while listening to him argue a political point: “Darling—you are right. So SHUT UP.”
The final years—riven with Pinter’s failing health and their joy at his winning the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature—are the most affecting. At the very end, Fraser is alone by her husband’s bedside, referencing one of Shakespeare’s most famous farewells. Such is her storytelling finesse, most readers will be forced to re-read that page, having been blinded by tears the first time.
- ANNE KINGSTON
One of the funniest American writers alive, Frazier’s humour is muted here: love—he’s head over heels for Siberia and Siberians—has made him more solemnly elegiac than usual. Of course, you can’t keep a comic genius down entirely, and his two-page discussion of Russian public washrooms—some of “our trading partners (I’m talking to you, too, China) need to know how far apart we are on the subject”—will bring tears to readers’ eyes, if only tears of horror. But mostly Frazier relies, quite rightly, on a straightforward description of an astonishing place, its always sad and sometimes weirdly uplifting human history, and its fatalistic inhabitants. In The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum by Himself, written in 1672, Frazier finds the definitive Siberian view of existence caught in a single verbal exchange. As they struggled along an ice road, Avvakum’s wife, exiled with him, asked how long their suffering would continue; the archpriest replied, “Until we die.” Her response: “Very well, Petrovich, let us be getting on our way.”
And so Frazier too goes on his way. The meat of the book is derived from his third visit to Russia: a drive across Siberia in the summer of 2001 that took 37 days. That was more than enough time to discourse on czars, Mongols, commissars, and prison camps, while developing a psychological explanation of Russia’s often bullying foreign policy: the rest of the world has to cut Russia some slack because of its terribly abused childhood.
Time enough, too, to consider the Biblical-plague hordes of stinging insects that go along with the world’s largest forest and largest swamp, the endless beautiful panoramas, and the depressing heaps of man-made garbage. Small wonder Siberians are fatalistic. But Frazier also conveys, in his entrancing portrayal, a people prone to spontaneous kindnesses: camped by a lake on 9/11, the only American within hundreds of kilometres, he was moved to tears when a group of previously unfriendly poachers brought him a salmon in sympathy.
- BRIAN BETHUNE
So much in Hellenga’s new novel about the relationship between Sunny, a 35-year-old snake-handling ex-con, and Jackson Jones, an anthropology professor at a Midwestern U.S. university, could have veered into the preposterous. The cringe-making ingredients were there: Sunny escaping a bad marriage with an evangelical preacher named Earl; Jackson in a funk about his Lyme disease and estranged relationship with the daughter he fathered while researching pygmies in the Congo. Yet this gifted storyteller pulls it off brilliantly, delivering a riveting read and an ode to the beauty of learning.
Education is what Sunny craves when she arrives on Jackson’s doorstep after serving her time for shooting Earl. He had it coming, is her attitude, after threatening to stick her arm in a box full of rattlers. Seeking distance from her life as Willa Fern, she renames herself Sunny for its joie de vivre (or “Joey de Viver” as she calls it before knowing better).
Jackson lets Sunny stay in the garage apartment once occupied by her uncle, his former janitor, so she can attend the local university. Soon, the two are sharing his bed and forging a more stimulating cerebral connection. Their avid curiosity invigorates the novel with myriad digressions—how to dress a deer, how to play the timpani, interpreting Carmina Burana—that rarely prompt the reader to wonder how to drop out of the course.
Not all the action is intellectual. Earl shows up to reclaim his wife and befriends Jackson. Claire, Jackson’s former lover, takes Sunny under her wing. Fault lines emerge in the Jackson-Sunny relationship when she embarks on an academic snake study while he conducts an ethnography of Earl’s parish and is drawn into ecstatic serpent ritual. Again, Hellenga could have steered into wonkery about reason and revelation, with Garden of Eden imagery looming oppressively. But he’s too imaginative a writer to end with such an obvious lesson—after showing that knowledge must be felt to be learned.
- ANNE KINGSTON
Seventy-eight per cent of all statistics are made up on the spot. And if you believe that, you need to read this book.Charles Seife admits he fabricated the statistic. But a great many other statistics we encounter every day have also been invented, or are the product of malevolent deceptions. The title itself is an invented word referring to the problems created by unquestioned acceptance of statistics as truth.
The first example of the danger inherent in unchallenged numbers is U.S. senator Joe McCarthy’s 1950 claim that he had a list of 205 Communist sympathizers working in the U.S. government. The concrete number was enough to set off a vicious inquisition,but turned out to be the product of McCarthy’s imagination. He never had any list.
Further evidence of proofiness—from Al Gore’s manipulation of the data on rising sea levels to the many flaws of polls—reveals how numerical legerdemain and ignorance can affect everything from international public policy to everyday decision-making. Seife argues cogently that the solution is to think more carefully about the evidence and express ideas with greater precision.
Unfortunately, a preoccupation with U.S. politics robs the book of a broader focus. Too much space is spent on the Minnesota senatorial campaign in 2008, won by comedian Al Franken, and the Florida results in the 2000 presidential election. Both were extremely close votes that reveal some fundamental problems with numbers and democracy, but there’s much more proofiness in the world that needs addressing.
And Seife’s solution to these two elections is strangely unscientific. He argues that in very close elections it makes no sense to attempt a careful recount. Subjective opinions about what constitutes a valid ballot inevitably lead to legal posturing and unhelpful debate. He suggests we should instead consider such elections to be ties, and “flip a coin.” It seems an odd way to bring greater precision to politics.
- PETER SHAWN TAYLOR
You probably knew that Sondheim (West Side Story, Sweeney Todd) writes good lyrics, but did you know almost nobody else does? That’s the impression you might get from this book, the first of two projected volumes, which not only collects all Sondheim’s lyrics for Broadway musicals through 1981 (including songs cut before opening night), but commentary on his own work and other people’s. Though self-critical, especially of his early lyrics, Sondheim saves his toughest words for lyricists of the previous generation: Ira Gershwin is “too often convoluted,” while Lorenz Hart of Rodgers and Hart fame is “the laziest of the pre-eminent lyricists.” Even lyricists Sondheim admires, like his mentor Oscar Hammerstein, come in for what he admits is “heavy-duty nitpicking.”
These comments aren’t just random criticism—they’re part of an overall theme: Sondheim and his colleagues turned the musical into a real art form. Sondheim says Hammerstein may have revolutionized Broadway with shows like Oklahoma! and South Pacific, but the characters were “not much more than collections of characteristics.” It took his own generation, Sondheim claims, to “explore new territory” and make musicals into serious theatre. Because he includes the expected laments for the current state of the art (“I used to think the need for live theatre would never die; I fear I was wrong”), it makes the book seem like a sustained argument that his was the best era for musicals.
In between the criticisms come interesting, though rarely gossipy, stories about Sondheim’s collaborators and the techniques he uses to create his lyrics, even the now-defunct brand of pencils he writes with. And, of course, there’s plenty of entertainment in the lyrics themselves, whose rhymes dazzle even without the music attached: a song cut from one of his shows rhymes, “She thinks of the Ritz, oh / it’s so / schizo.”
- JAIME J. WEINMAN