A first-rate (mis)adventure writer

Plus, a novel about Shakespeare’s illegitimate daughter, a case for the oil sands, a shocking confession, war biographies, and a head-spinning tour of central Europe

‘Even Silence Has An End’: Ingrid Betancourt with her sister at a concert for liberty in Paris, July, 20, 2008. Julien Hekimian/WireImage/Getty Images

Ingrid Betancourt

During a quixotic campaign for the Colombian presidency in February 2002, Ingrid Betancourt—Green Oxygen party founder, elected senator, bestselling author and anti-corruption whistle-blower—was kidnapped by FARC rebels and spirited off to the jungle. Her account of the 6½ years she spent in captivity is, even at 528 pages, riveting: there are anacondas, piranhas, food shortages, forced marches through the rainforest, sadistic captors, life-threatening illnesses—and the growing certainty that she is both too valuable a pawn for the rebels and too inconvenient an activist for the government ever to be freed.

To evade detection, FARC commanders kept hostages on the move, sometimes cramming them into tiny barracks, and other times forcing them to sleep in the open. Betancourt escaped several times but was always recaptured, and eventually chained by the neck to a tree. But as she makes clear, she was not well-liked by the other hostages, several of whom rushed to press with damning memoirs accusing her of “haughtiness” and “selfishness.”

While Betancourt doesn’t address these charges directly, she writes that many hostages—who included fellow politicians and three American military contractors—were envious of the international attention her plight attracted. Certainly, meanness rather than grace emerged under pressure: cliques formed, captives began snitching on (and filching from) each other, and bitter squabbling and schadenfreude were the norm. Betancourt doesn’t pretend she was above any of this. “I, too, had run up to the stewpot in the hope of having a better piece . . . We were all alike, entangled in our ugly little pettiness.”

It’s easy to believe that in the jungle, Betancourt was a self-important pain in the ass at times. But in this surprisingly a political and tightly circumscribed memoir—there’s no discussion of her post-rescue divorce, or her ex-husband’s nasty kiss-and-tell book—she also proves herself to be a first-rate (mis)adventure writer. This jungle book is an indelible portrait of hell—which, as Sartre suggested, does turn out to be other people.

Ezra Levant

In recent months, Alberta has woken up to the fact that its energy-intensive oil sands operations, though an economic boon for the province—indeed the entire country—are fast becoming a PR disaster. With U.S. environmental groups charging that the oil patch is “Canada’s Avatar Sands,” the provincial government has wisely decided to go on the offensive. It’s running ads in New York’s Times Square that tout the desirability of importing oil from a friendly, responsible neighbour committed to investing in pollution-reducing technologies. A similar argument is delivered, not without bombast, by conservative author and former Western Standard magazine publisher Ezra Levant in his new book Ethical Oil. Levant suggests the true cost of oil shouldn’t be limited to calculations that include greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants, but also the blood on the hands of the rogues’ gallery of autocratic regimes that account for much of the world’s current oil production. “On every key measure, from women’s rights, to gay rights, to Aboriginal rights, to the sharing of oil wealth equitably among workers, to environmental protection, Canada is hands down the most ethical exporter of oil in the world,” Levant argues. He also questions the motives of anti-oil-sands groups, arguing convincingly that Canada, with its commitment to free speech, is a much easier place for activists to stage a credible-looking campaign than in places like Saudi Arabia or Iran, creating a perverse situation where the most conscientious of the bunch is subjected to the worst scrutiny. However, Levant seems to dismiss the possibility that more is expected of Canada precisely because of its sturdy democracy and global reputation. Nor does he spend nearly as much effort challenging the promises and claims made by Ottawa, the province and big oil companies, which stand to reap huge rewards from the billions being invested in northern Alberta. It’s a potentially troubling omission given BP’s recent spill, an environmental disaster that appears to have been the direct result of lax government oversight and reckless corporate decision-making.

Richard B. Wright

In 1658, in Cromwell’s Puritan England, a 70-year-old housekeeper, who happens to be William Shakespeare’s illegitimate daughter, looks back over her life. Wright, winner of the Giller, Governor General’s and Trillium awards for Clara Callan, is best known as a chronicler of modest Ontario lives, and his Jacobean tale seems a considerable departure for him. But the changes lie primarily in setting. At 73, Wright’s gifts as a novelist, notably here his ability to craft extraordinarily believable female characters, remain in full swing, as do his eternal interests, including his intense explorations of his characters’ interior lives. The setting even acts to highlight his narrative strengths: Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard is a smartly paced, lively and Shakespearean story of the many-splendoured varieties of love.

And there are enough Shakespearean echoes to please any bardolator, including the title’s ironic reference to the fact so many models of human affairs—think star-crossed lovers—are captured in the playwright’s works. Narrator Linny was born in 1588, to a mother both unlucky and unwise in love. In her mid-20s, Mam as Linny called her mother, has an Anne Hathaway-esque interlude with an 18-year-old country boy, although this one, unlike Shakespeare, was no poet, even if he shared a surname with George Chapman, one of the bard’s great rivals on the London stage. Her reputation shattered, Mam moves to London, where her essential optimism sends her into another doomed affair, this time with a rising young playwright.

In telling her tale, Linny’s preoccupation is not with the story of her times—the upheavals of the English Civil War rarely intrude—but with the lives intertwined with hers. Throughout this lovely novel, Linny, the plain daughter of a pretty mother, shows her resemblance to her father in everything from the cast of her brow to her insight into the human heart.

Meredith Maran

In 1988, at age 37, Meredith Maran accused her father of molesting her when she was a child—even though she didn’t remember sexual abuse taking place. Eight years later, she recanted after realizing she’d made up “repressed memories” of the experience. It seems trite to say “everyone was doing it,” but that in part is Maran’s justification in My Lie, a riveting memoir of her time on what she calls “Planet Incest.”

As a journalist covering the spate of sensational “repressed memory syndrome” cases that emerged in the 1980s, Maran became a committed advocate for adult “incest survivors.” The work drew her into the emerging industry of mental-health professionals who coaxed out “repressed memories.” Professional and personal lines blurred: Maran’s obsession with her job contributed to the breakdown of her marriage; soon after she became romantically involved with a female incest survivor who stoked her misconception that she too was abused as a child.

Maran is an engaging storyteller, at her best exploring how she reconfigured her memories to justify the allegation. Less satisfying is her coverage of the familial fallout, which doesn’t always add up. Her brother supported her yet allowed his children to see their grandfather, while her two boys grew up estranged from him. Her reconciliation with her father, by then ill with Alzheimer’s, lacks contrition on her part. At times, Maran’s glibness grates: she writes of wishing Hallmark had a “Happy Birthday, Dad. I’m sorry I falsely accused you of molesting me” card. Now an advocate for “false memory” victims, Maran still frames herself a victim. Exploring how neuroscience has proven even illusory memories feel real, she has the temerity to joke: “my neural pathways made me do it.” Near the book’s end, Maran quotes psychologist Elizabeth Loftus referring to false memory syndrome as “the major mental health scandal of the 20th century.” My Lie provides an eye-opening exposé of how the 20th century’s Salem witch trials came to be.

Tim Cook

Anyone with a passing interest in the place of the First World War in Canadian history can easily guess the first man in Cook’s dual biography. Beyond truculent, defence minister Sam Hughes was widely considered nasty and unstable at the time, and not just by his political enemies. But the butcher of the title is not so obvious: the Great War was a conflict that consumed cannon fodder like no other, and Arthur Currie, the general in charge of the Canadian Corps on the Western Front, actually had a reputation for being as sparing as possible with his men’s lives. Still, 60,000 Canadians died and another 173,000 returned home maimed in body or mind, most of them on Currie’s watch.

An embittered Hughes, who was forced from cabinet in 1916 but remained an MP, certainly thought Currie had charges to answer to. Hughes rose in the Commons in 1919 and demanded a court martial, particularly for Currie’s last assault on the last day of the war, telling the shocked House that, “You cannot find one Canadian soldier who will not curse the name of the officer who ordered the attack on Mons.” Although Hughes died in 1921, others carried on the vendetta until it culminated, in 1928, in one of the most sensational libel trials in Canadian history. Currie won, and while “madman” still sticks to Hughes’s name, “butcher” has faded away from the general’s legacy.

But not completely, as this masterful book details. Cook, who won the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction last year for Shock Troops, is the Great War historian at the Canadian War Museum. Like any historian, he knows that all battles of words over past shooting battles are really about how a war should be remembered, and he knows too that the case of the First World War will never be settled. Canadians will always be proud of what their fledgling nation accomplished in four years of bloody conflict, and never be sure if it was worth the cost. The Great War haunts us still.

Anna Porter

Twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Anna Porter, founder of Key Porter Books, has written a page turner that takes us to the heart of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. A long-time observer of the region from afar, Porter, who has lived in Canada since 1970, brings a singular perspective to this journey of discovery: she was living in Hungary in 1956, when Russian tanks rolled into Budapest to crush the revolution. She and her mother fled the country shortly thereafter.

One couldn’t ask for a more well-connected tour guide. Porter deftly lays out the tumultuous history of these countries, interweaving it with a series of recent personal conversations with such storied members of the resistance as Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik and their former Communist overlords (at 87, General Jaruzelski is still wearing those tinted glasses), and a range of politicians, businessmen, intellectuals and archivists.
Porter asks questions we’d all like answers to: have they come to terms with their past? What do the people make of their new-found freedoms? How open have these countries been with their Communist-era archives, and, finally, what are we to make of the recent resurgence of fascism, ethnic hatred and anti-Semitism?

What Porter discovered was surprising. We learn that some of Poland’s former Solidarity stalwarts now feel their former “enemy,” General Jaruzelski, may in fact have been a hero of sorts. (One leading light of the Solidarity movement even has coffee with the old general from time to time.) On the Hungarian side, we meet Krisztina Morvik, who once studied at King’s College in London, was a Fulbright Scholar, and recently worked at the European Commission of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Turns out she’s now one of the rising stars of the “anti-Semitic, anti-gypsy” Jobbik party.

Highly readable and enormously informative, this is a book that will make your head spin.