An elephant worthy of Cervantes -

An elephant worthy of Cervantes

Plus, revelations from Pickton’s survivors, tales of Palin from the campaign trail, a beguiling twentysomething memoir and histories of malaria and the common cold

Palani Mohan/GETTY IMAGES‘The Elephant’s Journey’: Saramago’s final book is both a departure—a Renaissance-style human comedy—and a fitting epitaph for the Nobel laureate

José Saramago

Two years before his death at 87 in June, José Saramago—voice of peasant sensibility and hyper-modern stylist, unrepentant Marxist, and recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature—completed his last novel, now available in English. It’s more a fairy tale than a novel, certainly not the sort of searing social commentary that made his reputation in works such as Blindness. But Saramago’s take on a remarkable historical fact—the slow progress of an elephant from Lisbon to Vienna in 1551, a wedding gift from the king of Portugal to the archduke of Austria—is as much a satire, albeit far funnier and more gentle than most, as anything he ever wrote.

Saramago is well-known for his all-encompassing view of creation, the way in which dogs often have a major presence in his novels, the better to remind readers that humans are not the only creatures who matter (or feel, or even think). Naturally, that rings true even more for his elephant, a beast as kindly as any human in the tale—when, affronted, he kicks a priest trying to exorcize a supposed demon, the elephant is careful to break no bones—and often notably smarter, as befits his name, Solomon. He’s at least as much a leading character as his philosophical Indian driver, who goes by Subhro until the Austrians confirm his utter fish-out-of-water status by renaming him Fritz.

The Elephant’s Journey is, in a very real sense, Saramago’s late-in-life musing on his craft. He constantly breaks into the narrative, on one occasion to explain that many things happen not quite by chance but because one word follows “sweetly and naturally” after another, and so drives the story in a new direction. Or to praise the virtues of onomatopoeia: when a man on a mist-shrouded path disappears from sight, Saramago notes: “He went plof. Imagine if we’d had to provide a detailed description. It would have taken at least 10 pages. Plof.” But it’s also a charming story, a Renaissance-style human comedy reminiscent of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. For a great writer’s epitaph, it doesn’t get any better than that.

– Brian Bethune

Stevie Cameron

In a story desperately lacking heroes, On the Farm’s greatest revelations concern the women who managed to escape Willie Pickton. The hitchhiker, for example, who stabbed the serial killer with a pencil, gouged his eye with her thumb and leapt from his van. He watched her run, “laughing his head off.”

Pickton, as the skilled investigative journalist Stevie Cameron tells it, is a psychopath of the first order, who both loves women and loves killing them. Much of the new ground she covers concerns his childhood, a kind of portrait of a serial killer as a young man. He was dirt poor, stank of pig manure and dead animals, never bathed or changed clothes, and was mercilessly taunted for it. His mother Louise was a gem—she “didn’t pay attention to her teeth and eventually most of them rotted out,” Cameron writes. “She lost most of her hair and covered the remaining wisps with a kerchief. Her chin sprouted so many hairs she developed a little goatee.”

Perhaps no writer knows this story better than Cameron, who, starting in 2002, lived part-time in Vancouver to chronicle it. This book, her second on the subject, will go down as the definitive resource on the Pickton affair. It clocks in, however, at a daunting 700 pages—its greatest weakness. The behaviour of Vancouver police—the childish jealousies, turf wars and stall tactics—is worth recounting in all its pathetic glory, a lesson to the force and police elsewhere. But much else could have been left out.

Pickton, Cameron writes, in answer to the questions still swirling around the case, was neither stupid nor incapable of single-handedly murdering 48 women—although those closest to him, she makes clear, knew exactly what was going on.

– Nancy Macdonald

Sonia Shah

Forget the “butterfly effect.” It is the mosquito on whose wings and whims the world’s fortunes have ridden for the last 500,000 years. As the “vector” of malaria, the Anopheles mosquito was there for the fall of the Roman Empire and the American Revolution. It could be photoshopped into iconic images from the Bataan Death March and the Ho Chi Minh trail, à la Forrest Gump, and played a major role in the explosion of AIDS deaths in the 1980s. Today, the mosquito infects up to 500 million people with malaria annually.

And yet, as Sonia Shah documents, it remained undercover until 1896. Before that, “the fever” was largely believed to be caused by “miasmas,” vapours given off by stagnant water, rotting plants and dead animals. Bad air, in other words; “mal’ aria” in Italian.

In reality, malaria is wrought by a parasite called Plasmodium, which Shah renders as cunning as a secret agent in her impressive account of the intricate process through which it infiltrates the human bloodstream. But her tone is grave as she testifies to Plasmodium’s tenacity in building resistance each time a new malaria remedy is developed—even to DDT, the pesticide meant to beget the end of days for malaria (“Let us spray,” malariologists joked).

Above all, Shah unpacks the complexity of malaria, showing how its impact is dictated by a dizzying array of variables—which species of Anopheles encounters which mutation of Plasmodium encounters which degree of human immunity. Then there are social forces such as tourism, war and technology that alter water and blood sources available to mosquitoes.

Treating malaria-stricken communities is not straightforward either, since some victims consider it more nuisance than threat, not worth warding off with medicine or treated nets. Malaria, writes Shah, is a “naturally fluctuating phenomenon tied to long-term trends in climate, environment and population movements” that will almost certainly defy annihilation, no matter how many $10 bed nets we send to Africa. She quotes malariologist Lewis Hackett, who in 1937 concluded that malaria is “a thousand different diseases.” Which is why, argues Shah, each must be “unravelled on its own terms.”

– Dafna Izenberg

Meghan McCain

Republican presidential candidate John McCain’s daughter had her moments of notoriety on the 2008 campaign trail, a meltdown here and an inappropriate photo there. The 25-year-old blogger is remarkably open about such pratfalls in her enticingly named but decidedly celibate campaign memoir. Staffers she loathed, on the other hand, are protected by pseudonyms, although political junkies will presumably have little trouble identifying “Mr. Burns,” an investment banker turned campaign control freak. But no matter: what readers really want to know is what Meghan made of Sarah Palin and the rest of Alaska’s first family. McCain, who is very much not from the Republicans’ social conservative wing, wastes little time getting to the point.

First impressions of the governor were good. “She was wearing a cool pair of red patent leather peep-toe shoes. They were hip, even trendy.” Palin’s reputation as a maverick also seemed hopeful to McCain, a Republican believer in gay marriage. The family was another matter: why, McCain wondered, did Bristol “have a giant blanket covering her stomach?” Next she became aware of the Pygmalion-style campaign her father’s advisers were waging to educate Palin on policy issues—fought every step, McCain says, by Palin, a devotee of the “gut-think” approach to politics. And then there was the constant media attention Palin was not only garnering, but actively seeking. By the day after the election, Meghan and her friends were tossing pillows at the TV when Palin came on.

McCain writes about the staffers’ parallel Pygmalion efforts, meant to change her—new hairstyle, new clothes, softer makeup, and, please God, far fewer f-bombs—without noticeable irony. (That last goal was never reached, and Meghan was eventually banished from the main campaign.) There is much more about the surreal life on the campaign trail, enough to earn her sympathy and make Dirty Sexy Politics a cautionary tale: the relatives of anyone running for president should consider moving to Antarctica for the duration.

– Brian Bethune

Iain Reid

Nothing causes a twentysomething university graduate without a career more anxiety than the question, “What are you up to these days?” Iain Reid, a twentysomething university graduate without a career, would prefer the conversation “turn to something less discomfiting, like the weather, religion, or war.” But when he lands a promising part-time job for CBC Radio in Ottawa, he leaves Toronto, where he’s lived for nearly 10 years, and moves home to Lilac Hill, his parents’ hobby farm in eastern Ontario.

The year that follows provides the narrative for Reid’s first book, a laugh-out-loud comic memoir with a cast of characters including a mom who suspects she may be allergic to her cellphone, an English professor dad who loves shredding redundant documents, and a fleet of cats, dogs, ducks, sheep and one guinea fowl named Lucius. What saves the story from being a typical fish-out-of-water tale is Reid’s heartfelt look at the foibles of being a family. From his first night back home, when his parents interrupt him in the washroom to demonstrate the intricacies of flushing the toilet, to the day he teaches his mom what a cursor is, Reid finds humour and warmth in unexpected places.

When his CBC gig turns from occasional to never, he comes to grips with the fact that he’s nearly 30 and living a semi-retired lifestyle, with his folks. But Reid isn’t trying to teach anybody how to eat, pray or love: he simply observes himself, his family and all their laughable idiosyncrasies, tender moments and shared meals (you’ll crave a cup of coffee and some farm-fresh fried eggs when you’re finished) over the course of a year at enchanting Lilac Hill.

With parents as understanding and supportive as Reid’s, it’s a wonder he left at all.

– Jessica allen

Jennifer Ackerman

Ancient Romans thought the best way to avoid a cold was to kiss the hairy muzzle of a mouse. By the late 1800s, Americans preferred a water and borax solution to “irrigate” the nose. Neither worked, of course. While researchers have come up with vaccines for polio and the H1N1 flu, the common cold has defied all efforts to curb its power.

Science writer Jennifer Ackerman delves deep into the messy, expensive business of the common rhinovirus, even getting deliberately infected as part of a research project. Certainly the statistics are nothing to sniff at: humans get up to 200 colds in a lifetime—the equivalent of five years of hacking, snuffling and having a sore throat, including a year in bed—which costs the U.S. economy alone an estimated US$60 billion annually.

In addition to detailing exactly how the virus works, Ackerman delights in busting the many myths, and confirming a few truths, that have been around for millenia. For example, those superciliously healthy colleagues in the office who “never get colds” have just as many cold antibodies as those flattened by the illness. They just don’t have the nasty symptoms. And, while anti-bacterial wipes are useless against a virus, chicken soup does appear to ease symptoms.

The best parts of the book are the anecdotes, such as the most public cold in history. An hour after Apollo 7 lifted off from Cape Canaveral in 1968, commander Wally Schirra started feeling that classic first symptom, a scratch in his throat. While sneezing and coughing is miserable enough on Earth, it was hellish in the close confines of a zero-gravity command module, with seemingly the entire world watching. Then there is the case of the expensive used tissue. In 2008 actress Scarlett Johanssen, suffering from a cold on The Tonight Show, decided to put her pain to a good cause: she auctioned off the tissue used on the show for charity. It made a staggering US$5,300.

– Patricia Treble