A Paris biography that reads like Balzac - Macleans.ca

A Paris biography that reads like Balzac

Plus, why the 21st century belongs to Canada, the collapse of GM, Obama’s first year, strong opinions about CanLit, and some very dangerous animals


Graham Robb

Take an idea, a philosophical opinion rather, that the history of a place isn’t rooted in the mud from which it was raised, but in the millions who have lived and died there; apply it to the iconic city of the Western imagination, home to some of its most eminent figures; and weave together beguiling little character sketches from the past two centuries. The result is an entrancing biography, a life, with interludes, of Paris that reads like a Balzac novel. Robb opens with a young Napoleon Bonaparte, not identified—though many will guess—until the end of his chapter. The newly minted lieutenant, just 18, arrived in town two years before the French Revolution broke out, seeking renewal of the royal mulberry subsidy that kept his family precariously embedded among the petty nobility and, not incidentally, to get rid of his virginity.

Napoleon’s private journal notes of his encounter with a Palais-Royal prostitute (“Is there no profession better suited to your state of health?” he asked) is both a window into the future emperor—intelligent, self-consciously proud, youthfully pompous and naive—and a moment in the life of the city. It allows Robb, who repeatedly features the same neighbourhood, buildings and streets in different contexts, to make his first mention of the Palais quarter and its famous whores—officers in the armies that eventually overthrew Napoleon urged their men on with tales of the delights to be found there. And as it begins, so the story continues, as Robb moves from Parisian to Parisian, including novelists Émile Zola and Marcel Proust, urban planner Baron Haussmann (naturally, for no other individual so profoundly affected the very bones of the city), detective (and criminal) Eugène-François Vidocq, French president François Mitterrand, and even Adolf Hitler, Parisian for a day, on his lightning 1940 visit to the jewel among his conquests. Each sketch not only says something about the people in it—Hitler’s nicely captures the mass murderer as artistic poseur—but also illuminates the enduring story of the City of Light, even in its darkest moments.

Alex Taylor III

The collapse of GM in 2008 had less to do with catastrophic market conditions than with a long-term paucity of vision dating back to the Corvair scandal of the mid-’60s, argues Fortune magazine writer Alex Taylor III. As years went on, the once-mighty GM was failing even as it succeeded: in 1997, it still had over 30 per cent of market share and a record $6.7 billion in earnings—and yet due to bloated infrastructure its profit was minuscule. As someone who documented the auto industry for over 30 years, Taylor owns up to 20/20 hindsight. Halfway through the book, he writes: “Looking back, I continue to marvel at how long-lived GM’s problems were.” He continues to marvel, ad nauseam, over the course of the concluding half, and doesn’t let himself off the hook for giving various auto execs the benefit of the doubt in fawning articles.

Unfortunately, it’s those articles that Taylor uses as source material; it’s like he’s telling this story by merely flipping through his old clippings, rather than new investigative reporting and interviews. Much of Sixty to Zero is a litany of bad decisions and assignation of blame. Jack Smith (1992-2000) is portrayed as the only GM CEO who might have had a chance of turning around the company’s fortune by starting to consolidate GM’s unwieldy myriad operations and competing brands. And yet Smith’s legacy also included the money pit that was its Saturn division: it only made an operating profit for two of its 20 years, siphoned shrinking resources from GM’s other brands, and, Taylor estimates, cost the company as much as $15 billion.

Ultimately, GM’s fate was sealed not by the United Auto Workers or Japanese innovation or gas prices but by GM’s insular, change-resistant executives. What’s most curious is Taylor’s own admission of culpability as part of a sycophantic business media. Referring to a wildly optimistic story he wrote in January 2008 about a potential turnaround for GM, he writes: “I had swallowed the GM Kool-Aid for the last time.”

Brian Crowley, Jason Clemons and Niels Veldhuis

Sir Wilfrid Laurier, as it turns out, was not so much wrong as a shade off in his timing. It’s not the 20th century that would belong to Canada—it’s the 21st, according to Crowley, managing director for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute for Public Policy, and his co-authors in a cheerful (if bracing) survey of our future prospects. Actually, Laurier may not have been even that much wrong: Canadians let the Liberal prime minister down when the benighted electorate rejected free trade in 1911, putting a 78-year crimp in our national potential. But we have grown to love free trade, or at least live with it, and today, write the authors in a book subtitled Moving Out of America’s Shadow, the stars are aligned for Canadian prospects, especially in comparison with our neighbours to the south.

It’s hard to argue with their convincing case. The U.S., as they point out, can’t seem to get its act together in any number of vital areas, from the national debt to tax policy. In contrast, after a hardscrabble decade of reform in the late 1980s and ’90s, Canada has much of its needed institutional infrastructure in place. Our tax structure, despite recent Harper government micromanaging of the sort that sends Crowley et al. around the bend (a tax credit for home reno here, a tax break for transit passes there), is a model of simplicity compared with America’s, which the authors declare to be “nearly impossible for average citizens to navigate” and consequently a burden on the economy. Just about everything else plays out in the same way: the U.S. in the mire for the foreseeable future, Canada looking good. But a clarion call to action, not bragging, is the authors’ aim. Like Canada in the ’90s, America will eventually turn around. If we want to seize our opportunity for a fair share of North American growth, the authors warn, we still have work to do in health care (the costly elephant in the room), and, above all, in ensuring the stimulus deficit doesn’t become permanent.

Jonathan Alter

When it comes to political writing, you’ve generally got two choices. Journalists deliver immediacy, book writers offer greater detail and a sense of perspective. Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter attempts to marry the two with The Promise: President Obama, Year One. By focusing tightly on Barack Obama’s first year in power, Alter the journalist stays remarkably current, covering events right up to the end of March, including Obama’s signature health care deal. On the other hand, Alter the author interviewed 200 key players in the Obama White House, giving him a comprehensive behind-closed-doors view that’s only possible with a book.

This hybrid style works well if you’re curious to know what the Obama White House is like on the inside, how the President makes decisions and who said what at the big meeting. It’s all here. And yet what Alter gains in immediacy and detail, he must occasionally give up in perspective. The book’s unspoken conceit is that Obama’s first year is the most significant of his term. Maybe, but it seems a little early to make that call. In trying to establish the historical importance of everything Obama does, Alter occasionally exaggerates his case.

Consider the chapter on Afghanistan. Canadians will find much of interest here as Alter describes the cool, analytical process by which the President approached the issue, including 20 hours spent carefully grilling experts. However, when the Pentagon tried to box him into approving 40,000 additional troops, Alter claims Obama’s push-back was “the most direct assertion of presidential authority over the U.S. military since President Truman fired General MacArthur in 1951.”

When general William Westmoreland asked for 206,000 more troops for Vietnam following the Tet offensive, president Lyndon Johnson similarly convened a “wise men” assembly and Westmoreland never got his troops. The Pentagon got much of what it wanted from Obama. So which was more historic? It’ll be three more years before anyone can fully assess Obama’s first term. Until then, The Promise provides a good close look at the first quarter.

Deadly Kingdom: The Book of dangerous animals
Gordon Grice

This darkly fascinating book might add a few words to your vocabulary: anthropophagy (the eating of humans), or the verb to flense (to strip off skin). With evident relish, nature writer Gordon Grice, a self-described “specialist of disgust,” catalogues the innumerable ways that animals can kill us (shredding, goring and paralyzing are among the top methods).

Deadly Kingdom is Grice’s second work of what has been described as “natural-history noir”; his first, The Red Hourglass: Lives of the Predators, dealt mainly with spiders and snakes. Deadly Kingdom surveys the entire kingdom, from man-eaters like sharks and bears to lesser-known attackers like jellyfish and pigs. Grice’s retelling of the encounters is unaffected, but he has some fun; describing the capture of a German crow with a habit of dive-bombing humans, he tells us police “finally got the bird drunk on schnapps and arrested it.”

Grice was clearly the sort of kid who left the house at dawn with a packed lunch and a bag full of bug jars. He peppers Deadly Kingdom with his own stories, and defends animals as only behaving as they are meant to. The world, writes Grice, can be a brutal place for all of us, at times not for the “sentimental or squeamish.” That might serve as a warning to readers of his book. But there’s an accident-scene quality to Deadly Kingdom: it’s hard to stop scanning the pages for signs of blood.

T.F. Rigelhof

Three decades of reading Canadian fiction—some 600 short-story collections and a thousand novels—have given Rigelhof, a former professor of literature at Montreal’s Dawson College, and Globe and Mail book critic, a lot to say about our national literature. And more right than most to say it, even if he isn’t everyone’s favourite book reviewer. Rigelhof has always been more fan than critic, and often in his brief flicks at Canadian titles of the past quarter-century, he doesn’t say much more than that he likes the book: the one-page summation of Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water (1993) gives a plot summary, a history of the author, a declaration that the stories told within are complex, and a blurb—it “amazes and delights wherever you open it up.” Rigelhof does far better, though, in his compare-and-contrast overviews, as in his longer piece on five Margaret Atwood novels.

But while Rigelhof’s actual reviews can be bloodless and his groupings close to incomprehensible—why write that Janet Turner Hospital’s writing “should be discussed in the same breath as Brian Moore’s” and then fail to do so?—he makes up for it in the brief interludes he provides between those loosely bundled books. He tackles, among other matters, whether CanLit is an old fogies’ establishment construction—focused almost parodically on cottage-country settings and historical angst, jealously prejudiced against younger writers—and who counts as a Canadian writer. Both are perennially contested questions and for both Rigelhof has abruptly decisive answers: no (there, there, young man), and, anyone who claims citizenship. Mavis Gallant, praised for her very lack of national allegiance (post-postmodern, post-post-colonial, belonging to no one but herself), is as Canadian as anyone, says Rigelhof. Only overtly turning your back on the place, like Bharati Mukerjhee, disqualifies you for Canadianism. In other words, Hooked is a perfect book of lists: on almost every page, there’s something to nod along to or something to quibble about, or both, and—often enough to keep a reader awake—something that makes you want to throw it at a wall.

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