Few have written as perceptively, or as gracefully, about how the North American landscape—city and country—has come to look the way it does as Rybczynski, a Canadian-American architect and urbanist. Along the way, he has developed a reputation for crafting elegant little books on small topics, like the history of the screwdriver. This time, though, he’s written an elegant little book on a very large subject: the future of our cities. “Cities don’t grow in a vacuum” is Rybczynski’s motto, as he succinctly parses influential concepts from the past. He considers their critics, too, including Jane Jacobs, with whom he at times disagrees—mildly but bravely, considering she approaches the status of sainthood among urbanists, nowhere more so than in her adopted home of Toronto. Most importantly, Rybczynski contrasts the kind of cities North Americans seem to want and the kind our environmental crises suggest we need, “which turn out to be not at all the same.”
He heaps praise on the City Beautiful movement that flourished before the Great War and was later slammed by Jacobs for the top-down nature of its planning and its imposing public structures. Yet take those buildings away, the author points out, and our cities would be vastly diminished. The best of them—the New York Public Library, for one—consistently top polls as North America’s favourite buildings. Jacobs didn’t like Garden Cities either, although the self-contained enclaves are highly energy-efficient, because she believed in a laissez-faire model for complex metropolises.
In Rybczynski’s opinion, Jacobs was quite right in arguing that government planning on the kind of Stalinesque scale that marked the 1950s and ’60s was destructive to American cities, but he also believes that without some planning, nothing lasting would ever get built. And good, livable results will never be one-size-fits-all. North Americans love low-density (i.e. suburban) living, but environmental logic (i.e. rising fuel prices) will exert densification pressure. The future city will play out this tension between our needs and wants.
– Brian Bethune
“Half a life ago, I killed a girl.” So starts this memoir, which smarts like an open wound. Weeks before heading off to college, Darin Strauss was driving some friends to play minigolf at 11 a.m. when a cyclist swerved across two lanes of traffic, directly in front of his family’s Oldsmobile. The police call these “dart out” deaths; insurers call them “no-fault fatalities.” Strauss was blameless, yet guilt and grief took hold of his every thought.
In plain-spoken prose, he describes finishing his senior year at the high school where the late Celine Zilkes—not her real name—had been a junior. His first therapy session featured “The Shrink,” who flaunted his Porsche and played the Footloose soundtrack while driving Strauss to the crash site. (It’s a scene that will send mental-health practitioners diving for cover.) He writes, “I’m not sure what it says about the profession—whether this is psychotherapy or just Long Island psychotherapy, where all problems can be extenuated by making good time on the L.I.E. [Long Island Expressway]”
Trying to wrangle his feelings, Strauss attended Celine’s funeral, where her grieving mother gave him an assignment: from now on, he must live his life for two. That burden never left Strauss, who suddenly got serious about his studies. He treated university like a “witness protection program” and went on to write three novels.
This book is an accomplished curiosity, as you’d expect, coming from quirky McSweeney’s press. The short chapters—sometimes just one paragraph—cut to the heart of Strauss’s torment. Every event in his life came with a companion thought: Celine will never get to hold this can of soda, never go on this date, never get married.
Part talking cure, part apology, Half a Life is short but emotionally draining. “I am grown now. And because I am, I can say no . . . to the hectoring, blistery hurt,” he reports, finally. It will be interesting to see if the boil truly is lanced, or if Strauss’s next work of fiction—like his others—contains elements of his trauma.
– Joanne Latimer
The author of well-received biographies of Charles Bukowski and Bob Dylan, Sounes sets out in Fab, as he tells us in a groaner of an analogy, to study McCartney “as an entomologist might put another kind of beetle under the microscope.” McCartney did not sanction the book, so Sounes had to dig through everything ever written about the man and interview over 220 of his friends, family, neighbours, associates and fellow musicians.
From all that research, he spools out a balanced account of McCartney’s life so far. All the big moments are here: his childhood in Liverpool, his mother’s death when he was 14, early Beatles gigs in Germany, breaking into America and the wild days of Beatlemania (Sounes is oddly committed to noting every time during this period that McCartney cheated on his then-girlfriend, Jane Asher). Then, McCartney’s marriage to his great love Linda Eastman (and her death in 1998 from breast cancer), the breakup of the Beatles and the creation of Wings, and his tabloid-fuelling second marriage to Heather Mills.
The thoroughness is impressive, but there isn’t much of significance that hasn’t been covered in earlier bios, with the exception of some saucy details from the Mills divorce. As always, McCartney comes across at different times as a ladies’ man, a family man, spiteful, generous, controlling. But should one care to know how McCartney sat during his interrogation in a Japanese prison after one of several drug charges (cross-legged), then this book is the ticket. Sounes clearly respects his subject, but at points seems to agree with film producer David Puttnam, who says that after the Beatles, McCartney was never able to put in the extra 15 per cent required to make good work great. Sounes’s own work in Fab is certainly good, but an extra 15 per cent might have made it better, if only to clean up repetition and the overuse of transitions like “as we shall soon see,” to motivate readers to stick with his 560-page lab report.
– Jen Cutts
Chris Knox struggles with his second book while trying, half-heartedly, to repair a strained marriage, connect with his kid, quit smoking and stop nursing a bottle of vodka. In other words, we know this guy. We’ve heard him whine in books and movies. But Wiersema does the unexpected: he plants Knox and his son in the middle of a ripping fantasy quest.
Readers have to suspend disbelief only once. We’re required to believe in the magical power of a book to render 11-year-old boys catatonic after stealing their minds and souls. (Just play along. It’s fantasy.) Chris’s son David falls into an autistic-like state, then performs feats of bravery in a parallel kingdom filled with soldiers, mystics, swords and even a tavern wench. His mental quest unfolds in sync with a book his father reads aloud to him each night. During the day, Chris has to solve the mystery of the spellbinding book, which leads him to Vancouver’s Wiccan subculture and a library devoted to the occult.
Wiersema mesmerizes with this artful telling of two interlocking tales. Jumping back and forth between David’s fantasy kingdom and the real world, both plots drive the story forward and blur together at the end, resolving in a way that will no doubt attract Hollywood producers. (John Cusack or Nicolas Cage could play the hangdog dad.) All this makes Bedtime Story a page-turner. It’s not entirely clear, however, if the book is skewed for young readers or adults. The bits about Chris’s career slump and bad marriage might bore kids, while grown-ups may skim over the minutiae of David’s Tolkien-like quest. Still, the book is hard to put down once Chris springs into action and lets us forget he’s just another ineffectual writer.
– Joanne Latimer
In conventional historical memory, the 20th century was marked by two major arms races—a naval competition between Britain and Germany that helped spark the First World War, and the nuclear missile contest between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which somehow avoided catastrophe. The interwar years, though, are often presented as an object lesson in the folly of not matching, gun for gun, Hitler’s military mobilization: the Western democracies essentially encouraged Nazi aggression by turning the other cheek. All wrong, counters Maiolo, who teaches in the department of war studies at King’s College in London. Not only was there a pre-Second World War arms race, it was instrumental in igniting the greatest conflict in history.
Between the wars, soldiers in almost every would-be great power—men who tended to see the armed forces as the embodiment of their nations’ souls—drew a key lesson from the Great War. Martial prowess was no match for industrial might, and the latter required sufficient resources and—in most countries—dictatorial governments.
Maiolo’s marvelous revision of 1930s history proves his point in case after case, but none so neatly as that of Imperial Japan. If the empire did not have the resources to produce men and material, so its military’s reasoning ran, then Japan was vulnerable to its enemies; therefore it must seize much of weak China so as to control the iron, coal and cropland needed to take on powerful countries. But the China war increased tensions with the U.S., inspiring an American arms build-up and oil embargo. That in turn inexorably led the Japanese to a great gamble: Pearl Harbor, planned not to knock the U.S. out of action, but to gain enough time to gobble up the European colonial states of Southeast Asia and thereby gain the ability to fight the Americans to a standstill. The logic of arms races, Maiolo argues, is always use it or lose it, but their deeper impact is the threat they pose to civil liberties.
– Brian Bethune
If you have never heard of Therafields, you might be surprised to learn that, beginning in 1967, a commune with some 900 members flourished on a farm northwest of Toronto. You might be surprised, but not very. After all, those were the halcyon days of the counterculture—living off the land and plotting world peace was hardly unheard of. But while most hippies looked to rabble-rousers such as Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters for inspiration, the Therafielders had rather more staid influences: Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein, for example. Psychoanalysis was the raison d’être. At least, at first.
Therafields got its start in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, where Lea Hindley-Smith first worked as a therapist. Hindley-Smith came to Canada with her young family from England in 1948, at age 36. Little is known about her formal training in psychoanalysis, but by the early ’60s, she had a busy practice. Gifted at intuiting patients’ innermost conflicts, she was relentless about pushing them to resolution. She famously treated some 50 nuns and priests, many of whom left their orders after experiencing one of her “house groups,” wherein patients lived together to work through interpersonal problems. She also trained a select group of patients to become therapists, among them the celebrated Canadian poet bpNichol and Grant Goodbrand, this book’s author.
Rural expansion was born of a need to accommodate Hindley-Smith’s “marathons”—weekend-long therapy sessions for upwards of 80 people. But the times were a-changin’. Therafields began to sink into debt, and gradually psychoanalysis took a back seat to more practical enterprises such as farming and construction. By the mid ’70s, a group of therapists—including Goodbrand—turned against Hindley-Smith, who was by then preoccupied with diabetes and her unfaithful Latvian lover. Shortly after a newspaper story in 1980 described Therafields as a cult, most members jumped ship. Group love was out, and the lofty days of “therapy in the fields” were over.
– Dafna Izenberg