April 22, 2002
Choices for Book Day


Several years ago, the lean and hungry Ottawa journalist Lawrence Martin went to the Writers' Trust of Canada -- the daycare centre for indigent authors -- with an idea. Why not, for one day a year, ask every Canadian to go out and buy a book, any book, any subject, even a book that hadn't been coloured yet. The Trust leapt upon the bright proposal and so, this year, April 23 has been designated the seventh annual Canada Book Day.

It's a swell idea, presuming it might provide a royalty, before sundown, to some broken-down author who then can afford possibly a mickey of gin. Your scribbler offers some shy suggestions for April 23.

The finest book published in the past 12 months is Churchill: A Biography, by Roy Jenkins (University of Toronto Press). It details how the often struggling schoolboy educated himself for greatness -- by reading. It's a long slog, at 912 pages, but worth every page of it. Lord Jenkins is certainly no Tory, being a former Labour chancellor of the exchequer, but he reluctantly concludes that the fat guy with the cigar who was larger than life was "the greatest human being ever to occupy 10 Downing Street."

In the same sort of league of giants -- it's all propaganda after all -- is The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst by academic David Nasaw (Houghton). The man who did "convergence" before the word was invented -- in the 1930s, he owned (having chosen his parents well) 28 newspapers, a Hollywood studio, radio stations and magazines. First a populist aiming for the White House, then a leading enemy of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his interventionist New Deal, he often shipped his wife and children and legions of minions on endless tours of Europe while he remained with mistress Marion Davies in his bizarre San Simeon estate in California.

A welcome book, confirming what we always suspected, is Shakedown: Exposing the Real Jesse Jackson, by investigative reporter Kenneth R. Timmerman (National Book Network), revealing among other things that the "Reverend" who until 2000 had no credentials to support that title did not, as he claims, cradle in his arms Martin Luther King at his death but smeared some blood on his sweater before appearing on TV.

A surprising book is The Future Jew, by Montreal's Michael Carin (MRW Press), whose previous two books on hashish smuggling and modern art were well reviewed. As not a Jew, this reviewer finds difficult Carin's view that Jews have not done enough to incorporate the Holocaust experience into their religion. But Judith Seid of Baltimore's Jewish Cultural Chavurah writes that "Carin's arguments are compelling and his conclusions inescapable. His elegant writing has created a wrenching Holocaust Haggadah that is more moving and penetrating than any religious ceremony could be."

Most hilarious tome is The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan (Raincoast Books) edited by The New Yorker's John Lahr. Tynan, who smoked himself to death, was the most brilliant Fleet Street theatre critic since G.B. Shaw. He was a close friend of Marlene Dietrich, who told him of her 1962 visit to the White House. Jack Kennedy poured her a drink and said -- it now being 6:30 p.m. -- "I hope you aren't in a hurry." She allowed she had a dinner engagement at seven. JFK: "That doesn't give us much time." Marlene, 16 years older: "No, Jack, I guess it doesn't." Jack took the superior position, "and it was all over sweetly and very soon." JFK, clad only in a towel, escorted her to an elevator man to fetch Marlene a car to get her to the Statler Hotel engagement and then asked, "Did you ever make it with my father?" "No, Jack. I never did." "Well," he replied, "that's one place I'm in first." She never saw him again.

Another excellent book is Pacific Press: The Unauthorized Story of Vancouver's Newspaper Monopoly (New Star Books, with a foreword courtesy of Pierre Berton) by communications professor Marc Edge explaining how Southam, despite owning both of Vancouver's papers, somehow couldn't make them consistently profitable.

Most poignant of all is historian Stanley Weintraub's Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce (Distican), detailing how on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, 1914, the warring soldiers in fetid trenches went out against officers' orders and shook hands, exchanged gifts, sang, drank, even played soccer -- and then went back the next morning with instructions to kill each other.

Most riveting of all is Caroline Alexander's The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition (Random House). Detailing how the Irish-born explorer Sir Ernest, trapped on ice for 15 months, his main mission now to save every one of his 27 men, got them all back alive to London only to find them in the middle of the 1914-1918 insanity. With millions lying dead in the battlefields of Europe, their survival story got a cool reception.

We cannot avoid, since this here magazine somehow forgot to review this book, Key Porter's F********ham's Fictionary of Facts & Follies -- the sixth successive best-seller in the series -- filled with sex, lust, incest, intrigues, scandals and possibly some politics.