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Bookends: Lawrence Hill Delves Deep into the Subject of Blood December 30, 2018

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Bookends: Lawrence Hill Delves Deep into the Subject of Blood

By Dan Davidson

April 25, 2018

– 964 words –



Blood: The Stuff of Life 



384 pages

House of Anansi Press


eBook edition



Lawrence Hill’s fascination with blood stems from an incident when he was very young and cut himself on a broken beer bottle. He splashed blood of the sidewalk all the way home – 10 houses away –hoping that he would need enough stitches to have bragging rights. It didn’t work out for him. Four were not enough. But he was impressed by how long it took for the blood to be washed away.

A few years later, he managed to crash through the glass door of a cottage and cut his upper arm.

He recounts these personal stories in chapter one, “Go Careful with That Blood of Mine: Blood Counts” of the 2013 Massey Lectures. Getting the contract for this chore took him away from writing The Illegalfor about a year, he says, but he found it worth while as it caused him to organize and formalize a theme which he had already noticed was prominent in his other fiction and non-fiction writing.

The resulting research is indicated by the footnotes, acknowledgements, and bibliography at the end of this book.

That first chapter is a short history of the study of blood, as well as a personal account of his own experience, first as a runner, and after, in his mid-forties, as a man with the same diabetes that seems to afflict all the male members of his family, going back several generations.

“Blood,” he concludes at the end of that chapter, ”is truly the stuff of life: a bold and enduring determinant of identity, race, gender, culture, citizenship, belonging, privilege, deprivation, athletic superiority and nationhood. It is so vital to our sense of ourselves, our abilities and our possibilities for survival that we have invested money, time, and energy in learning how to manipulate its very composition.”

There was a time in his life when Hill badly wanted to be a champion runner, and it took him some time to realize that he had pushed himself to the peak of his ability in that sport. It turned out that he wasn’t getting enough oxygen into his bloodstream. He was fit and thin, and remains so today, but at age 16 he “had the lung capacity of a forty year old smoker.”

His track coach at the time was David Steen, a reporter and gold medal athlete, who recommended he take up the study of English literature, for which we can all be grateful.

“We Want it Safe and We Want it Clean: Blood, Truth and Honour” examines what we have traditionally done with blood, how it has been used for sacrifice, offered to the nation, and used in medicine. In particular he dissects the issues related to stem cell research, blood donation policies, and the tainted blood scandals of the 1980s, which have affected the lives of a couple of families I know.

There is a revealing section on the scandalous career of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong.

“Comes by it Honestly: Blood and Belonging” begins by telling about his own quest as a man of mixed blood to define himself, and how this nearly led to his death while serving with Crossroads International in Niger in 1979. This chapter deals with matters of blood, personal identity and international affairs.

“From Humans to Cockroaches: Blood in the Veins of Power and Spectacle” deals with how blood in involved with violence, power and spectacle.

“Violence and power need blood,” he writes. “They feed on it as cars feed on gasoline. When we want to hurt people, entertain ourselves at their expense, or capitulate to our most base instincts, we lust for blood.”

This chapter cites works as diverse as the Bible,The Wizard of Oz, The Hunger Games, the Harry Potter novels, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

“Of Presidential Mistresses, Holocaust Survivors, and Long-Lost Ancestors: Secrets in Our Blood” ranges through literature and history. The presidential mistress was Sally Hemings and the president was Thomas Jefferson, who wrote strongly against miscegenation (the mixing of races) and yet had a son with this woman.

In science and home economics we know that blood stains are among the hardest to remove from anything, and it is a trope in television mysteries that it becomes visible with the use of certain chemicals and types of light even after it seems to have been removed.

Lady Macbeth knew the staying power of blood stains (“Out, damn’d spot! Out I say. What, will these hands ne’re be clean?”) ”as did the murderer Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, who cannot seem to get the blood from his hands, his axe, his boots, and certainly not from his imagination.

The Massey Lectures are broadcast annually by the CBC as part of its Ideas series. The original recordings, in the fall, take place live in five different cities. Last year’s series, with Payam Akhaven, had one of its sessions at the Yukon Arts Centre. The lectures are generally repeated sometime in the spring, often with some additional material.

Most of them are available in book form and as audio productions from Anansi Press. The books are either expanded versions of the talks or the talks are condensed versions of the chapters. Hill told me it as a bit like doing different essays on the same subject.

When I covered the Akhaven lectures, In Search of a Better World, I had the book open beside me and read the parts he wasn’t saying, so I could see how that worked. Some of the earlier lectures are available for free listening on the CBC Radio Ap, but Hill’s lectures not there any longer.




Bookends: One Woman’s Personal Struggle to save the Arctic’s Snow and Ice December 29, 2018

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Bookends: One Woman’s Personal Struggle to save the Arctic’s Snow and Ice

By Dan Davidson

April 4, 2018

-1025 words –


The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet

By Sheila Watt-CloutierThe Right to Be Cold

Penguin Canada

368 pages


eBook edition, KOBO or Kindle: $11.99


Sheila Watt-Cloutier was a keynote speaker at last fall’s Tourism Association of Yukon conference, held in Dawson City. Much of her presentation was drawn from this book, with its provocative and surprising title.  This book was one of the finalists in the 2016 Canada Reads contest, as well as being nominated for a number of non-fiction awards.

A few passages from its introduction will serve to give you the flavour of her argument.

“For the first ten years of my life, I travelled only by dog team. As the youngest child of four on our family hunting and ice fishing trips, I would be snuggled into warm blankets and fur in a box tied safely on top of the qamutiik, the dogsled.

“The Arctic may seem cold and dark to those who don’t know it well, but for us a day of hunting or fishing brought the most succulent, nutritious food. Then there would be the intense joy as we gathered together as family and friends, sharing and partaking of the same animal in a communal meal. To live in a boundless landscape and a close-knit culture in which everything matters and everything is connected is a kind of magic. Like generations of Inuit, I bonded with the ice and snow.”

That bond is being broken as the reliability and predictability of the climate changes. A culture dependent on its relationship to the land, the snow and the ice, is becoming collateral damage to the global warming which is having she writes, its most dramatic impact on the region which is the “cooling system for the planet.”

“The Arctic ice and snow, the frozen terrain that Inuit life has depended on for millennia, is now diminishing in front of our eyes.”

This book is a blend of personal memoir and a history of her struggle, n her various roles, to come to terms with those changes and get others to take responsibility to reduce the toxins that natural forces tend to filter into the North.

This has happened to such as extent that at one time mother’s milk was found to be contaminated with industrial toxins due them being ingested as a component in the country foods that are a natural part of the Inuit diet.

Traditional education on the land was about more than just teaching children how to survive, the hunt, to master the technical skills, she writes. These lessons were also exercises in character building.

“It’s a very wholistic approach. The technical skills and the character building are not separate at all. Technical skills are about how the world works; character skills are about how you work. This wholistic approach to learning is the hallmark of Inuit culture, and this wisdom, which is sourced from the ice and the cold and the snow, is equally now at stake.

“It is being lost, just as the ice itself is being lost.”

Paradoxically, Watt-Cloutier’s time in a couple of residential school settings during her teenage years is something she remembers as being quite positive for herself and her classmates, even though it did divorce them from their culture. She seems to feel that more damage was done when she was finishing her high school and living with a well-meaning, but non-native, family in Nova Scotia.

She would spend many years trying to reclaim her fluency in her native tongue. She would have liked to reclaim as much as possible of her native culture but she found that, during her absences for school, the life she remembered so fondly had decayed and diminished. Some of this was due to the changing climate limiting traditional choices; some was due to nomadic people being herded into settlements by government policies and social assistance financing; some of it was due to the curse of alcohol, a problem she herself experienced at one point.

Watt-Cloutier has travelled extensively during her working life, beginning with jobs in the health care and education fields before moving into the political arena. She has been a political representative for Inuit at the regional, national and international levels, most recently as International Chair for the Inuit Circumpolar Council, which represents the interests of Inuit people in Canada, Alaska, Russia and Greenland.

She became a sort of human rights activist for the North. In 2007, Watt-Cloutier was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy work in showing the impact global climate change has on human rights, especially in the Arctic, where it is felt more immediately and more dramatically than anywhere else in the world.She did not win the prize, but the nomination highlighted her work.

She does not see herself as an environmentalist, though they have some causes in common. Protests over seal hunting have done serious damage to the Inuit economy, led by people who don’t understand that seals are both food and raw materials for the Inuit.

“We Inuit simply cannot have personal freedom, we cannot have choice, if we don’t have the right to be cold, if our homeland and culture are destroyed by climate change.”

In addition to her Nobel nomination, Watt-Cloutier has been awarded the Aboriginal Achievement Award, the UN Champion of the Earth Award, and the prestigious Norwegian Sophie Prize. She is also an officer of the Order of Canada. From 1995 to 2002, she served as the elected Canadian president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC). In 2002, she was elected international chair of the council. Under her leadership, the world’s first international legal action on climate change was launched with a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

This is an engaging book, most interesting in the pages where it is most personal. The drier aspects of bureaucratic struggle do drag on a bit, but it is a worthwhile read for all that, and those details do matter.



Bookends: What the Rest of Canada Doesn’t Understand about the North December 28, 2018

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Bookends: What the Rest of Canada Doesn’t Understand about the North

By Dan Davidson

January 31, 2018

– 848 words –

Hunting the Northern Character 

Hunting the Northern Character

By Tony Penikett

Purich Books (UBC Press)

336 pages



“Canadian politicians, like many of their circumpolar counterparts, brag about their country’s ‘Arctic identity’ or ‘northern character,’ but what do they mean, exactly? Stereotypes abound, from Dudley Do-Right to Northern Exposure, but these southern perspectives fail to capture northern realities.”

Those words, from the flyleaf and the promotional material for Tony Penikett’s latest book, capture quite well the essence of what our former premier was hoping to accomplish when he sat down to make a book out of the lecture notes he had prepared for a seminar he taught as the Fulbright Chair in Arctic Studies at the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies in Seattle.

University lecturing, negotiating and mediating are the sorts of things he’s been doing since he left Yukon politics in 1995, after having been a major political player in the territory since 1978. As the president of Tony Penikett Negotiations, based now in Vancouver where, as he says, he keeps his clothes, he has travelled all over the Northern World, visiting many places more than once, working in all of Canada’s territories, Alaska, the Scandinavian nations and Russia.

Originally, those lecture notes were mostly about policy, as Penikett considers himself something of a “policy wonk”, but he found that his seminar students perked up a bit when he injected some anecdotes into the mix. When it came time to turn in the manuscript to his publisher, “more stories” was the demand, and so the serious critiques and analysis are leavened with memories of his father, who was the only doctor in Dawson City for some time, of reading Lars in Laplandwhen his schoolteacher grandmother gave it to him as a boy, and of some of his siblings and his children, who are all active in the entertainment field.

The ten chapters of the book are grouped into three thematic sections.

Contours deals with identifying the landscape and the people and the development of an indigenous self-government regime, which was unique in Canada at the time that his two governments negotiated the Umbrella Final Agreement. Some other provinces where treaties were scarce have followed this lead, but it bothers him that a system that has proven its worth in the North is so little understood by the rest of the nation.

One thing that does concern him about how negotiations have tended to run, is that a group like the Arctic Council features federal and native people but, as the title of that chapter (No Settler Need Apply) indicates, ignores the fact that there are many non-indigenous people who have lived in the territories for generations, many of whom have developed a keen personal investment in the land and its culture.

The Community section is three chapters that deal with food, poverty, education, health and resources and how all these things blend together in ways that are hard for those from Outside to understand.

The final section is called Conflict. Canada’s North was heavily affected by the Cold War that ran from 1945 until the fall of the Soviet Union, when missiles were a major preoccupation.

The recent false alarm in Hawaii is a reminder of those days, and we all have to hope that the Twitter War between Donald Trump and Kim Jung Un remains nothing more than a war of words now that North Korea has nuclear weapons. Both sides may have their buttons, but as P.F. Sloan wrote decades ago “if the button is pushed there’ll be no runnin’ away”.

Climate change is another kind of conflict, and one that is creating problems (some see them as opportunities) for the North. Here in Dawson, we have only to look at the river that isn’t freezing and the shifting ground under our recreation centre to know that something is happening and that we have to figure out ways to adapt to it.

In the final chapter, “Boomers and Lifers: a New Divide”, Penikett dares to suggest that there is a more significant way to look at the North’s demographics than the traditional racial divide.

In the North there is less of a distinction between the Settler population and the Indigenous population, than used to be the case. Towards the end of the book he develops new classifications, which he refers to as Boomers and Lifers.

To quote from the book, “Boomers are adventurous folk who come north to make a killing, waving goodbye as their booms turn into busts. Lifers are competent folk who stay in the North to make a living in their homeland, working, hunting and fishing, and adapting to climate change as they build and rebuild their communities,”

There are northern realities, Penikett says, that may have more to do with actual reconciliation than any of the commissions that have lately been roaming the land.

Making these realities better known was the major theme that propelled him to write this book.




Bookends: Is Canada a Warrior Nation? December 28, 2018

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Bookends: Is Canada a Warrior Nation?

By Dan Davidson

January 9, 2018

What we Talk about



– 946 words –


What We Talk About When We Talk About War


Goose Lane Editions

370 pages



The rather cumbersome title of Noah Richler’s fairly strident polemic on the nature of our national character when it comes to conflict might be more succinctly summed up by the title I’ve given to this week’s column, for Richler’s thesis really is that blunt a question: Is Canada a warrior nation?

His answer is that we are not, but that the decade during which Stephen Harper ruled the roost in Ottawa was one during which the war hawks among us, who had been building up their arguments for some years earlier, got a chance to shift the national image in ways that were more congenial to their way of thinking.

Much of Richler’s argument is outlined in his lengthy introduction, the 36 pages of “Achilles’ Choice”. That nearly invulnerable Greek hero, you may recall, did his level best to avoid going off to the Trojan War, even to the extent of disguising himself as one of a number of nuns. It was the trickster, Odysseus (or Ulysses – take your pick), who outed him and made him face up to his responsibility.

It didn’t work out well for him.

Part of Richler’s argument in this book is that war and conflict are narrated in the epic style, and are therefor more appealing to the masses. Most of ordinary life, however, is better summed up by the type of narrative used in novels.

The epic style requires a sense that sacrifice is necessary to achieve some greater goal, that there are heroes every where if we but have the wit to see them, and that it is essential that their efforts on our behalf be seen not to have been in vain.

If, as Thomas King and many others have observed, all we are is stories, then it matters very much what kinds of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and about others.

Richler rightly notes that Canada’s history is mostly shaped by negotiation rather than conflict – and there are some who find that boring, who feel that the fires of revolution and conflict are missing from our national heritage.

Pierre Berton, in Marching As to War, rightly pointed out that most of our martial adventures prior to 1945, were at the behest of the call to arms from the British Empire, and most of the ones after that related in some ways to our ties to the United States.

Richler more or less agrees with this, but feels that the moral vision of Lester B. Pearson in the years after WWII, the vision that led Canada to take on a major role in the peacekeeping activities of the United Nations, best exemplified our national character.

Richler is happy that we stayed out of Viet Nam, and that we refused to be officially involved in George Bush II’s disaster in Iraq, but he is less happy about our decision to participate in events in Afghanistan, and feels that several governments – both Liberal and Conservative – have done our national narrative harm but altering it in order to make that decision fit.

“The Canadian commitment to that war required a full-scale eradication of the country’s foundation myths as they had been told for half a century. The face that Canada now presents to the world has been profoundly transformed. Much of the change was managed at a banal, mundane level of stories and clichés that were nevertheless so powerful that a previously peaceful society, one in which the respect for the individual distinction of views was paramount, quickly conceded the ground to a more monolithic, one fervently embarking on the most destructive of paths and calling such a route ‘heroic’.”

I quoted that much text to give you a sense of Richler’s style in this book, which is often dense, full of even longer sentences than I usually write, and crowded with paragraphs of Dickensian length.

Chapter one, “The Vimy Effect” talks primarily about how some of our martial history is overblown. For Richler, it is wrong to say, as we so often hear on November 11, that Canada “came of age” during this battle. Indeed, he feels that the original purpose of our acts of Remembrance has been subtly altered over the decades to promote the theme of a “Warrior Nation” which is his title for chapter two.

Chapter three goes on to chronicle how the phrase “Building Schools for Girls” was used to denigrate earlier peacekeeping activities; that is until in chapter four “The War Becomes a Mission (Impossible)” and it was necessary for the powers that be to retitle the war as a mission and start talking about reconstruction and human rights again in order to appeal to the need for public support.

In the final chapter, “What is to be Done?”, Richler urges us to recognize that the warrior nation sales pitch has been a bill of goods and that we need to reclaim what he feels is our better nature in our international relations. While he would be happy with the current government’s stated direction in this regard, compared with what he criticizes in this 2012 argument, he would be annoyed at the actual lack of real progress.

The single most annoying thing about this book is that nobody took the time to give it an index. There is software that makes this job easier than it used to be, and indexes are invaluable when someone like me wants to check a certain reference in a book like this one.











Bookends: Looking at the True Believers March 17, 2018

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Bookends: Looking at the True Believers

By Dan Davidson

November 8, 2017

– 930 words

Among the TruthersAmong the Truthers: North America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground of 9/11 Truthers, Birthers, Armageddonites, Vaccine Hysterics, Hollywood Know-Nothings and Internet Addicts

By Jonathan Kay

Harper Perennial

368 pages


Kindle edition



During the last week or so, events have combined to make this 2012 study of conspiracy theorists and other members of the lunatic fringe worth taking a look at.

One huge info-dump was the release of a vast tonnage of previously sequestered paperwork related to the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, an event which is often the starting point for those whose personal Road to Damascus leads them to join the conspiracy underground.

From what I’ve read of those papers, we didn’t learn much that was new, or that would cause anyone to accept or reject whatever version of those events that one might subscribe to. The “who killed JFK” movement is just one of many that Jonathan Kay discusses in this book, as you can easily tell from the very long title.

Then Governor General Julie Payette stepped up to the microphone at a science conference and said some things that were critical of people who don’t believe in climate change, and evolution, and who think that the world is 6,000 years old and that god (any god) won’t let anything too terminal happen to humanity.

Actually, of course, there are lots of people who subscribe to the idea that their concept of the divine being will, at some point, ring down the curtain on humanity and the world. Kay deals with them in a number of places in this book.

But his main concern is with those people who subscribe to a variety of conspiracy theories, and he uses one of them, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, as a base case for examining how these delusions work, how they inspire people, and how they are as predictable in their development as the “stages of grieving” often used by grief counsellors.

The Protocols have long been known to be an absolute fraud, written and promulgated in Russia by members of the Czar’s secret police as a way of justifying pogroms against the Jews. They outline the basics of a Jewish plot to dominate the world and are both detailed enough and vague enough to serve as the template for any number of imaginary plots.

Kay deals with them in chapter two, called “Warrant for Genocide, Blueprint for Paranoia” and shows that their historical development can serve as an outline for how conspiracy theories develop.

Some of his ideas come from The Pursuit of the Millennium by Norman Cohn, a book that I recall fondly from my studies in Sociology at Acadia University, and one which I have often found useful in trying to understand extreme theories about events.

Some of what has happened to our cultural grasp on reality must be laid at the feet of Richard Nixon, If the JFK assassination (along with that of brother Bobby and Martin Luther King) did a lot to make people uneasy about the powers that be, Watergate drove a very big nail into the notion that our leaders have our best interests at heart.

The Fall of the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11 shattered America’s notion that it was above the kind of chaos that occurs in other places. Sure, there had been the attack on Pearl Harbour during WW II, but most of America’s wars had left no scars on the homeland. This did, and seemed to require some larger explanation than the two planes in New York, the one at the Pentagon, and the one the passengers brought down over Pennsylvania.

After that, everything seemed to be up for grabs. Obama had to be a fraud. There must have been something at Area 51. The United Nations must be planning to take over the world. And on, and on,

Kay spent two years digging into all the groups that were extant at the time and concluded that their adherents were subscribers to a kind of religious mania (Cohn would agree) that allowed them to enter one or more of these cult-like groups and refuse to acknowledge anything that might refute their beliefs.

He analyzes the psychology of such movements and tries to profile the kinds of people who are likely to be infected. I use that word because he concludes that these memes do constitute a kind of intellectual virus, These people are not stupid, They are often very bright, but something has caused them to see the world through conspiracy tinted glasses, and they treat things ideas that might best be seen as plot devices on programs like the X-Files, Stranger Things or Buffy the Vampire Slayer as if they were facts.

These kinds of ideas used to spread in small press books and mimeographed pamphlets and have relatively few followers, but the advent of the internet has changed all that. Conspiracy theories have gone viral. As a results, this stuff has become potentially quite dangerous.

One of Kay’s chapters deals with the Birther movement. Donald Trump, who cut his political teeth on this issue before he refocused on “Crooked Hilary”, doesn’t actually turn up in this book’s index. In the couple of years before 2012, when he was researching this topic, it never occurred to Kay that one of the chef promoters of a theory like this might become the President of the United States. But, a year later, we know how that turned out.




Bookends: Four Seasons on Back Roads in the Deep South March 2, 2018

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Bookends: Four Seasons on Back Roads in the Deep South

By Dan Davidson

October 4, 2017

– 853 words –


Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads Deep South

By Paul Theroux

With photographs by Steve McCurry

Kindle edition

451 pages in print

Penguin Books



Before the 2012 federal election in the USA, travel writer, novelist and essayist Paul Theroux decided to spend four seasons travelling in the Deep South of his country. It took him the better part of two years to complete all four trips. While he has written about traveling on nearly every continent and has set his fictions in many of them, he hadn’t written much about America, so he left home one fall day for the first of four extended journeys.

“I had driven from my home in New England, a three-day road trip to another world, the warm green states of the Deep South I had longed to visit, where ‘the past is never dead,’ so the man famously said. ‘It’s not even past.’ Later that month, a black barber snipping my hair in Greensboro, speaking of its racial turmoil today, laughed and said to me, in a sort of paraphrase of that writer whom he’d not heard of and never read, ‘History is alive and well here.’”

What history? How alive? What words can be used to describe it?

First of all, he was going to places where, as one of his many interviewees put it, “you gotta be going there to get there”, places you might never find otherwise.

Secondly, he was going places where certain words are still in use, and the first of several digressions, after he spends most of a chapter detailing the foibles of the history of travel writing, is about That Taboo Word that begins with “N”; 14 pages worth of discussion and variation.

Thirdly, he was going places where most of the people he met, unless they were also writers, had never heard of him and, balking at his last name, tended to introduce him to other people as “Mr. Paul from New England”.

Theroux was 26 when he published his first novel in 1967 and has produced 34 others (novels and short story collections), along with 19 volumes of non-fiction, including the travel writing for which he is perhaps best known, since then. He was an interesting, if somewhat pretentious, keynote speaker at the 2017 edition of the Northwards Writers’ Symposium in Skagway.

One is clearly left with the impression that he was surprised to be quite so anonymous during his four seasons of travel.

To no one’s surprise he finds that the memory of the Civil War and its aftermath is still very strong in the South, and he sees a number of those statues and flags, which have become such items of national debate and contention over the last six to eight months. In a book published in 2015 he did not see anything like Donald J, Trump on the horizon, but he did visit a number of gun trade shows and got a clear sense of how important gun culture is in that part of the nation.

Race relations are a big part of the book, and the winter trip is called “Ones Born Today Don’t Know How it Was” with just that topic in mind.

The next interlude is an 11 page critique of the life and work of William Faulkner. In between trips he did a lot of reading and re-reading of Southern literature, and the final 7 page interlude section is called “The Fantastications of Southern Fiction”.

To some extent, the reader is left feeling that the two things complement each other; his view of the South is informed by his reading, at the same time as his travels give him a new perspective on the writing.

While he had earlier derided the idea of the travel narrative as an analog for self-discovery, Theroux fond that this was so for him.

“It dawned on me slowly over months that to them (most of the people he interviewed) I was an old man, who didn’t really count for much, but who needed to be humoured or grudgingly respected.”

And finally, the world traveller, with so many miles under his belt, found himself faced with an odd epiphany: “Because the paradox of it all was that though I had come so far— miles more than I ever had in Africa or China— I had never left home.”

The book concludes with a selection of 26 colour photographs by Steve McCurray. The pair did not travel together and, while some of the pictures are of places and people mentioned in the book, others are simply representative of the same type of place. They are useful in setting the scene, but it might almost have been better if I had looked at them before I read the book.

If you’re reading this on a Kindle device, as I did, I’d recommend looking at the pictures using the Kindle software that’s available for either a Mac or a PC. They’re much more effective on a larger screen.




Bookends: Two Weeks in the High Arctic February 16, 2018

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Bookends: Two Weeks in the High Arctic

By Dan Davidson

August 16, 2017

– 815 words –


Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest


By Kathleen Winter


280 pages


Kindle e-Book


In 2010 Kathleen Winter was able to take what turned out to be an epic voyage through the Northwest Passage. Her friend, Noah Richler, had had to bow out of a two week cruise on a Russian icebreaker, for which he was to have been the writer in residence. Would she like to take his place on the Clipper Adventurer?

As it happened, she had been thinking lately about taking chances when they were offered and, on the advice of a friend, had prepared a “go bag”. Not that this particular bag was in no way adequate to a fortnight’s journey to the Arctic Ocean, but it was an indication of her mindset. She said yes.

Just from that introduction, you have probably picked up the idea that this book will not entirely be about the ocean voyage. There’s a lot of self-reflection in the book, memories of her immigrant childhood in Newfoundland; thoughts about her first marriage and how the death of her first husband affected her.

A reviewer in the Guardian newspaper felt that such tidbits of information made this a less than successful travel book, as if there is only one way to do this sort of thing. This is an attitude with which authors like V.S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux would probably take issue. I certainly do.

When I met Winter back in the spring, one of the things she told me was that she felt the need to move around. She’d sat still so long writing her novel, Annabel, that she had actually lost some function in her legs for a while. That explains why, during some of the shore excursions that took place on this trip, she tended to chose the longer walks, and I think it also explains why she was prepared to leave her husband to look after their two daughters for a two week excursion that as it turned out, was not entirely a cakewalk.

It was an assorted group of people on this voyage. Historian Ken McGoogan was there, with his wife, Sheena; anthropologist Kenneth Lister; marine mammal biologist Pierre Richard, with his sister, Elizabeth; geologist Marc St, Onge; ornithologist Richard Knapton; and musician Nathan Rogers, son of Stan, whose best known song (aside from “The Mary Ellen Carter” and “Barrett’s Privateers”) is probably “The Northwest Passage”.

Winter would come to be close to Rogers, would actually overcome her indifference to rocks and pay attention to Knapton, and would learn something from many of the 100 members of the expedition. She seems to remains largely unaffected by the enthusiastic birders, but tries her best to respond to what she can learn from the indigenous people who are part of the voyage. What she learned would often send her back down her memory hole, to tie in to some part of her past.

The trip took them from Greenland, past Baffin Island, and across the passage into territory that was perhaps not quite as well mapped as people had thought. The Clipper Adventurer runs onto some rocks on what was to have been the last night of the trip. Everyone was in the lounge, looking at the map that showed the journey they had taken, the ship being bound for the place where they would disembark.

“The ship lurched.

“It crunched on something big, not like one of the small pieces of ice we’d scraped in Karrat Fjord. This sound kept going: a dreadful, deep displacement of our vessel out of the water, out of her gliding movement, nowhere close to any of the rocking, all smooth and rolling, we’d known before.”

They did the whole abandon ship drill before they decided they weren’t going to sink, but they could not get off that rock, even at high tide.

There had been hints in various chapters that there might be a problem later on, but this was a surprise. They were rescued by the geological mapping vessel, the Amundsen, and taken to Kugluktuk, from whence they were flown south. Their ship was not rescued until three weeks later and had to be towed to a shipyard in Gdansk for repairs.

Winter says she was changed by her experience in the high North, but just how is something she’s doesn’t seem that anxious to share. There are a few things that remain mysterious in this book. For instance, that actual name of their ship is not to be found in the text. I ran a search in my KOBO copy to see, after I finally found it in the photo section at the back of the book.

Boundless was shortlisted for the 2014 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction.



Bookends: Guidebooks to Places of Interest February 10, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, current events, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: Guidebooks to Places of Interest

By Dan Davidson

May 10, 2017

– 693 words –

There are some books that it’s really not possible or advisable to attempt to read all the way through. They’re not actually written for that purpose. They’re browsers, reference books perhaps planners. They are books that I probably wouldn’t buy, but since they have arrived on my desk due to the nature of this column, I’ve spent some time with them. While I may look at other sections, I start out by wondering what they have to say about us.

I should point out at the beginning that Workman Publishing has done an excellent job on both of these books. The first one is a hardcover, printed on high quality paper stock, with a sturdy dust cover and embossed lettering on the actual book cover. There are lots of pictures and maps and the quality of the reproductions is excellent.

The second one is a high quality trade paperback printed on heavy, slick paper. The majority of the 1,000 entries have pictures and though most are about 2 inches square, they are crisp and clear. There are also many full-page colourful maps.

Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders

Atlas Obscura

By Joshua Fore, Dylan Thurs. and Ella Morton

Workman Publishing

470 pages



The Atlas is divided by continents and subdivided by countries. It is crowded with small articles about items of historical and natural interest and describes places where you might go to see these things, or events, buildings, or celebrations. You can learn about festivals and cultural practices.

In Canada’s North, the books celebrates the David Diamond Mine, Pintos in Tuktoyaktuk, the Haughton meteorite impact crater on Devon Island, and St. Jude’s “Igloo Cathedral” in Iqaluit.

The Yukon gets three small entries on pages 265 ad 266. The first is the Watson Lake Sign Post Forest, with its 72.000 (up over 77,000 since this book came out) signs. The second is the Carcross Desert, that one-square mile patch of sand dunes lying beneath the mountains surrounding the area.

The last item, I am slightly embarrassed to record, hails from Dawson City, but it isn’t any of the sites we hope will allow us entry into the list of World Heritage Sites. Nope – it’s the Sourtoe Cocktail, which has graced a number of establishments since 1973, but which currently hangs out at the Downtown Hotel, below the large carved Big Toe funeral urn that will some day hold the ashes of its creator, Captain Dick Stevenson.



1,000 Places to See in the United States and Canada Before You Die

1000 Places to See

by Patricia Schultz


Workman Publishing

1184 pages


1,000 Places is set up much the same way as the Atlas, sections divided by region and then by state or by province. As one might expect, only the last 100 or so pages deal with Canada, while the American regions get about that amount each.

The Yukon gets some minor mentions in the section called “Driving the Alaska Highway”. Watson Lake (signposts again) and Whitehorse are mentioned along with Kluane Lake, although the actual index listings for these placed seem to identify them as being in Alaska.

Dawson City, on the other hand, is properly indexed as being in the Yukon (YT), rates about a page and a third all to itself and does not speak of the aforementioned libation as one of the town’s landmarks. Instead it refers to Dawson as the gold rush town that “refused to die”, delivers a short history, and underestimates the town’s population (1300 rather than the current 2000+).

Still, the book’s first edition was in 2007 and the revised 2016 edition may have missed some people just as the Atlas missed some signposts.

It also mentions the services of Parks Canada, Robert Service’s and Jack London’s cabins, the SS Keno, Diamond Tooth Gerties (Canada’s northernmost casino) and Bombay Peggy’s Victorian Inn.

The specialized indexes at the back of the book do a good job of dividing the contents by interest areas, 11 different categories from Active Travel and Adventure to Take the Kids and Windows on the Past.




Bookends: Why There’s a Weird Person in the White House February 9, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, current events, Klondike Sun, Matt Taibbi, politics, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: Why There’s a Weird Person in the White HouseInsane clown president

By Dan Davidson

April 19, 2017

– 850 words –


Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus

By Matt Taibbi (Author),

Victor Juhasz (Illustrator)

Spiegel & Grau

352 pages


Kindle Edition



With a title like the one Matt Taibbi chose for this collection of US election year essays, you really can’t expect that he will have anything nice to say about the man currently (except on golfing weekends) occupying the White House.

Mind you, Rolling Stone’s style of election coverage, beginning with Hunter S. Thompson’s “fear and loathing” series, and continuing ever since, have always been irreverent, scatological and, well, politically incorrect.

In this book we have 25 of the articles that were written for the magazine, plus a couple of bookends – one to admit that we are going to see a quite a few wrong predictions and early gaffes, and another to sum up what he thinks are the lessons to take away from the 2016 Circus, or the train wreck, as he often puts it.

The essay titles tell you a lot, even without reading the book: Inside the COP Clown Car; The Official GOP Debate Drinking Game Rules (parts 2 & 5); America is too Dumb for TV News; Casting “Clown Car, the Movie”; Revenge of the Simple: How George W. Bush Gave Rise to Donald Trump; and so on.

As he writes in his opening essay, “It’s an Alice in Wonderland story, in which a billionaire hedonist jumps down the rabbit hole of American politics and discovers a surreal world where each successive barrier to power collapses before him like magic.”

Those are among the nicest things he says about the man some cartoonists have lately been calling “the golfer in chief”.

The other COP candidates are the “clown car to which he refers so often. There was not one of them without major flaws and character defects. Some he classifies as mentally unready for anything for complicated than a greeter’s job at Wal-Mart.

He’s not kind to Hilary Clinton or the Democratic Party, either. Given the nature of the opponent set before them, this was their election to lose, and they did so by not paying attention to how Bernie Sanders inspired people, and by not working as hard as Barack Obama did to win his two terms.

“Why Young People are Right About Hilary Clinton” is a chapter that, while it clearly indicates he believes that she would have been a better, saner, safer choice, outlines all the reasons why she was rejected by so many people in so many key states. While she may have won the popular vote, she knew as well as anyone in the game that she had to win the Electoral College votes for that to matter. She had lost the common touch that she and Bill had used to gain his two terms in office, and while she stated more than once that she knew that, she didn’t do anything about it.

Taibbi is kind to Bernie Sanders and merciless on the Democratic Party that refused to take him seriously or to learn from what he almost managed to accomplish with nothing to compare to the massive financial backing that Hilary got.

Taibbi thought at first that Trump was a complete joke but, long before others, he upgraded him from joke to disaster in the making, and eventually stopped being surprised as he took down all the other clowns. “The Unconquerable Trump” analyses that triumph.

He saves some of his bitterest bile for the media, that has turned American news outlets into infotainment centers, and quotes that memorable news exec who opined that Trump was bad for the country but great for ratings and therefor for profits.

Reality TV gets a good whack along the way, as well, but while it is blamed for helping to dumb down the public’s ability to think critically, the public itself is raked over the coals for allowing it to do so. This section should have contained a passing reference to Neil Postman’s 1985 classic, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Perhaps he did that in his 2010 book, Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America. I think I must read this one, too.

He reserves some of his nicest words for the chapter called “Barack Obama’s Last Stand”, in which he describes the brief analysis of the outcome that the soon to be ex-President offered the public. Obama is not judged to be sinless. Promises were broken. Drones killed people. Red Lines were drawn but ignored. Still, Taibbi sums op the changing of the guard this way:

“Donald Trump may have won the White House, but he will never be a man like his predecessor, whose personal example will now only shine more brightly with the passage of time. At a time when a lot of Americans feel like they have little to be proud of, we should think about our outgoing president, whose humanity and greatness are probably only just now coming into true focus.”


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