Posts Tagged ‘book review’

A review of The Origin of Species by Nino Ricci


The Origin of Species captured the 2008 Governor Generals Literary Award for fiction (the second such win for Ricci, the first being his 1993 debut Lives of the Saints). It was a well-deserved honour. This dense, multi-faceted, sprawling, and thought-provoking tome explores the ideas of evolution, love, ruthlessness, human nature, relationships, nature, fatherhood, higher education, and postmodernism, among many others, in a provocative, humorous, and often moving fashion.

The primary story concerns the emotional and intellectual maturation of one Alex Fratarcangeli, a graduate student in literary studies at Concordia University in Montréal, during the mid-1980s. As the novel begins, he is emotionally and intellectually adrift, grappling with his unfinished thesis and its seemingly hopeless attempt to connect (post-)modern literary criticism and Darwinism, trying to make sense of his personal life and continued failed relationships, and dismaying at the encroaching materialism of the era. It is at this point that he meets a remarkable individual who will forever change the trajectory of his life: a young woman who will provide the spark that allows Alex to release the emotional weights of the past and allow him to see the world in a new and clear way.

The novel is divided into three sections: the first and third sections follow Alex’s adventures in the environs of mid-1980s Montreal, with flashbacks to 1970s Sweden and 1980s Ontario. The middle section is an unbroken narrative of a surreal Galapagos adventure with a disastrous outcome that provides the clues to Alex’s rebirth.

In the first and third parts, Ricci vividly captures the social and political environment of mid-1980s Montreal: its post-referendum hangover, its under-acknowledged immigrant population (the third solitude, to expand upon McLennan’s metaphor), the newly imposed language laws, and the emerging awareness of large-scale environmental issues. This was also the era in which our current unhealthy and spiritually bereft focus on economic materialism began to emerge: a phenomenon Ricci likely views as the rebirth of some form of social Darwinism.

Much of the novel deals with Alex’s wanderings around Montreal and his interactions with a fascinating cast of secondary characters: the upbeat Esther, a tenant in his apartment building; his thesis supervisor, a cynical and lecherous Eastern European émigré; a group of El Salvador émigrés living on the fringes of Quebecois society; his disinterested psychologist; an ongoing imaginary dialogue with Peter Gzowski; and, obliquely, Pierre Eliot Trudeau.

From this Montreal basis, much of the story is also told in flashbacks: to Sweden, where Alex has an affair with an older woman; to small-town southern Ontario, where Alex grew up and where his family still lives; and to the Galapagos Islands.

Initially, Alex is a difficult character to admire. His personality alternates between narcissistic self-importance and neurotic self-loathing. Yet there are glimpses of a good side that slowly emerges as the novel progresses and he begins his personal redemption.

The counterpoint to Alex pettiness and cynicism is provided in the character of Esther, an effervescent young woman who lives in his apartment building. Her exuberant and relentlessly positive view on life is tempered by a vigorous case of multiple sclerosis, which gets progressively worse as the novel progresses. Esther’s physical decline is contrasted by Alex’s emotional maturation: her deteriorating state profoundly affects Alex, making him a better person and awakening him to the arbitrary cruelness of the natural world. In a way, her decline can also be seen as a metaphor for the eclipse of goodness by 1980s era materialism. Ricci reflects this by documenting the intrusion of neo-conservative metaphors taken from the arenas of business and commerce into everyday discourse, which has ultimately culminated in the current irrational celebration of immoral and cerebrally-challenged CEOs

If Esther represents goodness, then Desmond, Alex’s partner in his Galapagos misadventure, is her exact opposite. Desmond is a vividly-drawn, despicable, amoral, self-important academic of middling reputation. Rude, ribald, and recklessly funny, Desmond takes the young Alex, who is vacationing in the Galapagos, under his wing and into a bizarre and dangerous adventure. Unbeknownst to Alex, he becomes involved a scheme to exact revenge on Desmond’s former mentor by introducing foreign species of hybrid plants into the ecosystem, a scheme that ultimately ends in tragedy.

Ricci has stated that part of the novel can be seen as a repudiation of social construction. Although social construction is a vague term that is used (and abused) in many ways, in its most strict sense it implies the uniqueness of humanity by viewing the world and its creative mechanisms as edifices based on conventional agreement rather than any notion of reality… knowledge, essentially, as a show of hands. In this view, humans stand apart from nature, but what Ricci demonstrates is that humanity is symbiotically linked with the natural world – it is an unseparable part of nature, red in tooth and claw, and to think otherwise is nothing more than self-important anthropocentrism.

Thus the incident in the Galapagos can be read as a critique of social construction. Desmond’s scheme to surreptitiously introduce a species of hybrid plants in the Galapagos and later claim them as an important discovery can be seen as a allegory of social construction, and the subsequent discovery of a similar adapted plant as an allegory of evolution. The self-centered and excessively narcissistic Desmond aptly reflects the anthropocentric conceit of social constructivism. Ricci succeeds with this rich and vivid characterization of a truly despicable individual.

This critique of social construction is highlighted by an incident with the Galapagos boody, the bird pictured on the cover of the novel. While exploring the Galapagos with Desmond, Alex sees two birds using sticks to tell stories, an incident which will have a profound effect on his thinking:

In the Galapagos Islands, the masked booby performs an elabourate mating ritual. The male approaches the female and after a series of gestures aimed at attracting her attention … he pushes before he an assortment of offerings. A stick, perhaps. A blade of dried grass. A stone. These items, there is no other way to see them, are metaphors: of food, of home, of fecundity. With them, the booby is telling his prosepective mate a story. “Come with me” he is saying, “and we will have children and live in abundance.” This strange collection of all the essential elements of narrative at the most basic level of nature suggests that this oldest of stories, the happily-ever-after of fairy tales, may be older even than we have ever imagined.

Thus narrative is not socially constructed, but is something that precedes humankind. Stories exist in nature, waiting to be told: an almost Neoplatonic conception of narrative.

And thus the title of the novel. Alex, like Darwin, introduces an innovative and audacious theory based on experiences in the Galapagos. During the voyage of the Beagle, Darwin witnessed evolution around him, inferred something important was happening, but was initially unable to recognize it as such, just as Alex was initally unable to recognize the incident with the birds. This is just one of many sublime parallels between Alex and Darwin in the novel.

Although Ricci addresses many important and varied themes, they ultimately converge on the need for love and the cruelness and arbitrariness of nature. The book is, ultimately, an homage to the remarkable character of Esther.

The Origin of Species is a tour-de-force by Ricci, and one of the finest pieces of fiction I have read in a long time. It is a dense, chaotic, and thrilling intellectual voyage can be enjoyed on many levels, will reward re-reading, and is destined to become a classic in the canon of Canadian literature. Simply put, a masterpiece.

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Memory and loss

A review of The Boys in the Trees by Mary Swan (2008).


There has been a recent trend among some journalists in Canada to reflexively dismiss what has been termed, often derisively, as “Canadian gothic.” Although the term is vague and not precisely defined, it is essentially accepted as dark, tragic, nineteenth-century rural Canadian narrative (for example, think Wuthering Heights transported to the Bruce Peninsula). Given this provisional definition, The Boys in the Trees by Mary Swan falls into this category, but it would be a mistake to overlook this fine novel simply based on this categorization.

The Boys in the Trees is a heartbreaking tale of a terrible tragedy and how it transforms (and informs) a community, offset with notions of how memory, responsibility, forgiveness, and knowledge shape lives. The story asks the reader how memories of the past affects the life one lives now, how responsibility is to be determined when actions cannot be predicted, how forgiveness is essential to a contented life, and how knowledge about one another, and memory of the past, is necessarily incomplete.

The novel begins and ends (as its title suggests) with vignettes of boys in trees. The trees at the beginning of the novel offer refuge, a safe haven from abuse and despair for a young boy named William Heath, one determined to escape his miserable existence and determined that one day people will know his name. The trees at the end of the novel provide a vantage point another group of boys to witness the final results of a tragic choice.

After the brief vignette in the trees, we next see William as a young man with a family living in England. He is beset by a first brutal onslaught of tragedy that causes the family to flee to Canada – first Toronto, then the fictional town of Emden, Ontario. However, William is unable to escape his feelings of anxiety, despair, and failure that have accompanied him since childhood, setting the stage for a second and even more brutal tragedy. It is this tragedy that is dealt with in the remainder of the novel, with the citizens of Emden reflecting and acting upon their impressions of what happened. Swan is masterful here at describing the ripple effects of a tragic singularity on the lives and memory of those involved with the Heath family.

Swan writes in a resolutely non-linear format that suits her examinations of knowledge and identity. In particular, the second and third chapters are composed in fascinating contrapuntal narratives that slowly converge into their respective tragic conclusions. The remainder of the novel consists of individual non-linear narratives (recollections of the citizens of Emden at various points in time) that slowly offer the reader additional insight into the characters and events of the first three chapters yet leave many questions unanswered, signifying that the causes and motivations behind many events are ultimately unknowable, even by those closest to them.

One narrative follows a young boy named Eaton, a neighbour and friend to the Heath daughters. The tragedy provides a defining point in Eaton’s life, and assigns an infinite value to a secret gift that he will carry with him for the remainder of his life. Questions of guilt and responsibility continue to haunt Eaton even as his memory fades in old age.

Another narrative follows the Robinson family and how the main tragedy relates to and interacts with another within their own family. Again, questions of guilt and responsibility are examined, with a possible answer provided in the notion of forgiveness. Hints at guilt possibly lying elsewhere are suggested throughout the Robinson family narrative, and additional facets of the Heath family are provided by the Robinson women.

These narratives ask us: what can we really know of a person from their external appearance and outward actions? Swan shows that we can only glean facets, glimpses of knowledge that no matter how numerous will never coalesce into a whole, or even a reasonable representation of a whole. And moreover, this imperfect knowledge is ultimately doomed to fade away with the people holding it. Nevertheless, these accumulated facets can provide a rich description of characters and motives, even with many questions remaining unanswered.

This is remarkable debut by Mary Swan. It has been nominated for the 2008 Giller Prize, and in my opinion is the best of the four nominees I have read (having yet to read the Joseph Boyden entry, and not likely to finish it before the award is presented).  I strongly urge anyone interested in the future of Canadian literature to read this book. I certainly look forward to reading more of her work.

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A review of Through a reporter’s eyes: The life of Stefan Banach by Roman Kaluza. Translated and edited by Ann Kostant and Wojbor Woyczynski. Boston: Birkhaüser, 1996.

In the preface to this book, Roman Kaluza states that “this book contains little of mathematical character,” and hence this is not a work on the important mathematical developments of Stefan Banach during his productive life. Nevertheless, it offers a detailed and comprehensive look inside the Polish mathematical and educational communities in the time between the wars. Although Banach left no correspondence or memoirs from which to examine his life, Kaluza does an admirable job reconstructing his career through a comprehensive study of university archives, newsletters, interviews with students and acquaintances, and the recollections of Banach’s contemporaries.

Most mathematicians initially become familiar with the name of Stefan Banach through their studies of functional analysis, topology (the Banach space), or through the paradoxical Banach-Tarski theorem, yet they learn nothing about the man himself. This role is well served by Kaluza’s book, which may be roughly divided into two parts. The first half of the book addresses the academic development and mathematical work of Banach. The second half concerns the personal and social aspects of Banach’s life. Joining these two parts is a fascinating chapter on the Scottish Café, which has attained legendary status in Polish mathematical history, where Banach and other mathematicians struggled with a wide range of important mathematical topics over coffee and cognac.

The first four chapters of the book concentrate on the education and subsequent mathematical contributions of Banach during his career. As a child, he attended the Henryk Sienkiewwicz Gymnasium in Cracow, a school concentrating in the humanities. An excellent mathematics student, he tutored from the age of 15 and was largely self-taught in the more advanced aspects of his subject. Upon graduation, we learn that he decided to enter into engineering, believing that “mathematics was so highly developed, it would be impossible to do anything new.” Enrolling in Lvov Polytechnic, Banach soon realised that a future did exist in mathematics. His meeting with Huglo Steinhaus in Lvov represented a turning point in Banach’s life. This meeting is colourfully described by Kaluza using excerpts from the memoirs of Steinhaus. We learn that not only did Banach become acquainted and begin to collaborate with one of Poland’s leading mathematicians, it was through Steinhaus that he meets his wife.

The years from 1919 to 1929 represented Banach’s most prolific period of research. After the publication of his first paper (in collaboration with Steinhaus) in 1918, Banach produced a remarkable string of results. One of his earliest papers remains his most influential. In “Sur l’équation functionelle f(x + y) = f(x) + f(y),” he demonstrates that measureable solutions to this equation are necessarily continuous, and thus linear. Banach followed this paper with four more in a similar vein, providing the necessary background for his developments in the theory of functional analysis. These early papers, published while Banach was still a student, lead to his Ph.D. thesis on complete normed metric spaces, known now as Banach spaces. Despite his emphasis on the non-mathematical nature of Banach’s life, Kaluza does an admirable job in conveying to the reader a sense of the content of Banach’s work. He considers the mathematical content of these early papers individually, albeit briefly. At this point the inclusion of a few simple equations instead of unnecessarily long descriptions would be beneficial.

Banach went on to receive his Ph.D. in 1921, and by 1924 was promoted to the “highest possible rank in the [Polish] scientific community” – Professor Ordinarus of mathematics.

Kaluza moves from this most productive period to consider the rest of Banach’s mathematical work, from his founding (with Hugo Steinhaus) of the Studia Mathematica in 1929 to his death in 1945. The Studia Mathematica was an important journal that conveyed the recent Polish successes in functional analysis and set theory. Kaluza shows that the Studia was the first mathematical journal to specialise in these areas, thus attracting not only Polish but internationally renowned scholars. In 1932 Banach published his influential monograph The Theory of Linear Operations. This treatise consolidated his published results on linear functional analysis along with a substantial amount of new theorems and applications. During the late 1930s, Banach’s output declined sharply, primarily due to the geopolitical situation in Europe. His last (non-posthumous) papers, on non-divergent series of orthogonal functions, appeared in 1940.

To connect the largely intellectual history of the first part of the book to Banach’s personal and social life described in the second half, Kaluza provides a fascinating chapter on the legendary Scottish Café. This café, situated near the Lvov institute, became the centre of Polish mathematics during the 1930s. Frequented by Banach, Steinhaus, Ernst Zermelo, and other prominent mathematicians on a regular basis, Kaluza describes the heated discussions on mathematics, politics, and just about anything else occurred between patrons of the café. A major product of these discussions was what became known as The Scottish Book, a large notebook kept at the café where mathematicians could enter problems and offer solutions. This famous notebook, contained entries by Banach and the Polish community, as well as luminaries such as Henri Lebesgue, John von Neumannm, and René Fréchet, was eventually published by Birkhäuser in 1981.

The final half of Through a reporter’s eyes concerns the personal and social life of Banach. Kaluza draws heavily upon interviews with Banach’s former students and the recollections of his contemporaries. We learn that he was a rather unconventional academic, prone to cancelling large blocks of classes at a time, and spending up to twelve hours a day in the cafés of Lvov. However, he was greatly admired by the student body and regarded as highly talented teacher who could convey the most difficult of concepts with great clarity. The ending of the book describes Banach’s life in Lvov under the Nazi and Soviet occupations of World War II. By that time, the thriving Polish academic community of the 1920s and 1930s had disbanded; many sought refuge in England or the United States, and many others were jailed at home. In a chilling description of life under the Nazi occupation, Kaluza details how Banach spent a few months in prison and the remainder of the time working as a “feeder of lice in the Rudolf Weigl Bacteriological Institute,”, the standard work-duty for many former academics. Banach suffered greatly under these conditions, and was described by Jadwiga Hallaunbrenner, a Lvov mathematician, as being “exhausted, starved, and wasted away.” With the end of the war, Banach was offered the position of Minister of Education in the new Soviet-controlled Polish government, but died soon thereafter of cancer on the 31st of August 1945.

Three appendices included in this work warrant mention. The first, entitled “Mathematics in Stefan Banach’s Time,” provides a short description of the emergent and increasingly abstract mathematics of the early twentieth century. It provides some background for the non-mathematician in the areas of mathematical logic and set theory to accompany the exposition of Banach’s results in the first half of the book. The second appendix is a list of selected publications of Banach. This list includes all his major mathematical papers and textbooks, and thus represents an invaluable source for the historian of mathematics. Finally, a selected bibliography provides a list of articles and reminisces about Banach. Unfortunately, for the English reader, almost all of these are in Polish.

In conclusion, Through a reporter’s eyes provides the reader with a short and engaging version of Banach’s life. Although this book is described by the author as having a journalistic rather than scientific character, an honest attempt is made to convey the import of Banach’s most significant results. The method of summarizing the results of Banach’s papers individually is especially useful as anyone with further interest is provided with an exact reference. There are a few minor errors in the first half (some of which may be the result of translation) that mostly concern background material. For example, at one point Kaluza seems to suggest that Cauchy was the creator of the δ-ε definition of a limit (it was Weierstraß), and at another point refers to French as being the lingua franca of early twentieth century mathematics, when it was in fact German. Nevertheless, especially considering the fact that Banach left no correspondence, Kaluza does an excellent job in digging through the archives to reconstruct Banach’s life. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in early twentieth century mathematics and the European scientific education system. It will also prove to be an important companion to any future historical study of Polish mathematics.

Stefan Banach on a Polish postage stamp

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