A bonfire of vanities

An evil omen — of that there’s no doubt. After Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), hero of Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men, shoots and wounds a deer while hunting in the West Texas desert, he comes across a trail of fresh blood crossing at right angles the trail of deer blood that he has set out to follow. Looking through his binoculars, he sees a heavy black fighting dog limping away through the sagebrush. The dog glances back, unaware of Moss’s presence and perhaps looking out for a pursuer, and then continues on.

In medieval folklore, a black dog was one of the forms taken by the devil in his wanderings in the world of men; to the English, a spectral black dog was seen as a portent of death, as were the hounds that took part in the ghostly Wild Hunt of Herne the Hunter. In Goethe’s Faust, somewhat amusingly (to modern minds, at least), Mephisto takes the form of a black poodle, while in the 1976 film The Omen, Gregory Peck’s character is attacked by aggressive Rottweilers in the Etruscan cemetary where he has found the body of the jackal (another important member of this canine mythology) that gave birth to his adopted son and future Antichrist. Continue reading

Vastly outnumbered, again

For those of you interested in the rather big question of how concepts like East and West have evolved, and how such abstractions have influenced global history and continue to influence the politics of our day, Anthony Pagden’s Worlds at War: The 2,500-Year Struggle between East & West is very much worth reading. Here’s a snippet from my recent review of it in the Spectator:

There is much to admire about Pagden’s book. His breadth of knowledge across two and a half millennia of Western (and to a great extent Eastern) history is impressive, and he introduces the reader to a series of fascinating thinkers and travellers: Herodotus, Aelius Aristides, St. Augustine, Constantin-François Volney, John Stuart Mill. He also displays a clear-eyed awareness of how myths are created and sustained. The battle of Lepanto, in which the Venetians and Spanish defeated the Ottoman navy, ‘was hailed far and wide across Europe as a new Actium, a new Salamis,’ he writes. But ‘the analogies were, of course, entirely empty . . . The Spain of Philip II was hardly less despotic than the Ottoman Empire and in many respects was a good deal more so.’ As an intellectual history of Western views of the East, the book is exemplary.

Which is why it is so surprising to find Pagden’s frequently long stretches of good sense undermined by sweeping simplifications…

As you can tell from that last sentence, I do think that despite its many merits the book is far from flawless. In fact, its flaws are one of its most interesting attributes, as they reflect, I believe, the very mentality that leads inevitably to the division of the world into what we think of as a progressive West and a stagnant East.

Read the whole review and let me know if you agree — particularly if you’ve already read the book itself. And for an additional perspective on Pagden’s book, I’d recommend John Gray’s excellent and elegant analysis of it in the March issue of Literary Review.

Little Lulu Versus Donald Duck

A page from John Stanley’s Melvin Monster series.


There are not many cartoonists who have claims to greatness; perhaps a dozen or a score. Of this elite group, the least known to the general public and most underrated even by the cartooning cognoscenti is John Stanley (1914-1993). To the extent that he’s remembered at all, Stanley is known as the writer for the Little Lulu comic book series published Dell Comics. Stanley worked on the series from 1945 till around 1961 but during his long tenure at Dell worked on many other titles, ranging from characters created by others (Tubby, Nancy, Andy Panda) as well as characters he himself invented (the horror-spoof Melvin Monster, as well as teen comics like Dunc and Loo, Thirteen, and Kookie).


Fortunately we seem to be going through a small John Stanley renaissance right now. Dark Horse has released an 18-volume series reprinting the first decade of his Little Lulu work while Drawn and Quarterly has announced a new series that will reprint the books where Stanley worked on his own characters (Melvin Monster, Dunc and Loo and the other teen books). The Drawn and Quarterly series is especially exciting because this work is among Stanley’s best and the series as a whole will be designed by longtime Stanley admirer Seth (Seth’s graphic novel Wimbledon Green contains an extended homage to Stanley.)


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Reading the Bible to Tatters


My friend Brett Grainger grew up in a hardcore fundamentalist Christian household. So thoroughly did he imbibe his family’s creed that one day, when he came home to an empty house, he feared everyone had been taken up by the rapture and he was left behind to endure the turbulent reign of the anti-Christ. Fundamentalist Christianity is not really a doctrine (many warring denominations claim the mantle of old time religion) but rather a culture, a way of life complete with its own language, rituals, hidden assumptions, and creative expressions. Brett’s new book In the World But Not of It examines, with a wry wit enriched by first-hand knowledge, this culture of fundamentalism, looking at everything from theme parks to the protocols of the born again experience.

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What’s a nice bookstore like you doing in a place like this?

It took me nearly a year to notice this place, despite the fact that it’s located about half a block north of my office. Maybe it’s because I don’t frequently walk north (the GO train lies in the opposite direction); maybe it’s because there’s no glaringly bright signage announcing its presence (if you don’t look directly at the window you’ll miss the quiet little logo — subtitled, ironically enough, “read the fine print”). Maybe it’s because I’m staring at my Blackberry too much.

Whatever the reason, I was happy to find it. Ben McNally Books opened up last fall in the heart of Toronto’s financial district, in brave defiance of the laws of 21st century book retailing economics, which dictate that There Shall Be But One Retailer, Its Scope Shall Be National, and Its Tastes Middlebrow. Ben himself is the former general manager of Nicholas Hoare Books, a quality bookstore of longer standing (it’s part of a three-city chain, in fact) which, while being located in what one must call “downtown Toronto”, is not truly positioned on the spine of Canadian finance as Ben’s shop is — Hoare is several blocks to the east, a culture zone of restaurants, cafes, and galleries which attracts slow-walking browsers just ripe for book buying.

Bay Streeters, by contrast, generally have somewhere to go, fast. Languid walk-ins, therefore, will be rare. What Ben’s store must be hoping to attract instead is that (not insignificant) sub-set of business people who read more than the financial and sports pages, and who will be happy to have a quality bookstore in the heart of the district, staffed by people who can point out not only the latest John Grisham, but also the latest J.M. Coetzee.

Unfortunately, this select group of patrons may not often include me. Because of my limited free time, I have fairly precise, project-related reading needs, and these I’ve found are best served via the search-and-ship magic of Amazon.ca and its peers. However, I shall probably buy something occassionally from Ben’s, if only because a physical bookstore offers a different kind of serendipitous discovery effect than on-line retailers can provide (although with its many suggestion-style features, Amazon can come pretty close these days). For example, while scanning Ben’s shelves I ran across an attractive collection of Charles Baudelaire’s poetry, and came very very close to buying it on a whim. But I didn’t; too many other unread books in my house.

Next time, Ben.

National Post Condemns Sans Everything Writer

If you read tomorrows National Post, you’ll find an editorial condemning me. Oddly enough, the basis of the condemnation is an article that was commissioned by the Post itself (which will also run tomorrow). 

Context is everything. The Post had asked me to write about Israel’s 60th anniversary, as part of series of articles by many different writers that were set to run this week.  Knowing that every other writer for the series would be strongly pro Israel, I decided to write an article expressing my doubts about Israeli nationalism and the standard accounts of Israel’s creation (accounts which have been effectively challenged by a new generation of historians). If I hadn’t been writing for the Post, I wouldn’t have expressed myself as strongly as I did in the article I wrote, but I felt that Post readers needed to hear another side of the story articulated as forcefully as possible. So, ironically, the very fact that I was writing for the Post has made me a target for the Post.

In any case, my article can be found here. An excerpt:

Sixty years ago, a 12-year-old boy witnessed the slaughter of his family. His name was Fahim Zaydan, and he lived in the Arab village of Deir Yassin in Mandate Palestine, which was attacked on April 9, 1948, by Irgun and Stern Gang troops, paramilitary forces allied with the right-wing of the  Zionist movement. These troops swooped into the village and started machine gunning civilians. Those that survived this initial attack were then forced by the troops to gather outside.
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Israel at 60

David Frum and I talk about the future of Israel here in a National Post podcast. (There is no permanent link but it can be found under the May 1 2008 heading). Since these debates get a bit tedious and repititive, with both sides rehearsing their long settled talking points, I tried to interject a personal element by telling the story of a meeting I had with the novelist David Grossman which made big impression on me. I’m curious to know whether this digression had any effect in humazing the talk, so any comments are welcome.