Wednesday, October 21, 2015


Timothy Snyder’s previous book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, was well received in 2010. Since then, Putin left one of his massive estates, took a Stalin pill, ordered the assassination of more of his critics, and seized the Crimean peninsula in March 2014. This last action finally provided Russia with a fresh water port. Putin’s quislings then invaded eastern Ukraine, and infamously shot down a Malaysian Airline jet, killing all 298 passengers. Subsequently, world wide invasions of talking heads landed on many beaches. During that time, Snyder’s live interviews proved him to be one of the most informed and reliable commentators on the history leading up to, and during, the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. In Black Earth he returns to Second World War Ukraine, Poland, and other east European countries to examine in close and fine detail the devastation wrought upon these countries and their Jewish populations by Hitler and Stalin.

Black Earth is not a book that adds some incremental history to what we know about interwar and war time eastern Europe. It is a wide ranging and detailed history of the devastating decisions and actions taken by Hitler and German officials, as well as those taken by Stalin, that led to the outbreak of the Second World War, and to the genocide of millions of Jews and other innocent people. Snyder writes knowledgeably, and looks clearly at the decisions that many officials made in many countries to betray the innocent into the hands of Hitler and Stalin’s murderers.

During the time covered by Black Earth, the borders between many countries changed significantly, or disappeared, only to reappear in sometimes unrecognizable forms. In some cases, large areas of some countries became part of other countries. And small areas such as the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia simply disappeared. Without maps, much of Snyder’s history would have often been difficult to follow. However, he has provided extensive and detailed maps throughout Black Earth—an average of two maps in each chapter, and on some occasions three or four maps in other chapters. These maps ensure that the close reader may easily follow the often complex, yet unfailingly clear history that unfolds in each chapter.

I say “close reader” while recalling that Michael R. Marrus in The New York Times Book Review of September 6, 2015 wrote, “I suspect that Snyder will have lost many readers by this point” (About 60-70 pages into the book). I was about 130 pages into the book when I happened to read the Marrus review, and I was deeply engaged by Snyder’s clarity and detail, as I examined each map. Maybe Marrus wasn’t attending to the maps.

Two hundred pages into the book, and Hitler’s Final Solution for the Jewish people has not yet begun. But once any country is occupied by German forces, or by Russian forces, some members of the local police, military, and some residents take up arms and begin evicting Jews from their houses, and murdering them wherever they see a Jew. This is very difficult reading. In each country, the responses vary. Some residents volunteer to betray Jews into German hands. Other residents, at great personal risk to themselves, hide Jews in their houses, and care for them. Sometimes local police forces take part in killing innocent Jews. At other times, police officers sometimes save as many Jews as they can.

If you have an interest in this period of European history, Black Earth is a compassionate, wide-ranging, and troubling history of that time. Snyder concludes this fine book with informed warnings about how easily the murder and genocide of innocents occurs, and has occurred since the Second World War. He surveys how these genocides are occurring, and touches briefly on how these terrible choices will occur yet again. Snyder’s compassion extends to his friends. When his colleague Tony Judt was dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), Snyder was one of Judt’s caregivers. At different times, Snyder and Judt have both quoted the Polish Army Officer Witold Pilecki, who volunteered to enter Auschwitz, in order to understand it: “I bade farewell to everything I had hitherto known on this earth and entered something seemingly no longer of it.” (The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, p. 13).

Wednesday, October 7, 2015


Thirty-seven years ago, in 1978, Patti Smith shook up the music world with the release of her album Horses. “Gloria” and “Redondo Beach” from that album can still get the joint jumping. In the same year she released her underarm album, Easter. “Because the Night” from that album is still powerful, and “Easter” is a lament to end lamenting.

In 2005, the French Ministry of Culture awarded Smith the prestigious title of Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres—France’s highest honour for an artist.

In 2010 she published Just Kids. It became a #1 New York Times Bestseller and won a National Book Award. The American writer Joan Didion said this about Just Kids: “This book is so honest and pure as to count as a pure rapture.” And Johnny Depp landed long enough to praise her book as well: “Patti Smith has graced us with a poetic masterpiece, a rare and privileged invitation to unlatch a treasure chest never before breached.” I remember not being able to put Just Kids down until I finished reading it.

It’s 2015 and Patti Smith has just released another book, M Train, a reference to something she saw in a shot glass after two tequilas, “I closed my eyes and saw a green train with an M in a circle; a faded green like the back of a praying mantis.” (p. 123). Smith never repeats herself and M Train alternates between memoir, diary, travelogue, real estate deal, good meal/bad meal stories, and her lust for more and more good coffee, and impossibly good stories, that in another writer’s hands, you simply could not believe were true.

For example, how could the following story be true? Smith is attending a conference of the Continental Drift Club in Iceland, and is excited to be invited to photograph the chess table where Boris Spassky played Bobby Fischer in 1972 in “The Chess Match of the Century” in the breathless deathless words of The New York Times. She lingers in the room where the modest table is preserved, and tries to frame the table in her camera viewfinder to get the best photograph. Then she has the honour of meeting Fischer, who begins to spew “a string of obscene and racially repellent references that morphed into paranoiac conspiracy rants.”

“Look, you’re wasting your time, I said. I can be just as repellent as you, only about different subjects.”

Fischer has finally met more than his match, and settles down and eventually he and Smith spend part of the evening singing songs such as “Big Girls Don’t Cry” by Fischer in falsetto. True story.

Could the following story be true as well? Smith is staying in a big Hotel in London. She’s anticipating the forthcoming Cracker TV marathon staring Robbie Coltrane, about to be aired in Britain.

(Haven’t seen Cracker yet? Go to Thomas Entertainment on Baker Street in Guelph now and rent it before the other person reading this review rents it. Now, back to Smith’s story...)

Standing by the elevator I suddenly felt a presence beside me. We turned at the same moment and stared at one another. I was stunned to find Robbie Coltrane, as if I’d willed him, some days ahead of the Cracker marathon.

“I’ve been waiting for you all week, I said impetuously.”

“Here I am, he laughed.”

And here she is. On the M Train. I couldn’t put her second book down either.

Read more from James Reid at 

Sunday, October 4, 2015


How do we become the people we become? Where do we start? What are the forces that direct and shape us? Where does it all end, and why? These are the big, meaty questions so deftly poised by Don Gillmor in Long Change. Gillmor, also the author of Canada: A People’s History, has in his third work of fiction written what could possibly be considered the great Canadian novel. It’s an epic tale that feels a little bit like a mashup between The Grapes of Wrath and The Great Gatsby, with the Canadian oil industry as a backdrop.

The story arc of Long Change is vast, as its title suggest. Gillmor explores the life of Ritt Devlin, a tale that starts with a boy of fifteen running from his past and present in Texas towards a future in the oil patch in Canada. It is a saga that will take 70 years to tell, shaped by internal forces and external circumstances. There is an awesome intersection of places, people, and events that provides resonant believability. Gillmor’s characters are principled but flawed; as readers, we get to explore exactly what principles Devlin and others are prepared to compromise, the consequences that result as principles erode and just how flawed people can become as a result.

What I most loved about the novel was the depth and richness that Gillmor has embedded into the Long Change. The book is firmly rooted in the oil industry, from the hot, back-breaking work of roughnecks at remote wellheads to the overheated, cut-throat world of deal-making and corporate competition. The evolution of Calgary and Alberta—socially, physically, and politically—from the 1950s through today, is portrayed with an uncanny eye for detail and nuance. The growth of western Canada is in many respects the story of oil; the story of oil is the narrative structure that drives Gillmor’s efforts. The landmarks and events of Calgary are brought to vivid life through the relating of how oil fortunes were made, complexly structured for tax purposes, lost and made again.

While a work of fiction, the Long Change also weaves significant actual world events into its overall structure, Devlin's thriving and striving played out against the backdrop of the wildcatting of the early years of oil development in Alberta, the National Energy Program, the decline of the Soviet Union and the opening of the far north for drilling and exploration. The detail and authority that Gillmor brings to describing life and leverage in the oil industry is nothing short of exceptional.

Long Change works on a number of levels, which is an integral part of its overall appeal. It screams of a sense of place, not just in its descriptions of Alberta but also of the wild wests of emerging oil centres like Africa in the 1980s and Russia in the 1990s. The characters are well developed and entirely realistic, wrestling in equal with petty grievances and profound ambition. It provides a gritty and realistic portrayal of the hardscrabble life on the front lines of the oil industry, the mercenary world of political lobbying and corporate dealmaking, as well as the thousands of petty personal dramas that play out on the sidelines. 

Mark Mullaly is an avid reader, sometimes writer, enthusiastic motorcyclist and lover of wine (and endeavours to engage in only one of these pursuits at any given time).