A coffee-table book with benefits

Plus, a second opinion about prostate cancer, homeless soccer stars, a chilling Holocaust detective story, a new novel from the author of ‘A History of Love,’ and what the Bible says about sex
Michael Cullen/ Mick Tsikas/Reuters Jack Bush's 'Thanksgiving.' 1954: The Painters Eleven/ Afghanistan defeats Russia to win

A coffee-table book with benefitsPAINTERS ELEVEN:THE WILD ONES OF CANADIAN ART
Iris Nowell

The Painters Eleven were abstract artists based in Toronto who banded together in 1953 with a goal: to make waves in the tranquil pool of Canadian landscape art. In other words, no more pine trees. The Painters Eleven drafted a statement, of sorts, saying, “there is no jury but time.” The work would speak for itself.
In her new book, Iris Nowell helps the rest of us understand this group of abstract artists who dared to create a footprint unlike the Group of Seven’s. So, who were they? Toronto’s top art teachers, illustrators, commercial artists and art directors. They joined the city’s established art societies, cannily, and tried to bring about change from within. It wasn’t easy, but they revolutionized contemporary art in Toronto and bestowed legitimacy on abstract expressionism after it had gained fame in America and the Automatistes had made inroads in Quebec.

Opening the hefty book, readers are immediately treated to 11 colour reproductions—no titles, no dates, no dimensions, no artist name printed politely at the side. Nowell is saying, “Look at these! The work deserves this lavish treatment.” And she’s right. Nowell has given us a coffee table book with benefits. Examining the members’ artistic development toward abstraction, she peppers the text with chatty anecdotes, biographic details and telling character descriptions. If you thought you’d heard all about artist Tom Hodgson’s carousing in his studio, called the Pit, think again. If abstract art was the group’s unifying force, so was boxing and booze—martinis, to be exact, and Walter Yarwood’s Bloody Murphy. Nowell recounts how socialite Alexandra Luke, one of the two females in the group, had to sell an Emily Carr painting to buy art supplies. Her book is an accessible account that leaves the reader with one burning question: who is the mystery benefactor who partially bankrolled this lush publication?

A coffee-table book with benefitsINVASION OF THE PROSTATE SNATCHERS
Mark Scholz and Ralph Blum

The humble prostate is man’s great unknown. Buried somewhere in our nether regions, it is a walnut-sized enigma that (I’m told) is crucial to the reproduction of the species and is accessible only via an almost comically uncomfortable process involving a finger, a rubber glove and a hospital gown. But is what usually follows as necessary as the medical establishment claims?

Not entirely, according to authors Ralph Blum and Mark Scholz, who paired up for what might be subtitled Conversations With and About My Cancerous Prostate. Blum has had prostate cancer for 20 years, and he uses his experience as an example of the near-uselessness of biopsies and resulting surgery—one alarming statistic reveals that roughly 80 per cent of prostate surgeries are unnecessary. Prostate cancer is the whale shark of the cancer world: slow-moving and benign. He and co-author Scholz, himself a doctor specializing in prostate cancer, talk about why men almost always opt for surgery: straight-up fear, the insistence of surgery-mad urologists who run “the prostate cancer world,” the human male’s tendency to want to cut the damn thing out and be done with it. Rather than have surgery, Blum embarked on self-treatment and active surveillance—closely monitoring cancer markers and trying a series of often out-there experimental therapies, some more successful than others. (Spirit-channelling shaman? Silver-infused water? Blum tried them all.) His methods are scattershot, and that’s just the point. By staying positive (and keeping an eye on the markers) there are hundreds of possible treatments for this particular cancer. A breezy and effortless writer, Blum writes endearingly about the emasculating travails of at once losing one’s libido and ability to perform, a side effect of testosterone blocking therapy, while Scholz gives a welcome wariness to the practices of much of the medical establishment. A worthy read for anyone about to assume the position.

Dave Bidini

The singer-songwriter from the beloved (and now defunct) Canadian band the Rheostatics is known for writing about games that are played in unlikely places—baseball in Italy, hockey in Hong Kong. Dave Bidini’s latest quirky sport story is a mix of familiar and foreign, as he follows the Canadian homeless soccer team to Melbourne, Australia, for the 2008 Homeless World Cup Tournament.

Bidini does a fine job portraying the Canadian team: Krystal, an 18-year-old black woman who never fit in with her adopted family; Billy, the Greek, who played soccer professionally and then ran his family’s business until becoming hooked on narcotics; sane, sober Jerry, whose multiple failed business ventures left him destitute. Bidini affectionately recounts some of their signature plays on the pitch (street soccer, a four-on-four game with two seven-minute halves, is played on a smaller field to accommodate players’ fitness and health levels)—like the way Jerry would hold the ball underfoot like a man resting his foot on a curbside. And their awkward social forays. Billy suggested that the team adopt “Souvlaki” as its anthem.

“That’s a song?” asked the coach. “A song, a food. Whatever,” was Billy’s reply.

Bidini also aptly covers the range of homeless experiences represented by the 54 nations who competed at Melbourne, including the all-female Cameroon team who left their street babies back home. Bidini holds a “long-standing belief in the redemptive properties of sport,” and to some extent, his book reflects this ideal. After returning to Canada, Billy reconciled with his parents and Krystal started playing soccer semi-professionally. But Bidini also hints at the fact that homelessness is too complex a problem to be solved by a soccer ball. He mentions players getting high before games and going AWOL for days at a time. He asked a young, strung-out Australian woman what the tournament meant to her. “I don’t get very mushy about things,” she replied. “That’s my life, you know, and that’s how I f–ked it up.”

A coffee-table book with benefitsTHE LAMPSHADE
Mark Jacobson

In early 2006, just months after hurricane Katrina, Skip Henderson was prowling the melancholy streets of New Orleans when he came upon a junkie selling storm-ravaged items. Among them was a small lamp.

Henderson’s collector’s eye recognized the metal frame as a central European, mid-20th-century work. But the shade . . . What is this made of? he asked. “The skin of Jews.” Henderson had no reason to believe it, but sent the shade to a journalist friend, Jacobson, who passed it along to a genetic lab. The verdict arrived 118 years to the day after Hitler’s birth: human origin.

With that, Jacobson’s utterly engrossing and profoundly disquieting search for answers is off and running. He re-examines the postwar stories that the Nazis didn’t just murder Jews by the millions but rendered their body fat into soap and their skin into leather. Ilse Koch, the so-called Bitch of Buchenwald—immortalized in the B movie Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS—reportedly ordered such lampshades made, once as a birthday present for her husband, the camp commander. Buchenwald’s American liberators displayed a table of horrors that included a purportedly human-skin lampshade. But that lampshade disappeared, no others surfaced and no charges were ever entered in war-crimes trials. Most scholars long ago dismissed the beliefs as myths that captured the essence of a genocide both diabolical and prosaically industrial.

Even the shade’s drug addict seller, who had stolen it from an abandoned home, had no real reason to think it was a Holocaust artifact. He was just one of the many people Jacobson encounters—all of them of an age to remember the old stories—who somehow instinctively recognize the shade for what it is. In the end, its stubbornly murky origins matter less to Jacobson than a single question: what on Earth should he do with it? No Holocaust museum would accept it, leaving Jacobson, as he leaves the reader, with a hard choice: bury the shade—and all hope of further discovery—or keep both in the land of the living.

A coffee-table book with benefitsGREAT HOUSE
Nicole Krauss

As she did in The History of Love, the American writer weaves seemingly disparate stories around a singular object—this time, a massive desk—and only at the novel’s conclusion do all the interconnections become clear. There’s a solitary novelist in New York who borrowed the desk from a passionate young poet, subsequently tortured and killed in Pinochet’s Chile. In Israel, a widower struggles to make sense of his antagonism toward his adult son. In London, a waifish pair of siblings rattle around an antique-filled house while their father combs the Earth to find the furniture the Nazis stole from his parents before killing them. Nearby, a professor of literature stumbles across a secret that his wife, a supremely self-contained woman now suffering from dementia, has kept all her life.

Each story takes the form of a confession, and each is, in itself, deeply compelling, both because the characters’ voices are so distinct and because their situations are so richly imagined. Here’s the New York novelist explaining a lover’s reasons for dumping her: “The gist was that he had a secret self, a cowardly, despicable self he could never show me, and that he needed to go away like a sick animal until he could improve this self and bring it up to a standard he judged deserving of company.” And here’s the widower, berating his son for renting a BMW: “You’re such a big shot that you can’t accept a Hyundai like everyone else? You have to specially pay extra for a car made by the sons of Nazis?”

As in her previous two novels, there’s a lot about the writing life—many of the characters are writers, or would like to be—but Krauss no longer seems to be angling for an A from the postmodern tricksters who have influenced her style. Here, narrative is the point. She doesn’t quite tie everything together convincingly in Great House, but the characters feel so real, and the sense of loss they share is so powerfully distilled, it’s easy to forgive minor construction flaws.

A coffee-table book with benefitsGOD AND SEX: WHAT THE BIBLE REALLY SAYS
Michael Coogan

A serious scholar (editor of  the New Oxford Annotated Bible) with a sense of humour, Harvard lecturer Coogan has long been bemused by the way all sides in various debates, from abortion to same-sex marriage, reference the Bible without knowing much about what it really says. The language of sex and of beauty is culturally specific, he points out, and while the male speaker in the Song of Songs clearly means high praise for his lover when he compares her hair to “a flock of goats streaming down from Mount Gilead,” a modern beau would be ill-advised to say as much to his beloved. Likewise, sexual euphemisms, which range from the familiar carnal overtones of “knowing” to the less often recognized use of “feet” for genitalia: the Israelite heroine Jael was able to drive a tent peg into an enemy commander’s skull because “between her feet he knelt down, there he fell, wasted” (Judges 5:27).

The meat of the book, though, lies in Coogan’s discussion of what Scripture says about current hot-button issues. Almost all sexual transgressions involving women, from adultery to incest and rape, are treated as property crimes, because they usurp another male’s rights to a woman or diminish her financial value. Abortion is not mentioned, and the few references to fetuses are not clear about their status as human persons.

As for homosexuality, the last of the New Testament’s three condemnations (Romans 1:26-27) speaks of homoerotic relations as divinely imposed, a concept, Coogan notes, “not very far from the modern view that sexual orientation is innate,” not chosen. The Old Testament’s two explicit references are found with other instances of Israelite rejection of what scholars call “category confusion”: crossbreeding animals, planting different crops in the same field, wearing clothing woven from different kinds of yarn. Needless to say, these are prohibitions long ignored. And just as we no longer scan the Bible for agricultural advice, Coogan concludes, we ought to be at least as wary about its social policy prescriptions.