A final encore of Olympic glory

Plus, what will happen when the seas rise, a new biography of Jack London and a famous psychic on how her skills are useless when it comes to her own life
Jeff McIntosh/CP

All but a handful of staff of the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee have scattered, and work is under way to convert VANOC headquarters into its new role as the city’s police station. But organizers couldn’t resist a final encore: a big, fat reminder of the glory that was the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Just in time for summer, their photo-rich commemorative book clocks in at a hefty 400 pages. While it may be out of season, it’s a cool reminder of, as the book’s authors put it, “a celebration we didn’t know we needed.” In that regard, a release timed to Canada Day is appropriate. It takes only moments for the photos to reel one back to a kaleidoscope of memories: k.d lang in her ice cream suit belting out Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah; Alexandre Bilodeau on Cypress Mountain nailing Canada’s first Olympic gold on Canadian soil; skeleton racer Jon Montgomery’s triumph in Whistler, celebrated with a pitcher of liquid gold; Neil Young’s Long May You Run at the closing ceremonies, as the country was coming down from Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal.

VANOC’s photographers had enviable access to all sorts of hidden treasures. So we see hockey great Hayley Wickenheiser’s good luck charm, a Lego figure of Princess Leia from her son, Noah. We see snowboard veteran Jasey-Jay Anderson’s lucky purple socks, retired after 18 seasons of competition and one Olympic gold. There’s a postcard, painstakingly written in pencil by Davy of Huntsville Public School. “I would like the Olympic Torch to come to Huntsville because I’ve never seen it before,” he implored organizers. “I think many people will come and I will bring my friends and family to the biggest event in Huntsville.” Bigger, we’re betting, than the G8 summit.

“The Canada that began this great adventure,” writes VANOC chief John Furlong, “seemed to cross the finish line a little taller.” True enough.

Peter D. Ward
“The near-future scenario of a CO2-spewing Canada warming the entire world is hardly a fantasy.” Canadians who were startled by British environmental militant George Monbiot’s November jeremiad on their country and its oil sands policies—“behaving with all the sophistication of a chimpanzee’s tea party . . . amazingly destructive . . . turning itself into a corrupt petro-state”—should realize that Monbiot is not an outlier in climate-change circles. And if Ward, a paleontologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, is more measured in his tone, it’s only because the American’s entire book is written in a kind of grim despair. Ward acknowledges the inherent complexities of climate modelling and the wide range of possibilities—and thus fodder for skeptics—that uncertainty creates. But of the increasing amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and its results, he declares there is no doubt. The evidence of the past as revealed by ice cores is unequivocal, Ward writes: when CO2 (currently at 385 ppm, or parts per million) rises in concentration, the planet warms. When it warms enough, Greenland and Antarctica melt and the seas rise. A metre increase by the end of this century is already assured; in fact, “we must hope for less than [1.6 m].” That rise, and the even higher storm surges that will accompany it, will devastate coastal regions, home to a huge swath of humanity—particularly vulnerable would be Bangladesh and the Netherlands—and wreak havoc with agriculture.

Ward writes that humanity could do something about this, not to stop it—that’s no longer possible—but to cap it and ameliorate its effects, but he really doesn’t think we will, not, at least, before instances of mass mortality (see, again, Bangladesh and the Netherlands). So he peppers his account with nicely written hypothetical future vignettes about civilization’s decline in various places and times, including one that offers a final irony for Canadians, whose tar sands Ward believes will do so much to bring it on. In “Sacramento Valley, 2135 CE, CO2 800 ppm,” bands of dispossessed Americans keep trying to reach wet, productive lands to the north: “Canada and Russia were now the richest countries on Earth.”

James L. Haley
That Jack London, almost a century after his untimely death at 40, remains among the best-known writers in U.S. history, is partly because of the way 20th-century criticism shoved his works downward, so to speak, into children’s literature, just as it did with much other popular pre-First World War writing. The juvenilization, based on the exciting plots, happy endings and animal protagonists of The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906) means generations of American kids have encountered London’s works in print or on film. But London has also had generations of adult admirers, academics and ordinary readers alike, who believe the deeper moral themes and superb descriptive writing in those works—as well as in his other great novel, 1904’s The Sea-Wolf—merit London’s place in the American pantheon.

Haley is definitely one of those admirers, although that doesn’t keep his biography from warts-and-all territory as he weaves together the often contradictory aspects of London’s fierce personality and scarcely more bland public persona—hence the plural “lives” of his subtitle. Besides, what was scandalous 100 years ago—London’s illegitimate birth, a brief teenage career as a thief preying on oyster beds, his marriages and affairs, his socialist ideology, even his alcoholism—is hardly so today. (In fact, some of it seems positively contemporary, especially the New Agey-sounding parents, an astrologist father and a free-love devotee mother.)

What is contentious now is Haley’s determination to portray London, the decrier of economic injustice, as the writer who “speaks with greater authority to the America of the 21st century” than any other. That approach, ironically enough, runs the risk of crafting an image of London that mirrors what happened to him in his own time (and even after—for reasons best known to its paranoid director, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI opened a dossier on the writer two decades after his death), when London was excoriated for his godless socialism. But Haley escapes the trap of holding London’s literary merit hostage to his political beliefs, making a convincing case for an economic crusader who also happened to be a great writer.

Sylvia Browne with Lindsay Harrison
Sylvia Browne had her first vision at the age of five. She was at dinner with her family when she saw the faces of her two great-grandmothers melt like hot wax; two weeks later, both women were dead. Almost 70 years later, Browne is a famous psychic. She was a regular on The Montel Williams Show through much of its 17-year run, frequently appeared on Larry King Live and has written a handful of New York Times bestsellers about all things paranormal. Her new book delves into more personal material. Browne chronicles a turbulent childhood, marred by her parents’ brittle marriage and the physical and emotional abuse inflicted by her mother, to whom she refers as a “dark entity.” The brightest spot in her life was maternal Grandma Ada, who nurtured young Sylvia’s emerging gift for communing with the dead.

Browne insists her soothsaying skills are useless when it comes to her own life; her first husband was abusive, her second, a fraudster, and her third, a philanderer (she married again, at age 72, last year; so far, so good). But she also believes that she herself “charted” all these failed relationships while still on the “other side.”

This book about her life in two worlds is itself a little dichotomous, as Browne moves from biography to paranormal teachings—the difference between ghosts and spirits, for example. There’s a bit too much of this—you wish she would talk about her plastic surgery or share more on her relationships with her children. She devotes a fair bit of ink to some of her “validated” readings, but disappointingly fails to address recent controversies surrounding ones she has given about missing children. Still, there’s something consistently likeable in Browne’s tone, by turns sarcastic and earnest; it’s practically cute how she tries to cushion the blow when delivering the sad truth that “none of us will ever become angels.” And some of her stories are just plain fun. She has it on good authority, for example, that the record number of whiskeys Dylan Thomas drank in one go was 19, not 18, as some accounts claim. Trust her—he told her so himself.