Battling in Washington and Afghanistan

Plus, the world’s most stolen artwork, the top Canadian songs ever, Myla Goldberg’s mean girl, Oka behind the scenes and the inspiring pigheadedness of Roald Dahl
Battling in Washington and Afghanistan
'Obama's Wars': Bob Woodward offers juicy portraits from Obamaland, concentrating more on political struggles in the U.S. than war abroad; Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

Battling in Washington and AfghanistanOBAMA’S WARS
Bob Woodward

The title refers less to actual combat than to closed-door battles in Washington as Barack Obama spent months wrestling over questions left unanswered by his predecessor: what are we trying to do in Afghanistan? And how the heck do we get out? Obama, who campaigned on the promise of a swift withdrawal from Iraq, quickly runs into a brick wall of Pentagon brass committed to a long war in Afghanistan. Obama asks for three options, but his generals keep bringing him one: 40,000 troops for a “counter-insurgency” effort aimed at “defeating” the Taliban. Woodward’s Obama—cool and cerebral, but constrained by finances and political realities—eventually downgrades to a more modest aspiration of “degrading” the Taliban enough that the whole mess can be handed over to Afghan security forces. Distrustful of his top generals, and beset by doubts, Obama personally dictates a plan for a surge of 30,000 troops followed by a drawdown to start in July 2011.

Woodward, who also chronicled George W. Bush’s wars, delivers juicy portraits from Obamaland. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a “delusional” manic depressive who goes “off his meds.” Bush’s outgoing CIA director brags of “owning” certain governments. Obama expects Hillary Rodham Clinton to be loyal because she stuck with Bill, but Clinton forms a hawkish alliance with Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Meanwhile, Vice President Joe Biden’s long-winded appeals for fewer troops go ignored.

Adding to the drama is Obama’s growing realization that Afghanistan has been displaced as the front line in the terror wars. Pakistan features an unstable government, 150 terrorist camps and 100 nuclear weapons. It receives billions in American aid, while helping arm the Afghan Taliban and terrorists who attack nuclear rival India. “We have to make clear to the people that the cancer is in Pakistan,” says Obama, who steps up strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas by unmanned drones. But as tensions with Pakistan continue to rise and effective policy options are few, one thing is clear: there will be plenty of fodder for a sequel.

Noah Charney

At two tonnes in weight, the Ghent altarpiece completed by Jan van Eyck in 1432, often called the Mystic Lamb after its central image, is hardly an obvious candidate for the title of “world’s most frequently stolen artwork,” but with everyone from Napoleon to Hitler having had a go, and over 13 separate thefts, so it is. Part of the motive, of course, is the transcendent beauty of its painted wooden panels and its claim to be perhaps the most important painting in history. Van Eyck didn’t invent oil painting, but he was the first to exploit its possibilities in depicting light and detail, and the panels are medieval in their Gothic styling but Renaissance in their naturalism: the altarpiece, in fact, is a hinge between two major eras in Western art. Yet another impetus behind the thieving was van Eyck’s complex symbolism. What was he really depicting? Are those Knights Templar approaching the lamb? Are there references, à la Dan Brown, to the Holy Bloodline (Christ’s descendents); is there a coded map locating the Spear of Destiny (the lance that pierced Christ’s side)? Serious conspiracy enthusiasts have always been interested in the altarpiece.

In Charney’s hands, the story of the various heists often reads like a political thriller. By the time French revolutionaries, soon emulated by Napoleon, took to systematic art looting—at first to pay off starving soldiers, but leading to the Louvre becoming a world-class showroom—the template was set for Nazi plundering. A priest managed to hide the altarpiece from the Germans during the First World War, but by the end of the Second, it was found in an Austrian salt mine. Among 12,000 objects there, the Mystic Lamb was one of 53 tagged “A.H. Linz”—destined for the super-museum Adolf Hitler had planned for the Austrian city.

Battling in Washington and AfghanistanTHE FALSE FRIEND
Myla Goldberg

Celia Durst is in her early 30s, toiling as an auditor in Chicago, when the sight of a red car suddenly jolts her back to being an 11-year-old in upstate New York. In the midst of one of those heated arguments that only girls can have, her best friend, Djuna, flounces off into a stranger’s car and is never seen again. Or, that’s what Celia told friends, and later, the police. It was a lie: she saw her best friend fall into a hole—an abandoned well, she figured—in the woods beside the road, but never told anyone.

It’s a great premise that gets even better. When Celia goes home to confess, no one believes her. Her parents insist on her innocence. Her friends declare that they, too, saw Djuna get into the car. However, they also make it painfully clear that mild-mannered Celia does have something to feel guilty about: namely, having been a mean girl who, with even meaner Djuna, picked on other girls just for the hell of it. Celia was so heedless of their misery, and then so traumatized by guilt about her friend’s disappearance, that she never had to come to terms with what a nasty piece of work she was as a child. Until now.

In other words, the plot of Myla Goldberg’s third novel screams “book club” even more loudly than her first, the bestseller Bee Season. The prose, unfortunately, screams for an editor, the kind who takes a dim view both of naming the love interest “Huck” and burdening him with such soulful convictions as “the redemptive powers of sibling communication, a faith consecrated inside the silent cathedral of the only child.” This kind of overwriting gums up a cleverly constructed story. But The False Friend is more ambitious than most middlebrow fiction—themes include the reliability of memory, and the extent to which any adult can audit her own past and like what she discovers—and its portrayal of the psychological warfare that can go on between young girls, and the lasting damage it causes, is acutely observed.

Donald Sturrock

Before Roald Dahl became the wildly successful children’s author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Fantastic Mr. Fox, his life was so eventful you’d think he’d made it up.

As an RAF pilot in the Second World War, he survived a near-fatal plane crash to become a wing commander. As a scriptwriter, he hobnobbed with Walt Disney in Hollywood, and as an undercover British intelligence officer, he became a confidant of FDR in Washington. He married actress Patricia Neal, and after she had an aneurysm, he pioneered a rehabilitation technique for stroke victims. He steered his family through a frightening number of personal crises—while poaching pheasants, breeding greyhounds, speculating on antiques, and devising outlandish tales in his writing hut.

He also enthusiastically gilded the truth, and Sturrock, a TV producer and friend of his in his later years, does valiant work to separate Dahl’s mythmaking from his truth-telling. We learn, for instance, that when Dahl crash-landed, he wasn’t alone, as he had always claimed—another pilot helped him survive. We also gain insight into his books: his most famous hero, Charlie, was originally to be a black child, and one of his adversaries was to have been “Herpes Trout.”

Having endured a cruelly Dickensian boarding school in his teens, Dahl was adverse to the stereotypical English idea that one mustn’t grumble—he spent much of his life railing against what he saw as injustice. At times, he could be remarkably generous; at others, disturbingly petty. Sturrock picks his way through Dahl’s many conflicts with even-handedness—perhaps sometimes letting his subject off the hook rather easily, but in the process humanizing his most ogreish moments.

Storyteller rolls along with vigour, like an unstoppable giant peach, until the inevitable slowing down of the final years, and apart from the dangling modifiers, which Dahl’s mischievous gremlins no doubt scattered about, it’s engagingly readable. One wouldn’t, one senses, have wanted to live with Dahl, but the energy, imagination, iconoclasm and amazing pigheadedness that come across in this account of his life are wondrously inspiring.

Battling in Washington and AfghanistanOKA: A POLITICAL CRISIS AND ITS LEGACY
Harry Swain

The Oka crisis of 1990 was hardly a model of restraint. Two lives were lost during the 78-day conflict between natives from the Kanesatake settlement and the surrounding white population. Three levels of government, two police forces and one army took on a handful of armed-to-the-teeth Mohawks, all for the sake of a tiny swath of land. Yet Swain presents those sweaty, engrossing summer days as a tragic yet absurd spectacle that could have been much, much worse were it not for cooler heads on both sides of the barricade. The deputy minister of Indian and northern affairs in Brian Mulroney’s government, Swain illustrates the undeniable brutality visited upon the natives in this part of the world and how, through a string of centuries-old broken promises, they were marooned on smaller and smaller pieces of land. The message is clear: for natives, every chunk of ground is crucial.

Swain’s targets are many, not the least being his own department, which he portrays as a lumbering, bureaucratic beast—a graveyard of ambition—rescued by a few bright minds, his own included. He accuses the Warrior faction, much of which was imported from Akwesasne and points south, of piggybacking on the conflict for their own purposes. He faults the residents of neighbouring Chateauguay for racism, and the Sûreté du Québec for expanding their ranks following the shooting death of Cpl. Marcel Lemay—despite government orders to do just the opposite. The media, meanwhile, only served to prolong the standoff. It took heroes to save the day, and they are equally as numerous: federal Indian affairs minister Tom Siddon and his provincial equivalent John Ciaccia for eloquence and perseverance; Kanesatake’s calm, sad-eyed matriarch, Ellen Gabriel; the Canadian army, for not falling into the same violent trap as the SQ. What makes the book so readable is Swain’s compelling portrayal of the dull inner workings of government, and how it somehow managed to stave off further bloodshed.

Battling in Washington and AfghanistanTHE TOP 100 CANADIAN SINGLES
Bob Mersereau

Randy Bachman is the king of Canadian music. Based on the list in this well-illustrated coffee-table book, Bachman not only can lay partial claim to the No. 1 Canadian single of all time, the Guess Who’s American Woman, but to three other Guess Who tracks, two by Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and two by Trooper, an act signed and produced by Bachman. No wonder the CBC gave him a weekly show to prattle on about the glory days.

Mersereau curated a jury consisting of approximately 700 Canadian musicians, industry types, DJs and journalists (including this writer)—and a large number of people listed only as “music fans”—to submit a top 10 list. On the surface, the results skew toward Bachman’s generation; of the final 10, only two songs are post-1980, and one of those, by Leonard Cohen, didn’t become a hit until two decades later. Delving deeper, however, almost half of the top 100 come from after 1980; of more recent artists, Arcade Fire has two tracks and Sloan has three.

A list does not make a book, of course, and Mersereau managed to track down the vast majority of the artists for informative interviews. He was only turned down by the likes of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Feist, but captures their work perfectly well without their help, as he does with the few francophones on the list. To his credit, Mersereau did his homework in Quebec, and offers a separate, non-annotated francophone list of 100 singles as a primer on the province’s pop culture for the rest of Canada, which still doesn’t know the difference between Robert Charlebois and Jean Leloup.

Such a list is bound to be somewhat predictable; what’s a bit sad is how homogenous it is, musically. This is a classic-rock radio programmer’s dream come true, with two hip-hop tracks, no disco and even very little pop. On the other hand, Nickelback is nowhere to be found.