The dam that built the Southwest

Plus, why soccer didn’t catch on here, a plan for the U.S. to buddy up with Iran, David Mitchell’s new novel, cold cases, and more over-sharing from Tori Spelling

Michael Hiltzik
The Hoover Dam was the Three Gorges of its pre-environmental day. What Hiltzik calls the Colorado River’s “violent personality”—as witnessed by the scars it’s left in the landscape (the Grand Canyon for one)—did inspire a degree of respect in western settlers, but mostly it fired their desire to tame it. In 1912, U.S. interior secretary Franklin Lane set out policy toward wilderness in terms as moral as any ever used by an ecologist, even if from a very different perspective: “The mountains are our enemies. The sinful rivers we must curb.” (The river was sinful? Doesn’t the dam supply power to Las Vegas?)

So there is a long backstory to the epic tale of the dam, where concrete was first poured in 1933. All of it is relayed with gusto by Hiltzik, including the contributions of George Chaffey, the Brockville, Ont.-born engineer and entrepreneur who founded the successful irrigation colony of Ontario, Calif., and—rather like Eric the Red and Greenland—substituted the more appealing name of Imperial Valley for the Colorado Desert.

Hiltzik has an eye for the absurd—the squabble among the affected states for their “fair” share of the bounty is worthy of a Monty Python sketch—but in the meat of his account there is little occasion for anything but black humour. The first man to die at the dam site was J. Gregory Tierney, a surveyor who drowned on Dec. 20, 1922; 13 years later to the day, his son Patrick, an electrician who fell from an intake tower, became the last. In between, more than 100 others perished, most as a result of poor safety protocols or the wretched living conditions foisted on a desperate Depression-era workforce.

Completed in 1936, the dam brought dependable water and sufficient power to fuel the rise of Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas and other cities, thereby playing a not-insignificant role in the American Century. And also in the region’s current crisis: today’s demands on the river exceed its capacities—which have been lessened by its damming (reservoirs lose a lot to evaporation). The American Southwest, Hiltzik argues, is going to have to find a new way to live with and utilize the Colorado.

Andrei S. Markovits and Lars Rensmann
Nothing says globalization, not in a cultural sense anyway, like teens wearing Los Angeles Lakers jerseys and playing pickup basketball to the sound of hip hop—in Barcelona. Unless it’s the exploding North American interest in soccer’s World Cup. The authors, two American professors, might alienate more than a few sports fans with their deep academic-speak (“our approach follows the Hegelian notion of Aufhebung”), but their book is fascinating on matters both large—the late 19th-century dissemination of newly codified sports from two competing economic and cultural “cores” (Britain/Europe and North America) to countries around the world—and small: the spread in recent years, from North America to Europe, of the wave, high fives and player tattoos. Best of all is their discussion of how high-end sports have managed to go global, so that Manchester United boasts fans from Beijing to Lima, while maintaining the local identities that give teams their emotional power.

No sport has done this more successfully than soccer, the ruling passion everywhere but Canada and the U.S. One of the great sporting what-ifs covered by Markovits and Rensmann is the brief 19th-century moment when we almost joined in. Outside North America, the world was embracing soccer; within it, Yale and most Ivy League American universities were poised to take part. Only Harvard, the nation’s most prestigious school, hesitated between soccer and rugby. Then came an 1874 challenge from McGill University to a rugby game.

The Harvard boys were bowled over by the British aura (talk about prestige) of the visiting McGill students—their newspaper went on for pages about the elegance of the Montrealers’ dress. On Harvard’s return visit north in 1875, invitations to that most British and hence most prestigious of all sports—a fox hunt—meant the social cachet of rugby would carry the day. Harvard’s own prestige dragged the rest of the Ivy League and eventually every other university in America in its wake. Had the premier university opted for soccer, then the Beautiful Game would truly rule the entire world now, and the U.S. in all probability would already have several World Cup titles.

Stephen Kinzer
For a provocative Middle Eastern thesis delivered in soothingly friendly terms, a reader could hardly do better than Kinzer. Given that he’s a former long-time foreign correspondent (New York Times) in the region, Kinzer can even lay claim to knowing what he’s talking about. And he has something else going for him: U.S. policy in the Mideast over the last half-century could have produced worse results, but not by much. Almost any new idea, however outrageous it might sound, deserves a hearing. And outrageous Kinzer’s is: he puts the blame for bad American policy on its dominant relationships (with Saudi Arabia and Israel) and its failure to nurture mutually beneficial ties with its natural regional allies, Turkey and Iran.

Yes, that Iran. The thuggish fundamentalist totalitarian state busy crushing the aspirations of its own people, the one headed by a man who sounds like a cross between Hitler and Calvin, the one desperately seeking nuclear weapons. The author holds no brief for the Iranian regime, which he regards as a cancer afflicting a people he deeply admires, but he maintains that of all Muslim nations, save Turkey, Iran is the closest to and most desirous of—in a popular sense—democracy and liberty. His argument is primarily historical: a functioning democracy cannot be created by the barrel of a gun (see Iraq), at least not without long, hard years of groundwork. Kinzer provides a sweeping overview of a century of just such struggle in Turkey and Iran, complete with little-known historical figures, like Howard Baskerville. The 24-year-old Nebraskan teacher and missionary fought and died leading his student troops during the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1905 to 1911, and today remains an honoured figure in Iran, with schools and streets named after him.

Persuasive as the history is, Kinzer’s policy prescriptions—just engage with the Iranians—tend to fall between anodyne and naive. He’s well aware of that, though, and is ready with his most persuasive argument of all: given “the target-rich environment” that endless American miscues in the Mideast offer analysts, replaying past policy is hardly an option.

David Mitchell
In the decade he’s been publishing fiction, British author David Mitchell—who’s written four previous novels, two of them shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize—has charmed critics and fans alike. Time named him one of its most influential people of 2007, crediting him with “creat[ing] the 21st-century novel.” Expectations for his new book, then, could not be higher. But even though Mitchell’s substantial gifts as a storyteller are again on display in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and while the book is undeniably fun to read, he doesn’t quite deliver on the promise shown in earlier novels like Cloud Atlas, which was a dazzling technical feat.

Thousand Autumns tells the story of Jacob de Zoet, an idealistic young clerk stationed at the trading outpost of Dejima, in Japan, in the late 18th century—the dying days of the Dutch East India Company, his employer. Trying to win a fortune to impress his fiancée back in Rotterdam, de Zoet nonetheless finds himself drawn to Orito Aibagawa, a midwife with a beautiful, scarred face.
With foreigners confined to Dejima by Japanese decree, early scenes can feel claustrophobic and slow-moving, but as the company begins to crumble, and personal and political forces conspire to separate Jacob and Orito, Mitchell’s novel picks up speed, revealing itself to be part love story, part sweeping adventure.

While he mainly sticks with the titular character, others occasionally interrupt to tell tales of their own—a favourite technique of this author, who fits stories inside stories, like so many Russian dolls. When the action shifts from Dejima, his tone shifts, too, a technique used to great effect in Cloud Atlas, a mind-bender that moved from the mid-19th century forward to a post-apocalyptic future, and back again.

While de Zoet is fully fleshed out, other characters—a wry doctor, a noble samurai, an evil abbot who actually steals human souls—occasionally feel contrived. And while the novel’s epic quality is part of what makes it enjoyable to read, a true Mitchell junkie is bound to feel slightly disappointed that this time, he hasn’t quite managed to marry substance to style.

Robert J. Hoshowsky
Accounts of horrific murders offer the same transfixing there-but-for-the-grace-of-God fascination as car crashes. True crime’s modern progeny, the cold-case investigation, provides even more: a chance that some smug murderer, even in old age, may yet be jolted out of complacency. This sub-genre owes its burgeoning popularity to advances in forensic science, from DNA analysis to 3-D facial reconstruction. As Hoshowsky shows in his sensitive, non-sensationalist survey of 11 Canadian cases from 1968 to 2006, what progress has been made in solving them has been a matter of technological wizardry.

For instance, police had always believed the skeletal remains of two young men found in the countryside north of Toronto five months apart in 1967 and 1968 were somehow connected. But they had no idea who the victims were until a Canadian Forces facial reconstructor painstakingly applied layer after layer of clay to the skulls, added hair, eyes and skin, and presented the results to the media in 2006. In New Brunswick, two people independently recognized one bust, and family DNA samples later confirmed his identity: Richard Hovey, 17. Three years later, a middle-aged woman in northern Ontario caught a W5 recap and recognized the other bust as her long-lost brother, Eric Jones, 18. Hoshowsky uses the case of the two teens, whom police believe were murdered by the same sexual predator, to show both the potential and limits of forensic science: the crimes remain unsolved, but after 40 years on a coroner’s shelf, the victims’ remains have names and resting places in family burial plots.

Tori Spelling
With her third tell-all in as many years, Tori Spelling officially has a memoir problem—one, sadly, with a huge audience. The former Hollywood princess catapulted to fame on Beverly Hills, 90210, the ’90s show produced by her TV mogul daddy Aaron Spelling. She cannily rebranded herself on Tori & Dean: Home Sweet Hollywood, a reality show co-starring Dean McDermott, a Canadian actor she fell for while both were inconveniently married to others, and their two kids. Five seasons later, Spelling is in full-on mom-preneur mode, hatching new “Tori” franchises—kids’ clothing, a jewellery line—and churning out bestsellers chronicling her madcap, multi-tasking life.
The over-sharing continues in Uncharted TerriTORI. The actress has perfected her poor-little-ex-rich-girl routine, serving up pampered problems in a self-effacing manner calculated to resonate with women whose work-home balancing act doesn’t involve lunch with Kathie Lee Gifford. Yet Uncharted is low on charm, high on disturbing details. Spelling’s neurotic work ethic has her tweeting to fans in bed; the tabloids ascribe her alarming weight loss to an eating disorder.

Her over-the-top existence includes psychics who make house calls (one channels Farrah Fawcett by mistake) and a shaman who administers an on-camera “cleanse” to ward off the “evil eye” Spelling is sure was cast by McDermott’s ex-wife, whom she slags repeatedly. Spelling insists “I don’t think that husbands can be stolen,” yet obsesses that her “soulmate” will cheat on her, too. This story won’t end happily, that we know. Just as we can’t look away.