Thursday, 22 March 2012

Christopher Moore's History News: Hatchet award nominee: Evans on Wilson on Adolf Hi...

Christopher Moore's History News: Hatchet award nominee: Evans on Wilson on Adolf Hi...: Richard Evans, the distinguished British historian of Germany, unloads on A.N. Wilson, the distinguished British man of letters, for his ne...

Reading Christopher Moore's take on Evans on Wilson on Hitler (bear with me...) makes me think of the Extraordinary Canadians series published by Penguin. The series is meant to get Canadians reading short, lively introductions to the lives of some, well, 'extraordinary' Canadians. If you've been in a bookstore in the last couple of years you can't have missed these things.

I can't quibble with the earnest wishes, but I do wonder about the execution.

Take M J Vassanji's brief bio of Mordecai Richler. Poor Vassanji. He publishes this dainty finger snack of a book just before Charlie Foran's massive and compulsively readable new biography of Richler comes out. Foran goes on - deservedly - to get nominated for and win a slew of awards. Even before I read Foran's book I knew there was something wrong with the Vassanji biogrpahy. There was just too much Vassanji, not enough Mordecai. And it was, to put it mildly, slight.

Sometimes the choice of biographers has been odd too. I haven't yet read Joseph Boyden's double (!!) biography of Louis Riel and Gabirel Dumont (all in barely more than 200 pages). I did hear him interviewed by Sheila Rogers and you can't not admire his earnest desire to give a more 'aboriginal' view of the two men - certainly in keeping with the times. But as for his knowledge of the history, that was something else altogether.

Of course I haven't read all of these books (including Foran's on Maurice Richard, which I did buy but haven't got to yet).

Are there good ones? Do our extraordinary Canadians have some extraordinary biographers to help them come to life?


  1. I thoroughly enjoy the Extraordinary Canadians series. They do not masquerade as big, all-encompasing biographies written by historians, but are specifically chosen and curated to be Canadian authors briefly encapsulating an extraordinary life.

    Part of what makes the series interesting and unique is that is it modern "extraordinary Canadians," like Boyden or Coupland, reflecting on those who came before. There's an added strength in the pairing of author/subject that you don't get elsewhere.

    If you haven't already, give Rudy Wiebe's Big Bear a try. It's my favourite of the bunch and manages to explore Big Bear's life in a lyrical and emotional way that few traditional biographers could. I've read the bunch and there are certainly stronger and weaker ones (the Richler being the latter) - but where they are strong, they are incredibly rewarding to the reader.

  2. Hi Chris,

    Great topic. I do like the concept of Extraordinary Canadians and, like most others, could quibble with who was ultimately chosen as subjects for the series. So far, I have read Lord Beaverbrook, Big Bear, Lester B. Pearson, Wilfrid Laurier and Marshall McLuhan.

    My favourites were Big Bear and Lord Beaverbrook, perhaps because I knew less about them but also because they were well written. Reading Laurier and Pearson in this smaller format, though was, as you say, a 'snack' that just wasn't too filling.

    However, I have read full length biograhies of both men and know quite a bit about their lives. For the average, non-political person, I think this series does a wonderful service -- it provides a snapshot of some extraordinary Canadian lives. The verdict for me? Some history is better than no history.

  3. You might be aware already, but Christopher Moore commented on this posing on his blog, and he was not able to directly here:

  4. So far, I've only read the Trudeau biography by Nino Ricci in this series, which I liked (my review is here: ), and I have purchased but not yet read Poliquin's bio of Leveseque. I can appreciate some of your concerns about the format. They seem more intended as an introduction to biographies for people who don't normally read the genre, and who aren't willing to plow through 400+ pages. Ricci's bio of Trudeau, for instance, drew very heavilly on John English and Max & Monique Nemni's longer academic treatments, and was lightened with some of his personal observations and pet interests. I can see the series being useful as a way of piquing popular interest in historical Canadian figures - the Historica-Dominion minute version of biography, if you will. Alas, with that approach also comes the risk of oversimplification and a lack of analysis and rigour.