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Queen's University

Richard J. Beninger
Book Reviews - Miscellaneous

Breashears, D. (1999) High Exposure. Simon & Shuster: Toronto.

† Dalton, C.H. (2008)  A Practical Guide to Racism .  Gotham Books: New York.

Dennett, D.C.
(2003) Freedom Evolves. Viking: New York.

Gunsalus, C.K. 
(2006) The College Administrator’s Survival Guide.  Harvard University Press: Cambridge MA.

† Howgate, B. (1995)  Journey Through Labrador . Traveling Man Enterprises: Mud Lake NL.

† Mirvish, E. (1993)   How to Build an Empire on an Orange Crate or 121 Lessons I Never Learned in School . Key Porter Books Ltd: Toronto.

Saltzman, C. 
(1998) Portrait of Dr. Gachet. Penquin Books: New York.

Silcox, D.P.
(2003) The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson. Firefly Books: Toronto.

† Added in January 2011.


Breashears, D. (1999) High Exposure. Simon & Shuster: Toronto.

I had read Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air about the disasters on Mount Everest in 1996 with great interest and then heard that Breashears provides another perspective, having been there. This book is an autobiography but it ends with an engrossing account of the events surrounding the multiple deaths that took place when several guided expeditions attempted to summit Everest in that ill-fated year. It turns out that Breashears was leading an expedition to produce an IMAX film of Everest at the time and they were drawn into the disaster in a search and rescue sort of role. In the same year, they succeeded in making that film right to the summit and now it is doing the rounds of the IMAX theatres in North America. From his youth, Breashears had a passion for rock climbing and provides an intriguing glimpse into the psychology of rock climbers and the kinds of training that they need to become the best in the world. I couldn’t help but think that they needed a bit of luck too; all of them seem to have had “near-death” experiences.

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Dalton C.H. (2008) A Practical Guide to Racism .  Gotham Books: New York.

Given the putative credentials of the author, it is curious that this thoughtful little book contains some inaccuracies.  For example, European settlers of North America did not kill all of the bison, although they did kill most of them.  Although the place of his birth continues to be debated, Charlton Heston was not born in Egypt.  Dalton also may have overstated the negative impact of the affirmative action program on whites.  He was probably right when he said, “…if there’s one thing Americans hate, it’s other people doing the degrading, labor-intensive jobs that they won’t do themselves” (p. 95).  Notwithstanding some additional points of misinformation, A Practical Guide has much to offer.  (Nov. 28, 2010)

Dennett, D.C. (2003) Freedom Evolves. Viking: New York.

Dennett’s discussion of free will is so far beyond traditional concerns about the loss of soul or self implied by the determinism of science that it is scary. He is calm in dealing with traditionalists but impatient to get on to the really interesting implications of modern scientific thinking for the concept of freedom. He takes an evolutionary perspective to argue that freedom did not exist on the planet until quite recently and that it came with the development of human language and culture. Here is a perspective on free will that sees its emergence hand-in-hand with the growth of human knowledge about physics and the brain rather than the hackneyed concern that such contemporary knowledge threatens freedom.

“If you are one of those who think that free will is only really free will if it springs from an immaterial soul that hovers happily in your brain, shooting arrows of decision into your motor cortex, then, given what you mean by free will, my view is that there is not free will at all. If, on the other hand, you think free will might be morally important without being supernatural, then my view is that free will is indeed real, but just not quite what you probably thought it was.” (p 223)

Dennett discusses the concept of memes and the idea that the evolution of culture can be understood from a Darwinian perspective, a position that has been developed by others. He suggests that morals emerge from selection working on various social strategies. People trade responsibility for freedom, “Blame is the price we pay for credit…” (p 292).

In his closing chapter he made a wonderful analogy to a point in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (1997). European germs brought populations to the brink of extinction; in a like manner, it will be our memes that wreck havoc on the unprepared world. This is in the context of commenting on the proliferation of communication technologies and the associated increased difficulty experienced by governments in controlling the education of their populations.

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Gunsalus, C.K. (2006) The College Administrator’s Survival Guide. Harvard University Press: Cambridge MA.

Kristina Gunsalus has spent her career dealing with topics such as research integrity, whistleblowing, ethics and professionalism in academia.  She was one of the authors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Responding to Allegations of Research Misconduct, a practical guide that has been widely adopted by universities in the US.  It was thus with good authority and extensive experience that she put together the Survival Guide; it was filled with relevant anecdotes, and all of the hypothetical cases were taken from ones with which she had first-hand experience.

She challenges the neophyte department head to ask himself why he took the job and what his goals are.  She said to write them down and to look at them often not to lose sight of why you are there.  Know what your institution’s goals are and how your own goals mesh with those.  She counsels knowing yourself and knowing what triggers your anger or upsets you.  There is much practical advice for how to approach a situation involving members of the faculty, support staff or students.  The important elements of negotiation are covered.  Gunsalus warns department heads to learn to recognize when they are faced with a situation that demands consultation with university professionals; don’t play lawyer she warns.  She covers many elements of disputes involving authorship and ownership of data.  

One thing she said made me think.  She began with the situation of visitors to her home commenting on how lucky she and her husband were that their children had such good manners.  She commented that she did not think of it as luck as she looked back on the hard work that they did in training their children, a point of view that I share.  She then compared this to the collegial conduct of members of a department that one is now heading.  You could say that you are lucky that everyone behaves so well.  However, it is a credit to past administrators that the members of the department are so well behaved.  Like in the case of raising children, it is easy to forget the important role of their models and leaders in shaping what they become.  Gunsalus’s Survival Guide inspires careful consideration of the role one moves into as a department head and the responsibilities that go along with it.  (Jan. 21, 2007)

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Howgate, B. (1995) Journey Through Labrador. Traveling Man Enterprises: Mud Lake NL. 

One summer day about 10-15 years ago, Bernie Howgate showed up at my door selling copies of this book.  He explained that he had done a hiking and kayak tour up the coast of Labrador and written a book about it.  As a hiker I was always interested in new possible adventures so I bought a copy.  It sat on my shelf, on the “to-read” pile, for many years.  I took it with me this summer when I was vacationing in Nova Scotia.  As my holiday included some sea kayaking but also had lots of reading time, it seemed an appropriate time to read this book.  It was a quick read and quite gripping.

Howgate was about 43 years old when he began his two-part solo trip.  The first part took about 10 weeks, lasting from January 26 to April 10, 1993 (I think, he never states the year); during this period, Howgate walked on snowshoes pulling a sled along the coast from Red Bay to Goose Bay, Labrador, a distance of about 1300 km.  Then, for another 6 weeks, from June 24 to Aug. 11, he kayaked further up the coast from Goose Bay to Nain, another 2300 km.  This was quite a remarkable trip.

During the winter hiking leg, Howgate encountered the expected frigid temperatures and blizzards.  He was often able to stay in cabins along the way when walking between settlements and as a guest in people’s homes when in the settlements.  The cabins were outfitted with firewood and sometimes food and they were relatively cozy oases from the cold.  On some nights, Howgate was forced to camp, setting up his tent and spending the night in the open, a much more challenging prospect.  He related his experience of disorientation in a white out while hiking during a blizzard.  He had fallen and when he tried to stand up he fell down again because, as he put it, “…my mind had nothing to push off from” (p. 26).  I had a similar experience while skiing once.  It is a very frightening feeling.

The kayaking had its own hazards beginning with the ice that still had not cleared all the bays by the time he left and including the unpredictability of the weather, especially the wind.  An additional challenge was finding the right channels among islands, something that is difficult even when the weather is good and near impossible when visibility is poor.  Finding a suitable place to land a kayak along Labrador’s rocky coast also proved challenging.

Howgate is at his best when describing his experiences while hiking and kayaking.  He often creates an infectious tension that grips the reader.  His descriptions of the places and people he visited in the settlements, by comparison, are often sketchy and vague.  However, the reader gets a general impression of the places Howgate visited and enough information to make him or her think about going there.  One thing that really came through was how completely snowmobiles have become a part of the winter life of people living in these remote areas.  One of the biggest hazards Howgate faced while walking was fast-moving snow machines!  (Aug. 29, 2010)

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Mirvish E.(1993) How to Build an Empire on an Orange Crate or 121 Lessons I Never Learned in School. Key Porter Books Ltd: Toronto.

I found myself quite prepared not to like Honest Ed (1914-2007) as I embarked on this book.  From the title, I expected human sacrifices at the altar of the Almighty Buck, rampant philistinism with respect to the arts, and education bashing in favour of the school of hard knocks.  What I got was not really any of these.  Mirvish was honest about his skepticism towards modern art but willing to accept that others saw value where he did not.  He never revealed any appreciation for the challenges that many artists face as they struggle to find expression in their chosen medium and seemed mostly to view visual arts as a possible means of making money.  He acknowledged that education is probably a good thing (Lesson no. 2, p. 108) and that he regretted not being able to go further in school but he did not seem to appreciate the work of people who were educated.  Everything was judged with respect to how effectively it contributed to money making and the cost of high-priced “educated” consultants was to be avoided: “All the experts in the world can’t beat good common sense” (Lesson no. 21, p. 125).

When it came to making money, Honest Ed Mirvish had the Midas touch.  He emphasized how hard he worked from an early age but was unequivocal about his good luck.  It is a marvel to follow his career from selling fire sale and close-out merchandise at bargain prices on orange crates in a corner of what was to become Ed’s Warehouse to the expansion into restaurants and theatres, including the famous Royal Victoria Theatre (Old Vic) in London.  His financial empire took him into the soirees of royalty and he rubbed shoulders with many famous people in theatre, politics and finance.  One cannot help but admire Honest Ed’s success.

So what about the human sacrifices at the altar of the Almighty Buck?  I was watching for this as I read through the book and thought I was getting the first glimpses of it when Mirvish terminated the leases of long-standing tenants in some of his properties so that he could expand his own retail space.  He said, “It was terrible telling them they had to go” (p. 48).  But it was hard to find other examples.  Instead, what struck me was the loyalty of his employees; he often referred to people who had been with him for decades (and I was given this book by one of them, Russell Lazar, long time General Manager of Honest Ed’s).  Employees generally do not stay for decades in the employ of someone they do not like or who does not treat them well.  Just about the only place in the book where Mirvish reveals his attitude towards his employees is in Lesson no. 103 where he emphasizes the importance of retaining personalized relationships with his employees.  Even this lesson, however, has Mirvish’s signature tongue-in-cheek and backhanded way of making its point:  “If your employees do all the work, and you take the credit, where can you get a better deal?” (p. 203).

Honest Ed Mirvish was a hugely successful businessman.  In, “How to Build an Empire…”, he tells an interesting story of his career in an easygoing style that reflects his public persona.  Behind the flippancy and gimmicks is a man with strong family values and enduring loyalty to his friends and employees.  It is interesting that he did not identify these aspects of his approach to business and life as part of the formula for his success.  Perhaps he really was the rather reserved person he claimd to be several times in the book and all of the bravado was just part of the sales pitch.  Whatever the formula, it sure worked for Ed Mirvish.  (Aug. 26, 2010)

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Saltzman, C. (1998) Portrait of Dr. Gachet. Penquin Books: New York.

Vincent van Gogh painted Portrait of Dr. Gachet in 1890, about two months before he died by his own hand. The painting depicts an older man seated at a red table. He leans to the left, his head resting on his right hand, elbow on the table, with his left hand also on the table in the right of the picture. He wears a dark blue jacket, a “midnight of northern waters”. Running diagonally from lower right to upper left is a lighter blue trim of the jacket, snaking beside three buttons to a curl below his chin. His face is pale with a moustache, his red hair mostly covered by a cream-coloured cap, his eyes sad but penetrating. Vincent wrote that, “…I had to paint it like that to convey how much expression and passion there is in our present-day heads in comparison to the old calm portraits and how much longing and crying out.”

Two foxglove stems in the foreground, placed in a glass of water, veer diagonally to the left complementing Gachet’s tilt. Two yellow books on the table complete the foreground. The background is vintage van Gogh, strokes of lighter blues on darker blues, but all lighter than Gachet’s jacket, run diagonally, forcing the viewer’s eyes to those of Gachet, engaging the viewer in his melancholy contemplation. It is a picture that challenges and draws the viewer in.

Cynthia Saltzman was trained in art history at Harvard and Berkley and then did an MBA at Stanford. Her credentials are perfect for the enthralling saga she relates about the history of this painting. Beginning with a brief biography of van Gogh, she traces the provenance of the picture over the 100 years from the time of its creation to its sale in a New York auction for $US82.5 million in 1990. The journey takes the reader through the growth of art collection and dealers, the art market and the establishment of some of the world’s greatest art galleries. Along the way the reader meets Vincent’s brother Theo and Theo’s wife Johanna and other prominent XIX century art dealers in Paris.

Gachet traveled to Frankfurt in 1911 and then became embroiled in the Degenerate Art proclamations of Nazi Germany in 1933-38, ending up in the confiscated art amassed by Hermann Göring. The portrait was sold and allowed to leave Germany, traveling to New York where it remained in a private collection and then hung in the Metropolitan Museum from 1984-1990. In 1990, Gachet was auctioned by Christies where it was purchased by a Japanese industrialist for the record-breaking and breathtaking price of $US82.5 million.

Gachet ended up in a cloth bag stored carefully in a cloth-lined box in a vault in Japan. The buyer, Ryoei Saito, headed a company that fell on hard times, was charged and convicted for financial improprieties, and subsequently died in 1996. As of the publication of this book, Gachet remained entombed in a Japanese vault.

Saltzman called her book a, “Story of a van Gogh Masterpiece, Money, Politics, Collectors, Greed and Loss.” For anyone interested in the economics and politics of high-end art dealing and the interface between creative genius and corporate greed, this is an enlightening read.

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Silcox, DP. (2003) The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson. Firefly Books: Toronto.

This volume provide a glimpse into the origins and influences of the Group of Seven art movement that began officially in Canada in 1920 and ended officially in 1933. The book is mostly pictures providing about 400 high quality reproductions of Group of Seven works organized by region of Canada. This organization helps to emphasize how utterly Canadian this art movement was, being organized explicitly to document the raw, natural beauty of Canada. So many of the regions painted by the members of the Group are still today major outdoors destinations and for anyone who has been to some of these places (Algonquin Park, Killarney Park, Bon Echo, the Rockies, North of Superior, Baffin Island…), the images can’t help but remind them of being there. One of the most prolific and energetic members of the Group was Lawren Harris. He was born in Brantford and heir to the Massey-Harris fortune making him independently wealthy and able to paint full time unlike most of the other members of the Group who had day jobs. His paintings are among the most stirring, capturing the stark beauty and immensity of Canada’s wilderness. The brief commentaries in this book make you want to read more of the biographies of the members of the Group and of Tom Thompson, their inspiration.

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