Singer-songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen was so prolific, his biography is being written in three parts. The first ends with his first international tour in 1970. Photo: Oliver Morris/Getty Images
> Facts and Non-Fiction
Books to Boost Your Intelligence Quotient
The latest crop of non-fiction offers everything from biographies of Canadian legends to fascinating social histories and insights about the human condition / BY Athena McKenzie
This season’s non-fiction crop includes biographies of Leonard Cohen, Timothy Findley and editorial cartoonist Duncan Macpherson, as well as a history of the gay rights movement and a historical examination of the racial trope “Uncle Tom” by Ryerson University professor Cheryl Thompson.
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>Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: Early Years
The Story The life of Leonard Cohen — poet, novelist, artist, Zen monk and, oh, yes, singer-songwriter — is too vast to be contained within one book. Thankfully, Posner is giving us three. The first volume, The Early Years, chronicles Cohen’s Orthodox Jewish childhood in Montreal, his university years and his early controversial success as a poet and novelist. From his seclusion on the Greek island of Hydra to his accidental start as a singer, the first book of Posner’s trilogy climaxes with Cohen’s first international tour in 1970. Posner draws on hundreds of interviews to explore Cohen’s private and public lives, his complexities and contradictions, and, of course, his inarguable charisma. Serve yourself some tea and oranges and settle in.
The Author Long-time journalist Michael Posner, who has written for Maclean’s, The Globe and Mail and Toronto Life, has published biographies of Mordecai Richler and Anne Murray.
The Relevance Cohen’s poetry spoke to the soul of Canadians at a time when the country was grappling with its identity, while his music has influenced generations of artists like Kurt Cobain, the Pixies and R.E.M. Millions have listened to his song, "Hallelujah", which has been recorded dozens of times by other artists and covered by Canadian icons Rufus Wainwright, k.d. lang and Celine Dion. — Athena McKenzie
>The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America
The Story When the U.S. federal government fired Second World War vet and Harvard-educated astronomer Frank Kameny in 1957 for being gay, he challenged President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s executive order banning homosexuals from government jobs all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1961. Although they refused to hear his case, his indignation at the blatant discrimination launched the gay liberation movement in the U.S. and his Annual Reminders — public demonstrations held every July 4 — was a precursor to the 1969 Stonewall riots.
Inspired by the Black civil rights movement, he drew a parallel between the discrimination faced by African Americans and homosexuals, who were commonly referred to as “deviants” at the time, saying the law banning homosexuals from government jobs was “a disgrace to any civilized society.”
He invented the slogan “Gay is Good” in 1968, a riff on the rallying civil rights cry, “Black is Beautiful,” and successfully fought to remove homosexuality from the American Psychological Association’s list of disorders. He died in 2011 at 86 on National Coming Out Day.
The Author Eric Cervini is a Harvard-educated historian and a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation scholar who is an expert in 1960s gay activism.
The Relevance Until June 15, 2020, it was still legal in more than half the U.S. states to fire LGBTQ+ workers. That day, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the 1968 Civil Rights Act extended to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. — Kim Honey
>Professional Heckler: The Life and Art of Duncan Macpherson
The Story Toronto-born editorial cartoonist Duncan Macpherson was a Second World War vet who, after studying graphic arts, started out as a magazine illustrator with Maclean’s. Famed Canadian author Pierre Berton, then managing editor of The Toronto Star, encouraged him to try his hand at editorial cartooning in 1958. Thus began a 35-year career that netted Macpherson six National Newspaper Awards and the first Order of Canada awarded to a cartoonist. Expect a stunning visual history of the genre, along with personal anecdotes and insight into the man and his work, which was lauded for its artistic merit — one admirer noted he could draw every fold in a piece of fabric so clothes would hang properly on his subjects — and its cutting, acidic commentary, which often lampooned local politicians and pointedly detailed their hypocrisy. A cartoon that featured a blood-stained American flag, inspired by the coup in Vietnam, was rejected at first but printed days later after Lee Harvey Oswald shot U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
The Author Mosher, a.k.a. Aislin, a Montreal Gazette editorial cartoonist and an officer of the Order of Canada, considered Macpherson — whom he met while covering the FLQ trials in 1971 — a mentor.
The Relevance Macpherson inspired a generation of Canadian cartoonists, whose ranks have been decimated by steep declines in newspaper readership and advertising — all the more reason to frame the life of one of its stars. —Kim Honey
>Uncle: Race, Nostalgia and the Politics of Loyalty
The Story When he first appeared in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, Tom was a noble hero, a Christian martyr who sacrificed his life to protect others who had escaped slavery. Over the following decades, Tom’s image was transformed, largely through blackface minstrel shows, into a servile old man, a racist caricature stripped of his nobility. The transmuted version is loathed by the Black community, and the term “Uncle Tom” has become a scathing Black-on-Black insult for someone who is overeager to win the approval of whites. Targets have included Jackie Robinson for his work on racial integration; and former U.S. President Barack Obama, who was accused by Green Party VP candidate Ajuma Baraka of using “the dreams and aspirations of Black people” to win votes in swing states in the 2016 election and then ”turn and serve powerful, white structures.”
Thompson traces the history of the term from literary character to racial trope and shows how these two words have the power to shape and distort how we see Black men and society as a whole.
The Author Cheryl Thompson is an assistant professor at Ryerson University and the author of Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture.
The Relevance Recent calls to end to anti-Black racism and police brutality are leading to a Canadian reckoning on race, so it’s crucial to understand how language and culture contribute to the discourse. — Athena McKenzie
>TIFF: A Life of Timothy Findley
The Story More than a decade in the making, Grace’s biography is the first full account of one of Canada’s literary icons. Born and raised in Toronto, Findley — Tiff to his friends — was originally drawn to the stage. An actor in the Stratford Theatre’s inaugural season in 1953, he moved to the U.K. to pursue his career but turned to writing upon his return. While his first novels were rejected by Canadian publishers, the overnight success of his third book, The Wars, catapulted him on to the Governor’s General Award stage and the front ranks of Canadian literature.
Grace uses journals — including his last one, titled Hospital Journal — interviews, and archival research to explore Findley’s writing, struggles with depression and alcoholism, the difficulty of life as a gay man in a time of social upheaval and his long-term relationship with his partner, Bill Whitehead.
The Author Sherrill Grace is a University Killam professor emerita at UBC, with a specialization in Canadian literature and culture. She started researching the biography after her students, entranced with Findley and his work, wanted to know more about his life.
The Relevance: This first full-length biography of the actor, playwright and author will give future students of Canadian literature a deep understanding of the man and the artist behind the oeuvre. — Athena McKenzie
>The Rise of Real-Life Superheroes and the Fall of Everything Else
The Story Have you ever watched a superhero movie or read a comic and then imagined fighting bad guys in real life? Some people actually don a costume (mask, cape or cowl) to hit the streets and fight crime. To explore this phenomenon, life-long comic-book fan and veteran journalist Nowak interviews real-life superheroes in North America and around the world. From Dark Guardian’s judo flip to take down an angry drug dealer in Manhattan or Polar Man appearing in Iqaluit dressed in a black-and-white costume to shovel driveways, these are “individuals who take on masked personae to fight crime and help the helpless.” While it could be argued some are outliers or dangerous vigilantes, Nowak sees his subjects as “archetypes” who remind us that human is the root of the word humanity.
The Author A technology, pop-culture and social-issues journalist, Nowak’s last book Human 3.0 was a startling look at the effect that advancing technologies will have on our species.
The Relevance In a world where there is so much evil, it’s reassuring to know there is a contingent of everyday folks trying to right some wrongs.
— Athena McKenzie
>The Psychology of Stupidity
The Story This was a runaway hit in France, and it’s easy to see why. We all have to put up with stupidity — like the strangers who can’t grasp social distancing or refuse to wear a mask — yet, until 2015, psychologists had no formal definition. In this collection, psychiatrists, psychologists, philosophers, sociologists and writers offer us their take on human stupidity. Contributions from some of the world’s smartest people — such as Nobel Laureate and Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Howard Gardner, Hobbs professor of cognition and education at Harvard University, and noted U.S. neuroscientist Antonio Damasio — explore why smart people sometimes believe in utter nonsense; how media manipulation and internet overstimulation make us dumber; why stupid people don't think they're stupid; and why trying to debate fools is a trap.
The Editor Jean-François Marmion is a psychologist, an associate editor of the French journal Sciences Humaines and former editor-in-chief of the French magazine Le Cercle Psy.
The Relevance A world without fools might not be possible, but that doesn’t mean we can’t envision it. Consider the wisdom of these experts a balm for aggrieved souls. — Athena McKenzie