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Scotland's First Minister proves a discerning reader

Rumour has it that Alex Salmond, an aficionado of the poetry of Robbie Burns, knows a good book when he sees one. As Scotland's First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party, he has provided this appreciation of Our Hero's latest book:

"In 'How the Scots Invented Canada', Ken McGoogan has delivered a celebration of the inextricable and treasured ties between our two great nations. His insightful and intelligent portrayal of our shared heritage surely draws its inspiration from the many Scots who have led the way in shaping Canada, from early settlers who carved Nova Scotia from harsh northern lands to Glasgow born Sir John A Macdonald, Canada's first Prime Minister, who united Canada with his national vision and the construction of the world's longest railway.

"In the intimate portrayals of Scots-Canadians past we see the enduring strengths and qualities which have helped make our countries great today. In our world-class education systems, thriving creative industries and cutting edge technology we see Scots on both sides of the Atlantic as diverse, radical and passionate as the first explorers who set foot on Canada's shores hundreds of years ago."
Ken McGoogan
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Our Hero reviews the winner of the Weston Prize

And the winner of the inaugural Writers' Trust Hilary Weston Prize for nonfiction, which is worth $10K more than the Giller, is . . . Charles Foran! The winning book: Mordecai:The Life & Times. Our Hero reviewed the tome in the National Post in October 2010.

Yes, this is it, the definitive biography of Mordecai Richler, one of the greatest role-model writers this country has produced. It reads more like a literary work than a scholarly one, as if flowing naturally from an immersion so deep that no note-taking was required. Yet the book is so detailed, so exhaustive, so astute and authoritative, that one can’t imagine there is anything more to add.

Biographer Charles Foran is a beautiful writer: a stylist. By 1948, he tells us, when Richler was a 17-year-old student at Sir George Williams University, already he was a “heat-seeking teenage journalist.” Within three years, Richler would be in France, working on a first novel called The Rotten People — “a screed cross-eyed with self-absorption and judgmental to the point of being hateful.” A few years later, Foran tells us, Richler would be yearning to resume work on St. Urbain’s Horseman, “a book he had been writing for too long in his head and not long enough in his study.”

So the language sweeps us along. But let’s be clear: This 727-page door-stopper is written for readers who have completed Richler 101. Those who haven’t, and who might welcome a potted biography at this point, should refer to excellent biographies by Michael Posner and Reinhold Kramer.

Mordecai: The Life & Times is a tough-minded book, worthy of its subject. It’s a warts-and-all portrait of the artist as street-fighter: ruthless, committed and lethal when cornered or simply rubbed the wrong way. Of course, the Saidye Bronfman anecdote is here. At the Montreal premiere of the movie version of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, she speaks from on high: “Well, Mordecai, you’ve come a long way for a St. Urbain’s street boy.” Our hero responds: “And you’ve come a long way for a bootlegger’s wife.”

Afterwards, in Foran’s telling, Mordecai’s wife, the long-suffering Florence — a Nora-Joyce figure but with brains and critical acumen — admonishes her husband for speaking to an elderly person in such a manner. One imagines him taking another sip of whisky.

Read the rest by clicking on the title above . . .
Ken McGoogan
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Voyage around Scotland means sailing through history

By Ken McGoogan
Special to the Globe and Mail

So this was Calum Mor's House, the oldest dwelling on the Scottish island of Hirta. According to legend, young Calum had built it in a single day to prove his worth: He had been passed over for the annual fowling expedition to Borera, a smaller island in the group that makes up St. Kilda.

This happened a thousand years ago, and I found my imagination racing. That's what comes of writing historical narratives, as I've been doing for the past dozen years.

I could see it all. The September expedition to Borera, six kilometres away, was the one great adventure of the year. The strongest men would risk their lives paddling through rough seas to harvest hefty birds that had to be killed at night while they slept on slippery ledges. Often, the men would stay a few days on Borera, sheltering in the stone cleits or storage houses they had previously erected. In my mind's eye, I could see the aggrieved Calum Mor building furiously with these heavy stones, bent on showing those who had voted against him that they had been wrong, wrong, wrong.

Later, on reflection, I began to doubt that anyone working alone could erect such a structure in a week, never mind a day. But the details I could tease out later. The racing of the imagination – that is what I seek when I travel, that inspirational revving. I'm a history junkie. In places where history happened, I get excited. And I was finding this voyage through the Scottish Isles almost (but not quite) too stimulating.

This circumnavigation of Scotland was mounted by Adventure Canada. Our home for the 11-day voyage, the 335-foot-long Clipper Odyssey, was rightly billed as a “small luxury ship.” We're talking well-stocked bars and lounges, white-linen tablecloths in the dining rooms, fully equipped presentation rooms, and cabins with portholes or windows.

The vessel carried a full complement of 110 passengers, among them a number of lecturers: authors Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson, musician Ian Tamblyn, publisher Douglas Gibson, ornithologist Brent Stephenson, myself and another author-historian, Ted Cowan. Starting from Oban on the west coast, we sailed north to Orkney and Shetland, and then south to disembark at Edinburgh. Once a day, sometimes twice, we would pile into 12-person Zodiacs – inflatable craft with outboard motors – and zoom ashore to explore a different island.

(click on headline/ link to continue)
Ken McGoogan
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Before turning mainly to books about arctic exploration and Canadian history, Ken McGoogan worked for two decades as a journalist at major dailies in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. He teaches creative nonfiction writing through the University of Toronto and in the MFA program at King’s College in Halifax. Ken served as chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, has written recently for Canada’s History, Canadian Geographic, and Maclean’s, and sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian. Based in Toronto, he has given talks and presentations across Canada, from Dawson City to Dartmouth, and in places as different as Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Hobart.