Book Review #3: The Massey Murder

The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master, and the Trial That Shocked a Country
By Charlotte Gray
HarperCollins, 2013: Toronto

masseymurder

On February 8, 1915, Charles “Bert” Massey was shot outside his home on Walmer Road. This murder and subsequent trial of his servant, Carrie Davies, form the backdrop of Charlotte Gray’s book, The Massey Murder, which explores several interconnected aspects of Toronto life in the 1910s.

To be clear, this is not a whodunnit. Carrie Davies was seen to shoot Massey in front of witnesses, and never denied doing so. If there is indeed a mystery in this book, it is why Davies shot Massey, and what fate the legal system will have for her. In The Massey Murder, though, the trial of Carrie Davies serves as a means of exploring several aspects of Toronto (and indeed Canadian) history, demonstrating how the various institutions of the time, both official and unofficial, could interrelate.

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Book Review #2: Canada Cycle & Motor: The CCM Story

Canada Cycle & Motor: The CCM Story
By John A. McKenty
Epic Press, 2011

For many generations of Canadians, the letters “CCM” conjure up strong memories, either through the bicycles and sporting equipment made by the company, or through the employment of friends and family.

John McKenty’s book tells the history of CCM, from its complicated origins during the late-nineteenth century bicycle craze, through its forays into automobile manufacturing and hockey equipment, until its ultimate demise in the 1983. At times, CCM was an innovator and an industry leader; in other years, it was a struggling competitor, plagued with labour disputes and a poor reputation. As someone with little personal knowledge of CCM, I found this book to be an engaging profile of the company’s fortunes (and misfortunes), as well as an intriguing look at some of the changes in Canada through the twentieth century. CCM also has a strong Toronto connection, with its manufacturing operations based for many years in the northern end of the Junction, and later on in Weston.

This book features many images, the most interesting of which tend to be the old CCM advertisements. Like McKenty, I have found advertisements to be an excellent means of illustrating a narrative, as one does not have to navigate the copyright issues that can prevent the republication of photographs or newspaper articles. The advertisements are not, however, mere illustrations; in themselves they are valuable parts of Canadiana, and present a side of the company’s story which can be easier for everyday readers to relate to than, say, corporate structure or sales statistics.

That said, this book is not an advertisement for the company. While there is certainly a whiff of nostalgia about parts of it, McKenty is intent on presenting CCM with a sense of balance. I have read histories of other companies which read like protracted, indulgent advertisements, dwelling on the glory years and refusing to say a bad thing about the company or its associated personalities. Sometimes, a company history is written by a nostalgic ex-employee who fills a jumble of casual and irrelevant anecdotes with company jargon and slang, with the end result making little sense to anyone who didn’t work there and know the people being written about. McKenty’s narrative, however,  is well-balanced and presents a complicated subject in an engaging and accessible way. Rather than focus on one specific aspect of the company, he gets into the owners, the employees, the products, and the customers, indicating how each influenced the other. The result is an interesting book which looks at several different facets of Canadian history including labour relations, marketing, and popular culture, demonstrating how varied aspects of Canada’s past came together in CCM.

What I found particularly interesting is McKenty’s willingness to point out some of CCM’s villainy. I do not know enough of the facts to know if he is pulling any punches, but there are times in Canada Cycle & Motor: The CCM Story when CCM seems to be severely mismanaged, or when it seems to treat its employees quite shabbily. When the company is managed well, CCM seems to be symbolic of local and national pride; when the quality of products is poor, the company seems like an embarrassment.  And when the company is neglected and the employees made to feel the burden, CCM comes across as an enemy.

The book is self-published through Epic Press, which may account for a few of the typographical errors and a handful of awkwardly written passages, although none of these are so major that they really detract from the narrative. I wouldn’t go quite so far as to call these elements “charming,” but they do remind the reader that this book is, like so many books on the history of Toronto, effectively the product of a single, dedicated researcher.  And, unlike so many other self-published Toronto history books, there is a sizeable section of endnotes where one can find McKenty’s source material.

While the title and subject matter may suggest an attempt to appeal to those with an interest in business or industrial history, the accessible language and varied subject matter make Canada Cycle & Motor: The CCM Story an interesting look at Canadian popular culture, and indeed a look at a side of Toronto life that doesn’t always get written about. My favourite features are the plentiful advertisements, along with some of the descriptions of cycling culture. This includes not only the late nineteenth century cycling boom, but also a look at some of the racing heroes of the 1930s. If you’re curious about this aspect of the book, I would very much suggest starting with McKenty’s CCM website, in particular the archives section, which includes a look at type of stories which appear in the book.  He hasn’t given everything away on the website, and of course the book’s real strength is tying all these anecdotes into a complex narrative.

Book Review #1: The Natural City

The Natural City: Re-Envisioning the Built Environment
Edited by Ingrid Leman Stefanovic and Stephen Bede Scharper
University of Toronto Press, 2012

 

The Natural City explores, with particular attention to Toronto and its environs, the relationship between urban and so-called “natural” environments.  Structurally, it is a collection of eighteen essays, written by contributors whose areas of expertise include urban planning, environmental studies, philosophy, engineering, and theology.  Each essay uses a different perspective to explore an aspect of “nature” in cities.

Given my strong ties to heritage advocacy, the idea of nature and cities is one that I find quite interesting.  In Toronto, one often thinks of heritage as something which is limited to architecture (referred to as “built heritage”), but heritage is about all aspects of our shared cultural experiences, including natural elements.  Our notion of natural heritage is not limited to the elements of wilderness which pre-date European settlement, as evidenced by this heritage tree in Roncesvalles which is less than one hundred years old.

With all this in mind, I was hoping that The Natural City would include some good passages about the interconnectedness of built and natural heritage, and indeed, there are some excellent ideas to be found in this book.  Unfortunately, The Natural City also has some problems with it which make it difficult for me to recommend the book to others.

Many of the essays seem to be written in overly academic language.  It’s been seven years since I sat in a university classroom, and thus I don’t know what to do when confronted with this sentence, from the book’s first essay (by co-editor Ingrid Leman Stefanovic):

“Phenomenology has always aimed to avoid lapsing into a reified description of either a solipsistic subjective world or an apparently ‘objective’ reality that is said to subsist independently if interpretive structures of understanding.”

Here’s another sentence, taken from an essay by Robert Mugerauer:

“In fact, current research and reassessments in complexity theory, self-organization, phenomenology, and enactivist approaches to cognition correlate with Developmental System Theory (DST), constructivist interactionism, emergence, and co-evolution in their development of an epigenetic position, in contest with the performatist view (wherein development is understood to ‘be performed by genes’).”

The entire book is not this impenetrable, but there are considerable parts of The Natural City which go on like this.  And that’s too bad, because amongst these obtuse passages are some very interesting ideas (including many in Mugerauer’s own essay, which I otherwise quite enjoyed).

While I personally indulge in abstract thinking about what cities are and what nature actually is, I found the philosophy-themed essays – clustered together at the front of the book – the most difficult of all to make sense of.  These essays expect me to have a familiarity with concepts and vocabulary which, as a non-academic, I do not.  Anyone about to read The Natural City may want to skip over these, or to ease themselves into the book by reading essays out of sequence.

The last two essays in the book were, I think, my favourites.  Gaurav Kumar and Bryan W. Karney’s essay Natural Cities, Unnatural Energy? raises some fascinating points about energy and the difficulties that people today have in comprehending the scale of it use.  Sarah J. King and Ingrid Leman Stefanovic’s Children and Nature in the City describes a study in which Toronto children were observed interacting in a city park; of particular interest is the difference between what the children were observed to do and what the children made of their own experiences.  Other essays I particularly like are Richard Oddie’s regrettably brief essay on city sounds, and Trish Glazebrook’s Ecofeminist ‘Cityzenry.’ 

It is easy to dismiss my criticisms by saying that The Natural City is not aimed at me, but then, who is the intended audience?  It had a book launch at City Hall and was promoted on Metro Morning, suggesting that the editors hoped it would find its way to all interested Torontonians.  The objective of The Natural City seems to be to change or augment the reader’s perception of the relationship between cities and the natural environment, which is definitely something I want to read about.  And the back cover includes endorsements by David Miller and Jane Goodall, exactly the sort of people whose endorsements carry weight with me.  And yet I very nearly gave up on this book after fighting my way through the first three essays.

While some of the contributors define their unfamiliar vocabulary, many do not.  As such, I worry that this book may only be appreciated by a handful of people who are already engaged in the discussion.

The idea that civilization and nature are compatible and not competing ideologies is an important one, and one with nuances which I think are of growing interest to our society, and to Toronto in particular.  Reading about these subjects can help us change our whole way of thinking about nature and cities, and that doesn’t just mean looking at trees or putting stuff in the recycling bin.  Toronto has a tradition of seeing urbanization and nature as uneasy bedmates, a tradition which has included the burying of many of our rivershiding old farmhouses amid residential developments, and of course the perceived need for cottages away from the downtown bustle.

As our society continues to feel the effects of extreme specialization, however, I feel like it is more important than ever to take the excellent work being done by front-line academics, and to translate it into words that everyone else can understand.  The language used in much of this book suggests that the editors are not particularly interested in sharing their ideas with the general public, and I think this does their work a disservice.  Nearly every essay in The Natural City contains something which I think the average Torontonian can take on board and incorporate into how they understand their home city but I don’t know that, in this package, the rest of Toronto will get the opportunity to join in the discussion.