Book Reviews

Andrew MacLeod:  All Together Healthy: A Canadian Wellness Revolution                                                     reviewed by David Scruton

All Together Healthy is primarily about the social and environmental determinants to health.  MacLeod notes that Canada ranks 24th of 30 countries in its spending on public expenditures and in comparing 11 developed countries on health care The Commonwealth Fund ranked Canada at 9th place overall.  The fact that Canada is the only developed country not to have a privately funded alternative to the publicly funded health care system was barely mentioned.

The author discusses the impairment of health outcomes that occurs with reduced socio-economic status, with its increased burden of chronic diseases and shortened life expectancy, and that the members of the lowest quintile of income smoke more tobacco and drink more alcohol.  The common theme throughout the book is that reduced income is associated with poorer outcomes and that the solution is to increase the incomes of those at the bottom of the social strata.  He mentioned a study that showed that increasing the income of the lowest economic quintile was associated with a reduction in their use of tobacco and alcohol.  One of the factors associated with poor adult health was physical, sexual and emotional abuse during childhood.  This contributed to reduced educational achievements and reduced income and can then affect future generations.  The proposed solution is improved early childhood education and more family supports which in turn is dependent upon increased societal funding.  Targeting the funding can be difficult.  There has been a lot of money spent on a program to reduce smoking rates.  Although it is the poorest groups in society who smoke the most, it was the wealthy groups whose smoking rates declined the most.  There are early trials of communities having guaranteed minimum incomes, to see what changes that would induce, but that is subject to political interference, as has recently occurred in Ontario.  Without such trials we cannot learn what works and what does not.  There was discussion of First Nations reduced health outcomes compared to the rest of Canadian population, attributed to reduced income, childhood traumas and rural and remote homes.  The solution is for increased funding in terms of incomes, education, local health care and child care amongst others.

I thought the book interesting but daunting in the complexity of the issues and the logistical and economic difficulty of trying to address them all.  I think a more apposite sub-title would be “A Canadian Fiscal Revolution”.


Beverley McLachlin:  Full Disclosure                                                                              reviewed by DD Fuchs

Beverley McLachlin says that she gave serious thought to writing fiction many years ago, but put the idea aside when she was called to the bench.  In 2018, shortly after her retirement, her first novel Full Disclosure was released.  Full Disclosure is the story of Jilly Truitt, a criminal defence lawyer, living and working in Vancouver.  Jilly is an ambitious 34-year-old who has a complicated backstory.  She was abandoned as a child and raised in foster care; she has a boyfriend from a “prominent” Vancouver family who lives alone in a Shaughnessy mansion; and she’s a risk taker who is willing to take on her legal mentor in court.

Jilly decides to defend a wealthy businessman who is accused of murdering his wife.  While the plot has lots of twists and turns, the story is slightly predictable but still enjoyable.  There are plenty of references to Vancouver’s high-end neighborhoods, to Toni Onley prints and Aboriginal Art, and glimpses of Vancouver’s darker side with references to murdered and missing Indigenous women, drug abuse and Robert Picton.

Full Disclosure is an entertaining legal thriller which suggests some of the issues McLachlin faced in her career.  Jilly struggles with the conflict between her personal beliefs and her role as a lawyer with a duty to represent.  For more of this weighty stuff, we have McLachlin’s memoir to look forward to.  She promises it will explore, “some of the issues I have grappled with over the last 40 years, like diversity in our society, like Indigenous rights, like the Charter”.  After that, perhaps another Jilly Truitt thriller.


Heather O’Neill:  Wisdom in Nonsense – Invaluable Lessons from my Father (non fiction) and The Lonely Hearts Hotel  (fiction)                                                                            reviewed by Annette Reinhart

There is no mystery where Heather O’Neill gets her fantastical and subversive ideas once you read Wisdom in Nonsense – Invaluable Lessons from my Father.  This slim publication contains a list of advice her unconventional father gave her such as “Never Tell Anyone What Your Parents Do For a Living”.  The reason for that advisory becomes clear as Heather O’Neill describes how her dad grew up in 1930s Montreal amidst the heyday of bars, prostitution and corrupt gangsters.  As a poor, scrappy Irish kid, her dad assisted petty criminals for money and goods and became streetwise in the ways of the underworld.  As a single dad, he worked as a janitor while raising Heather; he regaled her daily with tall tales and brash lies from his youthful days, and surrounded her with a community of misfits and homemade adventures – occasionally shoplifting for luxury goods to please her.

Based on the period of her father’s wild youth, Heather O’Neill’s most recent novel, The Lonely Hearts Hotel spins a carnivalesque narrative set in those raucous times.  1930s Catholic Montreal was a time when unwed mothers were sent to institutions where they waited out their pregnancies then, after birthing, most were severed from any contact with their child.  The Lonely Hearts Hotel begins with two such orphans, Pierrot and Rose, neither of whom has any idea of their heritage but come to bond together during their orphanage upbringing.  Both had lucrative talents which were discovered and farmed out as entertainment in salons of the wealthy.  After leaving the institution, each has a twisted journey of dramatic ups and downs before reuniting again.

The surprising thing about this novel is how the author takes a playful, whimsical approach to some very brutal realities her vulnerable characters encounter.  This switch between fairy-tale mode and gritty street life gives a fable-like quality to her story that runs the gamut of enthralling spectacles, dark humanity, and unexpected gender roles.  These children grow up with much more to deal with than they should.  They are survivors restructuring the conventional definition of family much like Heather O’Neill’s own experience, “My dad had all sorts of ideas about what family was and none had to do with biology.  A family was a group of trusted associates.”

This is a both magical and grim tale that tackles escape from class and gender expectations as well as traumatic abuse.  This isn’t really a combination that should work, being simultaneously life affirming and heartbreaking – but it certainly does in Heather O’Neill’s very creative handling.