“Lots of people tell me that they don’t always agree with what I write but like reading me anyway,” claims Margaret Wente in the introduction to her new book, which collects columns written for The Globe and Mail along with original pieces. “Some tell me they never agree, but they like getting their blood pressure up.” This, in a nutshell, encapsulates Wente’s greatest strength: she’s never been a particularly interesting prose stylist, but as a polemicist, she’s engaging – if only because of how infuriating she can be.
Which makes this collection something of an oddity. It’s not that there’s a total lack of the hot-headed straight talk that has rendered her such a flashpoint for newspaper readers. Indeed, she opens the book by reprinting her infamous 2005 column about Newfoundland (in which she called rural Newfoundland “the most vast and scenic welfare ghetto in the world”).
But much of the book is devoted to more personal subjects such as housework or the petty annoyances of aging (forgetting where you left things is numero uno, according to Wente). These digressions into Erma Bombeck territory seem pallid coming from such an unrepentant firebrand; the sheer preponderance of them makes the book uneven at best.
Of course, Wente can’t help being Wente, and even her more parochial pieces can have the effect of raising readers’ eyebrows, if not their blood pressure. When she ends one essay, on the joys of rekindling the flame of early love later in life, by saying that although she is happily married now, “life is long, and you never know,” one can’t help but imagine her husband being a bit taken aback. And there’s no small amount of hubris in her discussion of Hector McLeod’s wartime experience, which allowed him to go to university and squire a son who grew up to marry Wente. “In a way,” the son’s wife opines, “you could say that the war was the best thing that ever happened to [Hector].”
That same piece includes a more typically breathtaking Wente oversimplification, which precedes her suggestion that the Second World War was “a simpler and more innocent time.” “Nobody,” she writes, without any apparent irony, “argued the morality of wars back then.” One can practically hear the many millions of pacifists, socialists, and isolationists in Europe and elsewhere spinning in their graves.
Still, it’s futile to fault Wente for not being a student of history, particularly since it’s precisely these ill-considered broadsides that make reading her such bile-raising fun. When she turns her attention to a spirited defence of Mark Steyn’s America Alone or asserts in a piece about climate change alarmists that “[p]ollution is the chief consequence of human existence,” the book takes off (sometimes quite literally, as it’s hurled at the nearest wall). This is the good stuff: the stuff of aneurysm-inducing Sturm und Drang. When the book veers off into a discussion of Wente and her husband’s beekeeping and their participation in an annual honey competition, the reader is struck by a sensation that is as palpable as it is unexpected: boredom.