Friday, October 02, 2015

My Baby Rides the Short Bus

We must do everything we can to help our children to change what is different about them, make it *undifferent*, so they can integrate, so they can be as normal as possible.... We must reprogram our children, go against their nature, go against nature itself. Constantly. It would be considered emotional abuse to do that to a "normal" child, to tell them every day in many ways they cannot be who they are. (Lisa Carver, p.x)
There's no understanding us, the parents of kids with special needs children -- parents of children with special needs -- parents with special needs with children.

Lisa Carver's comment above, though, I may end up tattooing down my forearm, because those words generated the most visceral agreement I've felt with parental writing in years. Our co-parenting journey with medical professionals can often be tantamount to persistent emotional abuse, and we all know that, all of us. But I'm not sure I've ever seen it written as clearly as that before.

All things considered, My Baby Rides the Short Bus, a collection co-edited by Yantra Bertelli, Jennifer Silverman, and Sarah Talbot, is the most helpful and community-minded book I've ever read about special-needs parenting.

Me, I read about this stuff because I need to know our family isn't alone. Not every allegedly relevant book offers much in the way of help. This one, though, kept arresting me enough that I had no choice but to put it down for a little while in order just to think and feel. (And I usually put down parenting books in frustration, maybe even rage!)

I think it's a very good sign when a book makes me tear up, even when prickly tear ducts are also a reliable indicator of looming burnout, and this book caught me out several times.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Directions to the Red Creek Fir

The world's largest remaining Douglas fir is known as the Red Creek Fir, and it's enormous: 73.8 metres tall (242 feet), and 13.3 metres around (nearly 44 feet in circumference). Not many people have seen it, however, and this post is meant as an encouragement to get you out there.

The tree's location is no secret, since the Ancient Forest Alliance has had directions to the Red Creek Fir on their website for a long time. Most of the route follows logging roads, which of course are varyingly bumpy, dusty, and travelled by huge trucks uninterested in your possible right of way, but that's predictable. The trouble is, though, that the AFA's directions are sketchy at some key points, with phrases like "Continue a short ways past the bridge" and "down hill for quite a ways." Their page links to photos of each junction, and I found those essential the first time I went out there (in 2010), but there are two problems. First, you'll have no cell coverage in the Renfrew area, so you'd have to print off the photos in advance, and second, there have been significant changes in road conditions and undergrowth since the AFA's photos were taken.

When Junior and I drove out there yesterday, as a result, I kept an eye on distances and times. To be honest, I was doing this only for future reference, but it's clear that there aren't many people driving out that way. Spiders had nearly closed the road with cobwebs, mushrooms were growing in the middle of the road, no tire tracks near the damp areas: the road's still readily passable, and in the summer you don't need 4WD so much as a short wheelbase, but I think it's a very rare trip even for your more dedicated treehuggers, like me. That's a real shame, because the Red Creek Fir is truly a remarkable tree, and more of us should see it as a destination. (Spend some money in Port Renfrew, too, if you're going out there!)

Without further ado, then, here are what I'd call clearer written directions to the Red Creek Fir, if you're coming from Victoria. Steps 1-5, plus 7, are taken almost verbatim from the Ancient Forest Alliance site, with links to their pictures (thanks, AFA! Please don't mind...), but the rest of the steps are amended, with all distances being my references:

  1. Drive to Port Renfrew along the West Coast Hwy #14.
  2. Immediately upon reaching Port Renfrew turn RIGHT downhill onto Deering Road.
  3. Cross the long bridge over the San Juan River and stay to the right on Deering until you cross a second single lane bridge and come to a “T” in the road.
  4. Turn RIGHT at the T and start heading towards Lake Cowichan on the Pacific Marine Circle Route.
  5. Travel along the Pacific Marine Circle Route for approximately 12 km. where you will hit a major fork in the road. Turn RIGHT at the fork. You will now be heading onto a gravel road.
  6. Watching for signs put up to guide you to the tree, keep to the RIGHT on this road for 4.4 km, until you cross a bridge over the San Juan River at the San Juan River Recreation Site. (The San Juan Spruce, in the middle of this site, is Canada's largest Sitka spruce, so be sure to stop there.)
  7. Approximately 2.2 km past the bridge, turn RIGHT onto Bear Main.
  8. After roughly 3.6 km on Bear Main, bear RIGHT onto Mosquito Main. (Depending on road conditions, Mosquito may be better maintained than Bear, so you may think you're still on Bear unless you notice a sign -- which may or may not be present anyway.)
  9. Keep your eye out for a small road to the RIGHT about 800 metres down Mosquito. This is the Red Creek Main, but there likely isn't a sign. (When we were there, a handmade sign with an arrow was propped against a rock on the ground, but I wouldn't rely on that. Also, the AFA photo is seriously misleading, as the road is in nowhere NEAR that condition now.)
  10. Continue down this road about 3.2 km to an intersection that's somewhere between a T and a Y: turn RIGHT. (This section of road is seriously bumpy, with significant potholes and outcroppings: we took 19 minutes to drive this 3.2 km stretch, or 10 km/h.)
  11. The parking pullout is about 1.1 km down this flat stretch. The entrance to the trail is about 20 metres further down the road past the pullout, but it's easy to miss. (If you drive past it, as we did, you could find yourself going for about another 2 km down an increasingly narrow road with increasingly tall brush in the middle of the road. Definitely best to avoid this.)

San Juan Spruce, in 2010
Most writers, incidentally, say that you need four-wheel drive to get to this tree. You'd definitely be better off with four-wheel drive, especially if there's been rain at any point in the last couple of weeks, but this was my second trip with two-wheel drive, the first time in a Mazda MPV and this time in a Nissan Cube. You'll have to drive very slowly and carefully on some stretches, picking your way around hazards, and for God's sake don't put yourself at risk of bashing your oil pan like this guy or going over the edge, but when the weather has been dry for some time (not all that common, in that area), you could manage it in a range of vehicles.

Timing for us, in a 2WD Nissan Cube with excellent intentions but precious little ground clearance:

  • Step 6: 4.4 km, 8 minutes
  • Step 7: 2.2 km, 7 minutes
  • Step 8: 3.6 km, 9 minutes
  • Step 9: 0.8 km, 2 minutes
  • Step 10: 3.2 km, 19 minutes
  • Step 11: 1.1 km, 7 minutes
The Ancient Forest Alliance posted a YouTube video about this tree in June 2011, if you're still on the fence about whether to visit (which you totally shouldn't be!):

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Ken Kesey, Sometimes a Great Notion

It's a measure of how much things have changed, here on the West Coast of North America, that the author of the 1960's classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey, could follow up his countercultural epic with a novel about a family logging company on the Oregon coast.

And not just a family logging company, either, but a multigenerational, frontier-busting, hands-on logging family, and not just a novel, either, but a novel that almost deserves the glossary provided at the back of small-press volumes of logging fiction and logging poetry (and also unforgettable romance novels about logging).

In capsule form, the plot follows the Stamper family's efforts, in their non-union company, to get enough timber to the mill contracting them during a strike that has kept the union saws idle. The complication is that the elder Stamper has been injured, leaving his son to run things on his own, and then his son from a second marriage flees grad school (English literature!) in the Northeast arrives with complicated desires of revenge and belonging. Will they get the logs to the mill? Will the family survive? Will the manly remain manly?

The thing is, though, that unlike virtually every other work of logging fiction, Sometimes a Great Notion isn't the kind of novel that would have been appreciated by loggers working in the times generally depicted in these kinds of works: the 1930s through, at the very latest, the early 1960s. Kesey uses all the Beat-type tools here, especially proto-postmodernist narrative instability and loose baggy monster sentence structure, such that readers regularly encounter 200-word sentences that contain the interior monologues of two or three characters.

It's not impenetrable, and the more time you spend with it, the more you get used to the stylistic eccentricities, but me, I can't help reading these kinds of works with my father and grandfather in mind, and I just can't see them reading Sometimes a Great Notion without derision, even if the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and its readers regard it as the definitive novel of the Pacific Northwest.

Am I underestimating them? Kesey was remarkable, after all, fitting comfortably as he did into a Stanford writing program taught by Wallace Stegner that featured Kesey, Wendell Berry, Larry McMurtry, and others, and I don't disagree with Kesey's own assessment in the Paris Review of Sometimes a Great Notion: "It's my best work, and I'll never write anything that good again." But at bottom, it's not that the book is too smart for them, so much as divorced from their standard reading material.

And also, I really need to watch the Paul Newman movie made from this novel:

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Tony Horwitz, Blue Latitudes

Does the world need more Bill Bryson? Yes, and even Robert Redford thinks so.

Does the world need more Bill Brysons, though? A trickier question, even if an awfully large number of travel writers demonstrate their faith via cover versions, but the truth of the matter is that the Bryson playbook is awfully effective. More than that, a good enough writer can reveal that the Bryson playbook is a genre, adaptable in the hands of anyone who picks it up -- assuming the possession of talent, enthusiasm, and friends who drink startling amounts of alcohol.

And so I'll delay no longer, and say that Bryson be damned, Tony Horwitz's book Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before is an excellent read. His attention to detail is genuinely impressive, offering considerable lessons in the life and travels of Cook, and even contributing to Cook scholarship through persisting as long as he can to seek DNA tests on an arrow purportedly made from one of Cook's leg bones. Horwitz's friend and regular travelling companion Roger, too, drinks enough and admires crumpet* consistently enough to qualify as a force of nature himself, in a role perhaps custom-made for a post-Bryson Nick Nolte.

But seriously: Horwitz does a great job of illuminating the complexity of Cook, a man who recognized and regretted what colonization was going to do to the peoples he was meeting, but kept right on mapping the coastlines and enforcing discipline on his ships. He meets all sorts of interesting folk on his journeys, Horwitz does, and though it's a little odd that the most fully drawn characters are the book's comparatively few Brits or ex-Brits, it's also appropriate for the full Captain Cook experience.

Good stuff -- even if it took me much, much longer to get through than I expected.

* "Crumpet" here doesn't mean crumpet. But you already knew that.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Sandford, The Weekender Effect

Is Whistler Hell?

One gets stoked for pow, I get it, cray cray for when it pukes down, but Robert Sandford's little RMB book The Weekender Effect: Hyperdevelopment in Mountain Towns puts clothes around the anxiety and depression I feel when I'm enjoying myself there, even when I'm just considering another visit there.

The term that provokes much of the book's ire, though a term I hadn't come across before, was "amenity migration," by which is meant the movement of people (often the wealthy) in pursuit of the good, the cool, the beautiful, the tasty. This academic, bureaucratic term is meant to reflect a comparatively bloodless process, but that's not how Sandford experiences it:
We did not experience "amenity migration" in the mountain town I live in. What we experienced was outright dispossession. Locals, like the First Nations before us, have been made refugees in their own land. We are hardly alone in this. What is happening here is an infection that is sickening the entire mountain West. (p.87)
So, there's a lot to unpack in this book.

To be clear: the "locals" that Sandford supports are indirectly and, though less often, directly responsible for the dispossession of First Nations peoples and individuals with which he seeks to identify settler locals. I've plucked half a paragraph out of a 130-page book here, and elsewhere Sandford talks sensibly about alliances and First Nations rights, but I find the attitude in this paragraph just unacceptable. (He's much better on the same topic earlier in the book, pages 28-29.)

And the metaphor of disease is complicated when we're talking about nature and environments. Bodies go through youth and age, sickness and health, eventually dying, so disease is a crucial and foundational aspect of how a body lives. Even if we were to accept the metaphor, how is it possible to avoid the conclusion that "original" or "old-time" mountain towns were themselves early symptoms of this disease, or at least that they represented a disease that knocked down the mountain West's immune system such that this more virulent disease could take hold?

However, and however, and however. Mountain towns, and those growing non-mountain rural towns, have changed significantly over the last decades, often in just the ways that Sandford describes and attacks. I want to join the battle, and if I lived in his town, I'd be on board with almost all of the activist and communitarian initiatives that he describes.

It's just that, well, Whistler is kind of like Hell, looked at from certain angles, even from inside the determinedly resistant cocoon of the Squamish-Lil'Wat Cultural Centre. Is Canmore any better, or Valemount, just because it hasn't reached peak exploitation (pardon the pun)? Don't people identify strongly with all these towns who are cliquey, outsider-obsessed, me-first, "this land is my land, not your land" arrivistes, even if they're claiming special status from their experiences rather than their material wealth or power?

Sure, I'm jealous in all kinds of ways of these people, and I'm one of them. I've wistfully considered moving to Tahsis (I'm not moving to Tahsis) just so that I could feel on the edge of the world, a more settler sentiment there couldn't possibly be. I'm proud of my heritage in BC, with multiple descendants arriving here before 1900, though painfully aware that this means they were settlers in the truest sense of the word, and therefore directly responsible for colonial dispossession.

The Weekender Effect is a great read, seriously, and I think that Bob Sandford proposes all sorts of solutions and initiatives that could help a mountain town, or really any rapidly changing settler town, to evolve in positive directions. I just couldn't help reading it without a pretty large apparatus of doubt reaching over my shoulder and pencilling notes in the margins. If I trusted that Sandford had the same Jiminy Cricket, and I'm pretty sure he does, and if I trusted that all his readers had the same, which I doubt, then I'd recommend this book highly.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Ernest Cline, Ready Player One

Not to be confused with Douglas Coupland's more mysterious but realistically near-present apocalyptic Player One, Ernest Cline's Ready Player One comes with buckets of spare media-savvy nerd credentials -- but legit nerd credentials? Hard to say. I don't want to distrust a book just because Entertainment Weekly says it's one of the best books of the year, though I am indeed just that snobby/shallow, but how nerdy can it be if EW can climb on board?

So yeah, Spielberg is apparently going to direct the movie, but again, what's the legit nerd quotient of that?

The book's opening is phenomenal, I have to say, and the basic conceit sounds great. Twenty years from now, with petroleum almost all burned, most people survive in vertical warren-like stacks of RV's and trailers held together by scaffolding and sewage pipes, living fully haptic virtual lives online in the OASIS, a richly textured environment that integrates with the Real World. (You can attend school inside the OASIS, for example, and get a real high school diploma.) One of the two inventors of the OASIS has died, and has left a complex video explaining that his entire mammoth fortune, including control over the OASIS, will go to the person who solves the riddle buried inside OASIS.

Via A Book Is A Girl's BF
There's lots to enjoy about the novel, don't get me wrong. We occupy a rich, complicated virtual world with Cline in Ready Player One. Much of the pleasure is exactly what you'd expect from a 1980s-centric novel focused narrowly on vestiges of pop culture (snatches of movie dialogue, name-dropping, etc), but Cline has some of his characters neatly and quietly confront stereotypical gamer culture. And if you can identify with protagonist Wade Watts, a somewhat underprivileged, oft-bullied, teenaged gamer obsessed with the 80s, then you're likely to see yourself throughout the novel.

To some extent, though, that's the main reason I distrust the book and its reception. In brief, it's perfectly calculated to strike the fancy of 40-ish media types (who were teenagers themselves in the 1980s) and their 60-ish bosses (who built the 1980s culture quarried by the book), and so flattery has driven some of the fawning media reception blurbed on the book's cover: "Willy Wonka meets The Matrix" (USA Today); "the grownup's Harry Potter" (Huffington Post); "an adrenaline shot of uncut geekdom" (Publishers Weekly).


Ready Player One did have the promised tapestry of 80s references -- not my 1980s, mind you, without the Cars' Heartbeat City or Rambo: First Blood Part II or John Mellencamp, though it was nice to see Bryan Adams and Time Pilot 1984 again -- but as one of my book club compatriots asked, "Did we ever really think that Second Life was the future?" (I paraphrase.) We did think that, definitely, though it has faded markedly since its peak. Second Life is still active and accessible, with the occasional reporter even doing something touristic there, but it's possible to read the novel as somewhat dated to the 2009 peak of VR breathlessness.

Really, I expected to really enjoy this novel, and I did, but I was also disappointed. There's no genuine basis here for the "cult" status self-importantly assigned to it by the entertainment industry, though, and I see Cline as complicit in that misassignation. Good on him for finding a way to earn a living as a novelist, and I think his upcoming Armada will be really intriguing, but Ready Player One was and remains over-hyped.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves

It's right there on the list, #73 out of 79 among "Books That Literally All White Men Own: The Definitive List,"* so … well, I don't know how I feel about that.

The list, I mean, in that I've read 21 of the 79 and taught three of them, and I'm unaccustomed to being gendered and raced all that accurately. Mark Danielewski's novel House of Leaves' place on the list, however, I'm totally fine with. This might be the biggest wank of a novel I've read in years, which for an English professor is saying something.

Seriously, this is a 700-page novel that purports to analyze a non-existent documentary film of a possibly haunted house that contains a door to a constantly shifting labyrinth of unlit corridors and rooms, and that:
  • includes an extraneous 40-page index;
  • requires you to be familiar enough with deconstruction to notice some of the jokes and follow some of the exposition, but not so much that you'd ridicule the Derrida dialogue for being unutterably, cartoonishly untrue to Derrida's habits of self-expression;
  • spends a startling amount of time self-consciously slumming amongst drug-takers, alcoholics, strippers, tattoo artists, and the like (look at meeee, exactly as edgy as These People!); and
  • is really about how suburbia is, like, totally a rabbit hole for Creative Geniuses to fall down and be swallowed by.

I've blogged before about how horror isn't my genre, and that's one of the generic affiliations this novel gets tagged with. To the extent that it's a novel of and about horror (and yes, it's partly that), then this would explain some of my skepticism about House of Leaves. But really, it's barely a horror novel: definitely unheimlich, a word unpacked and repacked with relentless self-congratulatory humour here by Mr. Danielewski, complete with requisite sneering allusions to Heidegger, but that's hardly the same thing.

What some pages look like. Fancy.
I see that other reviewers regularly remark that readers tend to either love or hate this novel, on which grounds they are pleased to call it a cult novel. I'd suggest, though, that an alternative response to House of Leaves is to have a hard time not rolling your eyes while reading it. Presumably I'm not far off the target market for this novel, but lordy, am I ever judging you harshly if you loved House of Leaves.

(It may be worth saying, incidentally, that in the New York Times, the worryingly prolific poet Robert Kelly described this book as, among other things, "sexy," which made it into a blurb on the back cover. More wrong, a reviewer has rarely been.)
* For the record, about this brilliant list from The Toast:
  1. I've read #11 (high school girlfriend), 15 (tutoring high school kids as undergrad), 19 (humouring a friend), 34 (book club), 61 (undergrad pretentiousness), 64 (because Tolkien, seriously, you guys), and 74 (BECAUSE JACK LONDON = AMAZING, so shut up);
  2. I've been given #24 (not sure who by - read it, ugh), 40 (friend - read it, hmm), 44 (brother-in-law, unread), 58 (brother-in-law, unread), 60 (ex-wife - read it, appreciated it), and 73 (student - read it, see above);
  3. I've bought for myself #12 (prof's recommendation - read it, loved it), 49 (not sure - read it, loved it), 55 (not sure - read it, loved it), 57 (friend - read it, LOVED IT), and 68 (course text - read it, LOVED IT); and
  4. I've taught #35 (took over someone else's course - students mostly liked it), 38 (dystopian environmental lit - students suffered), and 56 (history of nature writing - students seemed baffled).
Yep, I'm more than a little bit white. Though it's less clear how manly I am.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Andre Alexis, Fifteen Dogs

So anyway, Hermes and Apollo walk into a bar….

Andre Alexis' novel Fifteen Dogs does indeed begin with something like that old setup for a joke, with the two Greek gods sitting in the Wheat Sheaf Tavern in downtown Toronto, pondering whether humans are uniquely unhappy or whether other beings, if given the same intellectual capacities, would be similarly unhappy. Greek gods being what they are, a trial is arranged, and the fifteen dogs occupying a particular Toronto shelter are given the same kind of intellect that humans have. Hijinks ensue, as well as an awful lot of pain, suffering, and ultimately death -- because the bet turns on whether any of the dogs will die happy. Except for that detail, and maybe for some such readers it'll be fine, this will be just as inspired a Christmas gift for a dog-lover as it seems to be.

Mind you, while reading Fifteen Dogs I kept thinking about my first long-ago read of Leon's Rooke's novel Shakespeare's Dog. The 1980s New York Times review sounds about right, though when I read it, I was enormously impressed by the way that Hooker (the dog) had more depth and character than Shakespeare himself (or Himself).

Photo from
Here, similarly, there are no human characters with as much depth as is available in some of the canine ones, but there's one key advantage to having lots of thinking dogs. In brief, some of Alexis' dogs are terrible individuals: some of them boring, some cruel, some hidebound to ritual, some self-interested.

As appealing as it was to spend time with dogs you admire, there's a special genius involved in deliberately refusing to go for the ideal. These dogs are no more honourable than the humans whose city they occupy, along the margins, where they face threats from humans, from other dogs, and, most worryingly of all, from each other.
From pinterest user Jessie Ashley

Distinctly the majority of your reading time, though, is spent with dogs whose time is more than worth your own, particularly a poet, anxious about the impermanence of orality; a pseudo-socialist, supportive of the group but keen on exceptionality; and a well-meaning but under-equipped leader. The poems themselves might be worth the price of admission, in my mind, but then I'm nerdier than your average reader.

This was my first time reading with a Kobo, I should say, and as such I've found myself utterly incapable of remembering phrases and passages in anything like the detail I'm used to, plus there's no easy way to flip back and forth through the book in search of echoing lines -- plus it seems mysteriously to have disappeared from the borrowed Kobo, so now I can't even go digging for anything. Score one more for hard copy, if you're keeping track at home.

Trust me, though: this is a terrific book, full of insight and speculation about consciousness, dog being, and the meaning of happiness. Much recommended.

(And if you like to have music playing while you read, here's Andre Alexis' suggested 15-song playlist, via Largehearted Boy. Another win for the interwebs.)

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Jim Sterba, Nature Wars

If we're ever going to understand how we might relate with nature, we'll have to come to terms with the notion of shifting baseline syndrome.

Shifting baseline syndrome is Vancouver-based fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly's term, but it has rapidly come to be widely accepted. Basically, what we see in front of us represents "normal" to us, and if we don't have a clear sense of history, then we never question what relation the present has with this historic. Across just the span of our own lives, we tend to hear as nostalgia comments about the past, including our own "when I was a kid" stories, but SBS explains that we are incapable of tracking change unconsciously. We adapt, and generally without reflecting very closely on what we're adapting to. (Click here for a sobering historical series of "trophy" fish catches, discussed by Loren McClanachan.)

Jim Sterba doesn't mention shifting baseline syndrome in his book Nature Wars, with its breathless subtitle The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds, but it's behind most of the social phenomena that he describes. His story is of the American Northeast, which is subject to a number of historically unique pressures and phenomena, but to lesser degrees (and with local twists) the same story is playing out across North America, including here in British Columbia.

Really, it's all about the pace of change.

Think about white-tailed deer, which here in Greater Victoria have been the subject of so much discussion. As Sterba remarks, it's estimated that there were once about 25 million white-tailed deer in the United States, but by 1900, there were only about half a million left. We've built cities and roads based on there being few deer to get in the way of Progress, but there are a lot more people now than there were in 1900, and a lot more humans, plus these things called "cars." Whereas in 1900 there were half a million white-tailed deer in the United States, by 2012 fully half a million deer were killed by cars ANNUALLY.

Photo by Amy Stein, in Men's Journal
Or think about feeding wild birds. In 1945, you just couldn't buy bird feeders, because who would do such a thing? Sure, we could watch birds, count them, eat them, but it'd be absurd to attract them without utility to our homes. In 2010, Americans spent roughly $3.5 billion on wild birds, just in the forms of bird feeders and bird seed.

Or pet cats: from only 4 million in 1947 (though an uncountable number of farm cats), to 86 million in 2011, plus an estimated 60 million feral cats. Cat lovers refuse to take this explosion into account, when they think about the impact they're having on bird populations. Sterba does what I think is his best to treat with respect protectors of feral cats, who after all tend to be motivated by respectable ethical considerations, but lordy, are they ever misguided in consequence of their historical and ecological ignorance.

Sterba's book is a bit of a slog to read, as it's a very long work of journalism rather than creative nonfiction, but it's such an important subject. He doesn't make recommendations, since that's not really the journalist's way, but he sets the table nicely. I've come away a lot readier to be involved in discussions about reducing animal numbers through lethal force, and that's a sign of how effectively Sterba has marshalled his evidence.

(I'm late to the party, so this is a short post, but the NY Review of Books had quite a long discussion, complete with huffy letter to the editor from the save-them-all activists Sterba describes; the Wall Street Journal offered a mid-length but not very thoughtful reading; and even Men's Journal weighed in.)

Sunday, May 03, 2015

David Mas Masumoto, Epitaph for a Peach

One of the world's great know-you're-alive foods is a really good peach, straight off the tree, soft enough you worry it might be overripe, but instead a fuzz-covered gushing orb that's sweet enough to trick you into thinking you've got taste receptors on your teeth.

And I say that as someone who in the early 1980s once participated in accidentally picking 250 pounds of peaches at a U-Pick orchard when we meant to stop at a hundred, they were that good.

David Mas Masumoto's Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm, like the best peaches, is worth your time in every conceivable way. First appearing in 1987 as an essay in the LA Times, the book was published in 1996, which was around the time I first found it. Two decades later, the book reads as beautifully as ever.

One of Masumoto's strengths is his willingness to confess his incomplete knowledge in such a way that a reader can recognize both the knowledge and the movement toward knowledge. This book documents Masumoto's attempt to preserve an old but delicious peach variety from obsolescence, caused by its short shelf-life and fragile flesh, and so we get to watch Masumoto spending a year exploring his soil, failing at marketing, and connecting through labour with his family, but always thinking about might be the right next task. By the time of the book's completion, Masumoto has spent a number of years moving toward lower-impact methods, closer to organic farming, so he has a lot to say about cover crops, weeds, migrant workers, and competitive farming.

It's a joy, for me at least, to walk his orchards, prune the trees, fall from ladders, and I can't imagine a reader who wouldn't find something to love here.

But then again, I was distracted throughout by the California drought. Masumoto mentions drought a few times, talks regularly about irrigation and fog and storms, and mentions casually at one point that droughts are hard on farmers because they don't get the bad-weather reprieves from hard work:
"The years of continual drought have almost killed me. These months are filled with monotonous days of clear skies. Each morning begins with a work list and the expectation that most of it can be accomplished. I don't have the weather as an excuse to slow down." (p168)
What would the balance be now, I wonder, in how Masumoto would talk about drought and labour, in terms of obligation toward the land?

(Please check out the update from NPR, too, about what has happened with Masumoto's family over the last twenty years. Some very good news there!)

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Jude Isabella, Salmon: A Scientific Memoir

If you wanted a keystone species for BC, the obvious choice is salmon. They're abundant, delicious, and miraculous in their eventual returns from ocean to the rivers of their birth, and above all that, they have the power to change the earth itself.

Over time, you see, the nitrogen in the decomposing bodies of thousands of salmon measurably changes the forests surrounding salmon-bearing streams. The trees are bigger, the plant communities are different, the undergrowth supports a larger variety in insect and bird species. Salmon built BC, not just its fishing economy but its very terrain, and they're still building it.

Mind you, Jude Isabella's Salmon: A Scientific Memoir is at pains to clarify that in honouring the salmon, we're failing to honour herring, eulachon, clams, and all the rest. Salmon records something like four years of research trips in BC that Isabella, a science journalist of some note and editor-in-chief of the brilliant new Hakai Magazine, had taken in the company of scientists of numerous stripes. Separate chapters look at clam gardens built maybe 5,000 years ago and maintained for centuries, at why we should be wary of focusing on the glamour of sockeye, and at intersections between fishery science and traditional ecological knowledge.

But I should say that as nerd-riffic as Salmon is, it's also a chatty, appealing book about the people engaged in figuring out the past and future of fish in BC, and about the kinds of places that most of us don't ever get to visit. Isabella has a great eye for character, and so this book has more in common with books like Terry Glavin's The Last Great Sea than it does with the academic work of the researchers she travels with.

As essential as salmon are to the story of British Columbia, and to the stories of the rich, complex cultures that developed here over the 14,000 years before European contact, they're only one essential species among many others, and that's one of Isabella's points here. An accurate portrait of BC certainly can be rendered through salmon, and Isabella has done a terrific job of illuminating the materials which would contribute to such a portrait, but it's only one portrait. If you follow her on Twitter, though, you'll see that she's keenly interested in other portraits, other materials, and other places -- I'm keen to see where else she takes her readers. Salmon is from Rocky Mountain Books, though oddly it's not in their very cool RMB Manifestos series, and they're to be commended for publishing this fascinating little volume.

Recommended for all shades of eco-nerds, fish-eaters, and place-lovers!

Friday, May 01, 2015

Harold Rhenisch, Carnival


Grammar nazi, soup nazi, feminazi.

Harold Rhenisch has written far more accessibly in other books about growing up German in Canada after WW2, in both Out of the Interior and The Wolves at Evelyn, but one of the things I enjoy about Rhenisch is that he never compromises for the meagre reward of communicating more clearly with his readers.

With Carnival, though, a fictionalized ventriloquizing memoir about his father's life in and escape from Germany, I sometimes found myself wondering if Rhenisch was deliberately writing against his potential audience, deliberately reducing their number so he could just get on with the business of sorting out his own experiences and his own history.

As Brian Fawcett put it in My Career with the Leafs, which I'm pleased to have re-read recently, the word "Nazi" was for many years a standard insult in Western Canada, among kids, anyway, for anyone not clearly Anglo. Those German-ish children whose families fled the Nazi shame only to find themselves regularly threatened, pummelled, and physically injured for the crimes of that distant country their families had abandoned must have suffered in all kinds of complicated ways, and Carnival's strangeness gives a real intimacy to the backstory of that suffering.

Strictly speaking, this book grew from eight hours of 1987 recordings that Rhenisch made of his father telling one last time the stories that he'd been telling for Harold's whole life. Interspersed among these biographical fragments (none of them identified as such in the book, I should say) are what I take to be something like fantasias, with angels and returns from the dead and such, as well as what I think are Rhenisch's imagining what it was like for his father to return to his family home many years later:
"This is, however, above all a work of fiction, and its story, of the forces unleashed in 1930s Germany and of their terrible retribution, of an entire generation raised without parents or history, confronting the worst horrors of our species without the insulation or protection of society, the consequent death of civilization and of the world of story--and its eventual and unexpected re-creation" (p.8)
And it is all horrifying, appropriately horrifying. The story-filled world of Hans's childhood rots and collapses into a cruelly material too-early adulthood, with a child killed in the very first moment of this town's occupation by French troops, and a girl raped to death by occupying soldiers who are subsequently killed for their crime, publicly, by their officers. There's nothing redemptive in the lives being depicted here, no answers for any of these varieties of pain suffered by any of the characters on or off the page, and yet in spite of Carnival's formal inaccessibility and the unpleasantness of its content, this is a book that provokes obsessive reading.

To sum up: I'll never feel about Carnival how I feel about Rhenisch's more BC-centric work, like Tom Thomson's Shack or The Wolves at Evelyn, and to be honest I have no idea who I might recommend this book to. It's remarkable, Carnival is, and it deserves to be remarked upon and to be shared, but I'm just not sure who by. This ignorance, though, I'm prepared to lay at my own feet.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Brian Fawcett, My Career with the Leafs & Other Stories

Brian Fawcett is one of my touchstone writers, one of those writers I default to when I'm looking for something uncomfortable that still shares some of my own background and instincts. This means that I have no idea whatsoever why Book Addiction HQ hasn't reviewed any of his books before now, except that the peak of my Fawcett obsession faded before this blog's 2006 start date.

And so I've been really pleased to make a little time to re-read, once again, Brian Fawcett's 1982 collection My Career with the Leafs & Other Stories. Among other books reviewed here, it reminds me most strongly of John Harris' Small Rain, which occupies very similar ground at the boundary between fiction and non-fiction (also set in Prince George, BC, either oddly or significantly).

The book consists of twenty-two short stories, linked by the recurrence of characters and the persistent anchoring in Prince George, but the narrator's name is "Brian Fawcett," and except for the final two stories, the book follows a roughly chronological sequence from age four to nineteen. It reads like fictionalized autobiography, though I haven't gone to the trouble of connecting the dots between Fawcett's biography and his fiction.

Fawcett camped on this boundary again many years later in his Gender Wars, incidentally, which generated the following from Andi Zeisler in Bitch: "What would be really great is if Brian were to just chuck the whole po-mo is-it-autobiographical-or-does-he-just-want-us-to-think-that? fiction angle and go ahead and write a sex manual for the single, confused, disaffected individual."

As far as Gender Wars goes, I'm very much on Team Zeisler. In My Career with the Leafs, though, Fawcett hadn't gone nearly as far down the road of formal experimentation as he did in the sequence of books following Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow, and so Zeisler's objection isn't yet relevant here. Mind you, I doubt the Portland-based founder of the seriously admirable Bitch empire is all that interested in a dated and dubiously fictionalized manual on growing up unmanly in manly small-town British Columbia, but I happen to know a whole book club that might really appreciate it.

It's full of small gems, this book, such as Fawcett's reflection on the outcome of a pivotal but typical hockey game:
"Carl was next to me crying softly, the sky was pale blue, and the snow was very white and cold, but it seemed mostly that people bled, and that other people were pretty cruel" (p.32).
And of course it's something of a bildungsroman, a portrait of the artist as a young boy, circling warily around the nature of story and the problem of fiction from elsewhere:
"People could drive cars, make money, eat Chinese food, get into fights, and shoot pool. They could even die. But novels came from someplace else, far away and outside the possibilities of a small town like ours" (p.135).
But mostly, it's funny and sad and real, from thinking that the singular of "elves" surely must be "elve" and pulling out the nose-hair of your sleeping father, to the overall jerkiness of softball leagues for adults, and finally to an absurd encounter with the toweringly stupid Howie Meeker while playing, inexplicably, for the Maple Leafs. Full of small gems, this book is itself a much larger treasure, well worth your time.

(Even if, as I write, the lead story at Bitch is about why viewers should be paying for ethically produced porn, the same way we pay a premium for fair-trade chocolate. Andi Zeisler may be on to something there.)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Michael Crummey, Sweetland

Michael Crummey's Sweetland is a remarkable novel -- maybe predictably remarkable, but that's hardly a genuine strike against it, even if I'd slot Sweetland pretty high on my coveted and top-secret shortlist for "best Canadian novel not to hook me".

Mind you, maybe it's just that my bones are too Western Canadian for me to be able to read East Coast fiction with the right frame of mind. (Not that this is a problem for the National Post reviewer quoted below….) Crummey's is a satisfyingly evocative Newfoundland, a richly drawn world that's almost entirely unlike my experience in the same country. On the island of Sweetland, there aren't any First Nations; the settlers have been there in the same houses with the same neighbours for generations on generations; and the trees are more like shrubs.

It's a long way from BC, is what I'm saying.

But the novel's lessons are familiar ones, even if I believe in Moses Sweetland (and I do), even if I admired Crummey's creation of the autistic young boy Jesse, and even if the landscape of Sweetland's island is as loaded with significance as that of Pilgrim's Progress. A city will change you -- Toronto might eat you alive, when you come to it from the country. If there's no one to speak for a place, the place dies. I get it. These are traditional lessons in rural Canadian fiction, highly traditional in East Coast fiction, and I didn't want to read that book again. Not this month, anyway, for whatever reason, even if it's a polished and impressive book.

Everybody else loves this novel, though:

  • "Crummey's novel is all of a piece, its apparent simplicity of style, like that of its protagonist and his setting, concealing a primordial power" (Aparnya Sanyal, Globe and Mail)
  • "Sweetland is a thing of beauty, one of the finest novels we are likely to encounter this year" (Robert Wiersema, National Post)
  • "Crummey's finest novel yet" (Brian Bethune, Maclean's)

What the hell do I know.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Chief Earl Maquinna George, Living on the Edge

Here at Book Addiction HQ, most of our fiction reading is of the arty variety, unless it's for the book club, and a lot of our nonfiction reading is similarly self-conscious and, to a worryingly large degree, fancy-pants. I'm not sure how this is the road I've found myself on, but if those sorts of books make your eyes roll, today might be your day.

One of the most valuable books I've read in a long time isn't the least bit annoyingly literary, and that's Chief Earl Maquinna George's chronicle Living on the Edge: Nuu-Chah-Nulth History from an Ahousaht Chief's Perspective. Let me be clear, because I don't mean that this book hasn't been constructed with close attention to the structure of story or the aesthetics of how a writer connects with audience: it's just that when you read this book (and you really should read this book), you won't need to remember any lessons from English class, from New York Times book reviewers, or from book bloggers vastly cleverer than I am. You need to open up to the book, give it enough time that you can hear some stories, and let the stories work.

Canada likes to think of itself as a First World country, a developed nation, with the history and cultural complexity that those descriptors seem to imply as following naturally from its current economic status. As Chief George notes, though, the fishing industry that transformed coastal BC and coastal First Nations communities didn't get seriously rolling until the 1930s, at which time it was still common for First Nations to travel in dugout canoes (p.109). Thousands of years of occupancy and history have been buried in a too-late treaty process, with the year 1846 getting a semi-mystical status at some treaty tables to represent a fixed date for the precise outline of Aboriginal rights and title, with some large structural changes not beginning until the last years before World War Two.

In essence, Living on the Edge represents Chief Earl Maquinna George's personal corrective to decades of outsider anthropological and ethnographic study: "Documentation by outsiders is an artifact of the order and the orderliness of western cultures; it is not a part of our way of knowledge" (p.39). Though a personal response first, it is also an authoritative declaration of cultural difference.

And I'm not going to tell you this book's stories. I don't own them, although I've now been told them.

The simple fact is that if you don't read Living on the Edge, you're not going to understand what it means to live on the BC coast. You don't need to agree, or to respond: you need to listen. Chief Earl Maquinna George is talking here. Join the audience.