Thursday, November 19, 2015

Alejandro Frid, A World for My Daughter

Definitely one of the most salutary books I've read in some time, Alejandro Frid's new Caitlin Press volume A World for My Daughter has the intriguing subtitle An Ecologist's Search for Optimism. Marketing's needs means that titles and subtitles generally aren't to be trusted, but not this time: Frid's chapters are addressed to his young daughter, and his overall focus is on how his work as an ecologist both puts him on a trendline toward depression and despair, and puts him in the way of reasons for optimism and joy.

Frid's book takes the form of letters to his daughter Twyla Bella, currently 11 years old, though the letters are written with a voice and complexity that's pitched to her slightly older self rather than her present self. A very bright young teenager could make excellent sense of the book, certainly, but this isn't a book for children so much as a book for parents which models an ecologically thoughtful relationship with one's own child.

Frid's ecological encounters have led not only to the cataloguing and hypotheses of a scientist, but to the synthesizing worldview of an engaged thinker. In 2012 Frid was among many arrested in Vancouver for blockading coal trains, and in 2014 for protesting pipeline expansion. His scientific experience has imposed a moral obligation on him, an obligation intensified by his role as father.

Deer in South America, caribou in the Northwest Territories, glass sponges near Vancouver, kelp forests off Haida Gwaii, Frid's career as an independent ecologist has offered encounters with innumerable species in remarkable places. We dive with Frid amongst rockfish, and we hike cliffs with him to count Dall's sheep. We hunt and fish and paddle with him.

We're even there when he leaves his 7-year-old daughter on a small island in Haida Gwaii for the day, alone except for her 9-year-old friend, because everyone on board ship needs to participate in the day's data collection. Later that day, we watch proudly with him through binoculars as the children find shelter in a storm, and we reflect on what this means:
My responsibility is to hand down to you the stories and tools that will allow you to deal with a rapidly changing world and do what you can to steer that new world towards a path of greater resilience. (p.72)
When young Twyla Bella finds her own shelter, while Frid himself is working on a population survey out of fear of eventual extinction, we see broader reasons for optimism. She has some of the tools, in other words, and she's resilient in the way that so many children are, the way that a whole world needs to become resilient.

And so there are all kinds of reasons that different readers should appreciate this book. I was insufferable reading A World for My Daughter, even if I restrained myself from reading it aloud to everyone around me the whole time. If a copy isn't under every Christmas tree this year, I'll be very disappointed in all of you.

(Presumably I should be reading David Boyd's Optimistic Environmentalist as well, to see how an environmental lawyer manages to find hope in times like these? But these days, I'd rather think about materialities than about policy. Soon, perhaps!)

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Jim Robbins, The Man Who Planted Trees

Let's get the phrasing right: "misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows."

We're more used to the idea that politics makes strange bedfellows, a line written first by Charles Dudley Warner, but that's a later adaptation. Shakespeare in The Tempest brings together in a terrible storm a shipwrecked jester, Trinculo, and the beastly Caliban. Trinculo sees no alternative but to hide under a cloak being worn by a sleeping man with "a very ancient and fish-like smell," and so with dyspeptic resignation, Trinculo complains that "misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows."

Living in the shadow of anthropogenic climate change certainly counts as misery, and the ecologically inclined do find ourselves at times, at least temporarily, on the same side with people whose ideas we'd rather be able to object to for their strangeness. In a nutshell, that's almost exactly the case with David Milarch, the protagonist of Jim Robbins' recent book The Man Who Planted Trees: A Story of Lost Groves, the Science of Trees, and a Plan to Save the Planet. (No, not the older book of the same title, nor the movie neither. Keep up, people.)

Millrace's self-appointed mission is to collect and propagate the genetics of the largest specimens of the world's trees, from white oak to willow to Sitka spruce to sequoia, through cloning. He's driven, genuinely driven, by a sense that climate change will exert such a terrible force on forests and individual trees that all these species need to be propagated again from the oldest, largest, tallest examples, on the principle that these are genetically the strongest examples.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Maleea Acker, Gardens Aflame (take #2)

See, I knew at the time that I didn't like Maleea Acker's first book as much as I should have. I did say that I was distrustful of my reading at the time, and that a careful reading of Gardens Aflame would be rewarded, but I'm not sure any longer that it's worth posting any thoughts unless I can stand behind them. (Amy Reiswig's review upon the book's launch got it right, I think.)

Prompted by a stray meeting with Acker at a recent reading in Victoria, it was time for me to revisit the book, to see whether my somewhat cranky first reaction was appropriate.

And it wasn't, so I've posted an update comment there at the top of the page. This gentle volume is very impressive, and I'm really glad I came back to realize as much.

The trick with Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC's South Coast is that it may not be the story you expect, or that you've trained yourself to expect from works of natural history tinged with personal memoir about the very recent past. The Garry oak is a remarkable tree, as the cover photo suggests, and as everyone who lives in Victoria should already know, and the camas flower (also on the cover) is a gorgeous late-spring gem.

But Gardens Aflame isn't about these glamour species, and that's part of her ethic and her aesthetic in this book.

Similarly, Acker mentions her recent marriage breakup, speaks warmly of walks with her rain-begrudging dog, and honours through personal narratives the ecologically minded people she meets, but it's also not about Acker and her recovery from trauma through nature.

In other words, it's not traditional nature writing. A lazy reader is going to see all these traditional traits and think that they don't add up the way they should to traditional nature writing, and just might flip to the next book in the pile. As David Gessner has convincingly argued more than once, we don't need traditional nature writing. In Sick of Nature, if I may paraphrase, he proposed that we set the whole field ablaze and see what species thrive in the newly sweetened soil:
If nature writing is to prove worthy of a new, more noble name, it must become less genteel and it must expand considerably. It's time to take down the "No Trespassing" signs. Time for a radical cross-pollination of genres. Why not let farce occasionally bully its way into the nature essay? Or tragedy? Or sex? (Gessner in the Boston Globe)
Gessner's thesis has found traction, and so natural history's former readers are now gleefully reading memoirs that exploit but bash natural history, pooh-poohing the delicate observer and yet receiving boxes full of the same for Christmas.

Gardens Aflame, though, transforms nature writing by climbing more deeply inside the genre, rather than disrupting it. In some ways, Gardens Aflame represents the best of natural history writing. It's full of micro-stories (memoir, history, botany, natural history, geology); it's full of details that the author earned through time and energy spent in place, with people who already knew better; it delineates intransigent problems without being despairing, potential solutions without being programmatically helpful.

Acker rejects a focus on the charismatic species of oaks and camas in favour of the total meadow ecosystem (following Alexander Humboldt, in essence), and insists on small stories rather than an overall narrative. Through these decisions, Acker disrupts traditional nature writing not by getting loud, but by focusing her quiet onto the crucial issue of care.

Nature writing often focuses on what we see: on what we experience, more broadly, but vision generally trumps the rest of the senses. I'm tired of witnessing, tired of admiring, and yet I'm not equipped to throw myself into advocacy, into action.

In an ethic of care like Acker proposes in Gardens Aflame, I can find a home. And if I'd been able to see my fatigue as environmental depression when I first read this book, I would've found a home there the first time around. It'll stay on my bookshelf, and I hope it'll appear on yours before long.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sarah de Leeuw, Skeena

"On first opening de Leeuw's Skeena"
What does it mean     mean
to be mean
pluck someone else's lines      chords
fuck someone else's lines 
Skeena    Skeena     into you mean
     -ing I fall      grasping      wishing
bridges between      honouring
sonorous     clickclack     clockcluck     boulders
rolling boxcars     tracks and lines
grumbling back     to back
me into me     mean
meaning Skeena     Skeena 
I blame you
Maleea Acker.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Theresa Kishkan, Patrin

Melancholy, plangent, luminous: in case of fire, break glass and release the adjectives, people!

Theresa Kishkan's new novella from Mother Tongue Publishing, Patrin, is every bit as remarkable as one might hope. Set in the 1970s and starring a bookish, brownish young woman with an immigrant's name, Patrin alternates between Victoria, BC; a backpacking tour of sunny Europe (plus England); and a quest through what was then Czechoslovakia. Kishkan renders all these locales with great intimacy, including what I think must be a roman a clef for Victoria's writing community at the time, centred around a nameless but unmistakable version of the inimitable Robin Skelton.

In brief, young Patrin Szkandery is finding her way as a writer but non-student in a university town, wishing she could learn about the Romani heritage that her father and grandfather never shared with her before their deaths, when she gets an unexpected opportunity to pursue this heritage on the ground in Czechoslovakia.
I'd never known poets before--how could I, in my household, my father a radar technician and my mother someone who believed in the sanctity of cleanliness? (p.47)
It's a novella about a young woman's first loves, about the evolution of family in the echoing shadow of immigration's discontents, and about the long reach of History. We fish for trout in BC streams, beside which we sleep in a tent trailer; we learn traditional ecological knowledge from First Nations women in the Fraser Canyon, and from Romani women in Czechoslovakia; we sleep with musicians in Greece, as one does; we navigate the treacheries of post-Stalinist Communism.
I'd had a love affair, which made me feel sophisticated, if still a little heart-sore. And I knew Wimbledon Common the way my former classmates knew the trails of Beaver Lake. I knew the protocols of shopping at a greengrocer's.... (p.84)
Reviews of Patrin are still thin on the ground, since Kishkan is still on what amounts to a launch tour (that lands here in Victoria on Thursday, November 5th), but I expect that it'll draw a lot of positive attention. I'll have more to say about this book, I suspect, once I've had time to reread it and to think about it in relation to Kishkan's own 1970s poetry (Ikons of the Hunt, for example, on my shelf at the office), but I'm confident in saying that this is a seriously accomplished little volume.

Previous visitors here may recall that Kishkan is a house favourite at Book Addiction HQ, with links to my several other commentaries through the years included in my review of her most recent book Mnemonic, but I'm not favouring Patrin out of nostalgia or any similar emotion.

Plainly put, Patrin is a thorough, spare novella that exploits the genre's allusive strengths in pursuit of an intimate grasp of multiple, interlocking histories. And it's a delight.

Disclosure: Kishkan is virtually a friend, even if we've met in person only once, and Patrin was partly inspired by our mutual Czech friend Katka Prajznerova. But I stand by the views expressed here, and I've bought copies for Christmas gifts already.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Carol Shaben, Into the Abyss

I distrust anything that strikes me as an easy read: reading has to savour of Buckley's Mixture ("It tastes awful -- but it works!"). Even if there's obviously some very good writing, I don't like being comfortable when I read.

All of which is meant to explain why it's a genuine complaint, if a stupid one, that Carol Shaben's Into the Abyss is a remarkably fast-paced book-length work of journalism, smart and tough and a very pleasant companion through the surprisingly few hours I spent with its nearly 300 pages.

The subtitle of Shaben's book, if you haven't seen it yet, is How a Deadly Plane Crash Changed the Lives of a Pilot, a Politician, a Criminal, and a Cop, and that's a very accurate description of the book and its contents. Larry Shaben, then a minister in the Alberta provincial government; pilot Erik Vogel; RCMP officer Scott Deschamps; and regularly convicted drifter plus small-time criminal Paul Archambault spend a frigid night snowbound in northern Alberta, after a plane crash kills the other six occupants of the plane (including Grant Notley, the father of Alberta's current premier, Rachel Notley). Shaben covers this night with intimate detail, but the real story of the book is what happens over the succeeding decades. It's a fresh story, impressively told, about interesting characters facing looming death and complicated fates.

And I wanted to enjoy the book more than I did. English professors shouldn't be allowed to read for pleasure.

When a reviewer wants to protect a book's important narrative details, the normal approach is to talk about style, but in this case the characters' outcomes are so large a part of how I respond to the book's style. At bottom, I wanted the journalism to drag a bit, so that I could feel more of how these characters were experiencing both the immediate aftermath of the crash and the variously long years remaining to each of them afterwards. Long-form journalism often plays with pacing, forcing its readers to speed up and slow down, introducing phantasms of artsy-ness into the fairly business-like trajectory of its story arcs and sentence structures, but Shaben doesn't do very much of that here. There's always the option to focus on the writer's own personality, shifting toward the memoir, but Shaben doesn't do that, either, even though she's the daughter of one of the survivors.

If you're a completist interested in reading all possible books about disasters and crashes, this is an excellent one to add to your roster. Ditto for people interested in the back story behind Rachel Notley, and the mindset of those sometimes described as "career criminals." And ditto, too, for readers who appreciate it when a nonfiction story becomes a page-turner. All that's here in spades.

I just wanted more mourning, more anxiety, more emotion. Page-turning isn't even a beginning for me, because it doesn't count as something worth praising. If it works for you, though, well this book might be a great choice for you.

(Need more? There are spoilers a-plenty in the Toronto Star's review; the National Post has an unusually sensible negative review; and Shaben herself was on NPR to talk up the book when it came out.)

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian, like all other novels by Cormac McCarthy, lives in a locked cabinet at places like Bolen Books, which is one of my regular stops. It's not locked away for community standards, or because his books don't sell: no, it's because McCarthy novels are disproportionately shoplifted. These novels are the opposite of appealing, too, although I've noticed that my whinging at The Road (at which, just to belabour the point, I whinged twice) hasn't decreased that book's reputation (or sales figures).

In the present case, Blood Meridian is a horrible, unpleasant, often disgusting novel, with a body count and blood flow hard for any contemporary horror novel to match. It's also an essential novel, a novel that holds a blood-drenched funhouse mirror up to your face and screams at you to LOOK AT IT, JUST FUCKING LOOK AT IT, THAT'S WHAT YOU REALLY LOOK LIKE: McCarthy's exactly right to situate the founding of the North American West on a racist, murderous, misogynist social structure that places next to no value on ethical principles, human life, or suffering, but Jesus. What a read.

And no, I don't think that James Franco's film version was going to work out, though it's worth your time to check out his 25-minute test video.

Take science, for example, which isn't something you expect to find confronted directly in a Western novel set in the 1850s. But the terrifying Judge fancies himself something of a Linnean, collecting and documenting natural history in the same way that Charles Darwin was doing at roughly the same time as he knocked about the oceans in the Beagle. Toadvine asks the Judge why he's killing and stuffing songbirds, pressing leaves into notebooks, capturing butterflies, and the Judge offers a characteristically dominating response:
Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent. ... Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth. (p.207)
So, yeah, science is a tool of colonialist and neo-colonialist exploitation. Obviously (though among other things). But you won't catch Louis L'Amour or Zane Grey or any other Western novelist saying that. McCarthy writes Western novels with a better sense of purple sage than Zane Grey, with vastly more intense insights into settler culture than L'Amour's ranchers will ever approach. Larry McMurtry, I've been assured, shares similar perspectives, as do some one-off Western novels like Guy Vanderhaeghe's The Englishman's Boy. It's just that they're no Blood Meridian.

Part of this has to do with McCarthy's insistence that his prose style be so mannered, as in this description of the Judge sitting in a saloon:
He was sitting at one of the tables. He wore a round hat with a narrow brim and he was among every kind of man, herder and bullwhacker and drover and freighter and miner and hunter and soldier and pedlar and gambler and drifter and drunkard and thief and he was among the dregs of the earth in beggary a thousand years and he was among the scapegrace scions of eastern dynasties and in all that motley assemblage he sat by them and yet alone as if he were some other sort of man entire and he seemed little changed or none in all these years. (p.338)
No point calling this style "Faulknerian." The right word is "McCarthyesque." Combine it with the madness, the torture, the murder, the scalpings, so very many scalpings, and you've got something utterly unmistakable as anything but a Cormac McCarthy novel. It's horrible, Blood Meridian. I wouldn't wish it on anyone, and at this point I can't imagine ever teaching it. But my students should read it anyway, and I plan to say exactly that if my proposal is accepted that'd see me teaching a course next year on Settler-Colonial Ecocriticism (i.e., the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change meets Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission).

Why steal books that take such an uncompromisingly dark view of America and its origins (or of North America more broadly, if you'd prefer to include Canada and/or Mexico in the analysis)? More to the point, why do so many of these books get stolen? It's weird. I mean, in some lights it's oddly reassuring that some books are desirable enough to be shoplifted consistently, and maybe one could be heartened that some readers are so attracted to such pungently anti-colonialist fiction, but mostly it's weird.

Read the damned book. You'll hate it, and you'll hate Cormac McCarthy. But Blood Meridian is a genuinely irreplaceable work, and that's a very rare thing.

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.)