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.
Seriously?

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 IEET.org
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

Nazi.

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.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Patrick Lane, There Is a Season

Can every memoir be like Patrick Lane's There Is a Season? Of course not, but I'm always made a bit wistful by a piece of writing so lovely that it spoils me from reading less accomplished work. Not that I haven't been reading fantastic stuff lately (Harold Rhenisch, Thomas Wharton…), but this run can't last forever, and eventually I'm going to have to resent Patrick Lane a little bit for making me more likely to notice.

My first encounter with Lane didn't go all that smoothly, in part (though only in part) because he took the Victoria Book Prize competition in a year when I actually knew one of the nominees and thought he deserved to win. I can't see myself reading Red Dog, Red Dog again, but I'd heard very good things about this memoir, and so in I climbed.

Certainly the most abuse-filled gardening book I've ever read, There Is a Season traces Lane's early days in the Kootenays, dipping into particularly tragic or painful moments in his life since then, up to the annus mirabilis of his first year after rehab for alcoholism. Family violence, crushing poverty, casual pedophilia that young Pat would regularly manipulate for small cash windfalls, alcoholic despair: there are all the joys of Canadian literary fiction here, I tell you, but rendered throughout in glowing prose that's so observant and sensitive that the scent of flowers and compost from Lane's Saanich garden fairly rises from the pages:
An iris of the lightest blue just flowered in the sunniest spot of the new shade garden. Early this morning I watched a bee climb, one flower at a time, down the three-branched styles and drink from the blossoms. The sun shone through the pale flesh of the style and I could see the bee's soft shadow inside the standard. I wished for a moment that I could do it too. The throat of the iris is ivory and the pendant petals are fretted with black lines that look perfect against the blue. There are times beauty is a thing apart. The poet goes there carefully for beauty is a word much abused. The sentimental is always a failure of feeling and I have lived in fear of it, so much so I think I have sometimes deprived myself of simple things. (p.176)
The book is an almanac of the gardener's year, to set beside Des Kennedy's remarkable Ecology of Enchantment; it's a tale of BC settler woe, like Lane's own novel Red Dog, Red Dog; it's an ecologically aware childhood memoir comparable to Janisse Ray's Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. I don't expect to read many books this year better written than There Is a Season, but it can be a painful read, unless you've read enough memoirs to feel inured to sad older men surreptitiously masturbating young boys, or little enough realist / naturalist fiction that the long shadow of alcoholism doesn't feel at times predictable.

If you're a regular reader of BC literature, then this book is very much for you. If you're a reader of nature writing, or life-writing, or the belles-lettres memoir, then you're going to appreciate this novel. Above all, if you appreciate the well-turned image flowing from keenly focused observation, then you're sure to find There Is a Season rewarding.

But maybe read it yourself, before giving it away as a gift. Not every reader is going to find the stunning natural description or the masterful prose enough.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Thomas Wharton, Salamander

Too busy to get deeply into book? No time to read? I hear that, and my schedule can compete with anybody else's, but I've burned an inexplicably large number of unavailable hours over the last few weeks with Thomas Wharton's Salamander, and you should do the same.

Though my reading mostly consists of books that I think might work for me, and in consequence I'm rarely displeased living inside the books that I do, I haven't felt as addicted to a book in a long time as I was to Salamander. I can't think of a way to describe the novel that doesn't end up carving up its potential readership into a niche inside a subgroup within a sector, but the impression's what I want to sell, not the book's content: more than any book I read last year (and I read some good ones), Salamander was impossible to put down.

For those keeping a close eye, yes, you're right, I did say that Richard Wagamese's Medicine Walk was the best book to appear in Canada in 2014, as well as the best book I've read in who knows how long, and I did say that John McPhee is always amazing: how could I argue with myself?

My point, simply, is that this book should be a passion not for a deeply subdivided group of potential readers, but for the sum of all its potential readerships. You like a technological fantasy, something like steampunk but not exactly? Bring on the mechanical sailing ship, the automatons, and the impossible clockwork castle. Your tastes run toward historical romance? Let's visit Montreal on the eve of Wolfe's defeat of Montcalm, admire a Slovakian countess's impossible love, meet a black female pirate pursued by an implacable foe, and worry about the mysterious backstory and fate a tattooed orphan ignorant both of his name and of his country of origin. You'd prefer perhaps more or less realist historical fiction? Spend some time with an 18th-century printer and bookbinder, or explore the over-crowded streets of 1740s London.

And that's not even bringing up the Kabbala-related magic-like ink, type, and paper.

None of its genre divisions exclude readers who'd be more likely to stumble in while in search of their usual desires, and the book's more powerful because of the overlap and collision between all these things. Seriously, it's such fun, even if you don't care that the research's impeccable and the literariness beyond reproach. You won't even notice, though if you do, you'll appreciate it all the more.

When I first read Wharton's Icefields, I didn't quite get it, though I've taught the book twice since then and found it very rewarding. His peculiar novel The Logogryph worked for me immediately, though, and I'm scheming to get my hands on the rest of his work. These three novels are very different from each other, and all remarkable: Thomas Wharton is very much a novelist worth following.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Harold Rhenisch, The Wolves at Evelyn

At a certain point, you should all know that I may quit reading anything but Harold Rhenisch.

Would it be tough to get off the treadmill that sees me doing about 50 reviews a year on this site? Probably impossible, but nobody writes like Harold Rhenisch, and if he's not getting as wide an audience as he deserves, well, maybe his fans should just obsess openly to make up for it.

The key to understanding Rhenisch's The Wolves at Evelyn, and much of the rest of his nonfiction, is coming to terms with his idiosyncratic understanding of colonization in British Columbia. Until you get used to it, things are weird. Describing his German grandparents' trip across Canada by train, Montreal to the Okanagan, Rhenisch changes up the geography:
"They might as well have taken a train from Mombassa, up to Nairobi, and then west to Lake Victoria, passing through the savannah and the flame trees, past the Masai villages and derelict train stations and mad Englishmen who had hitched zebras to their carts and careened wildly through the bush while their polo horses died of sleeping sickness and their coffee plants withered and shrivelled with blight and locusts stripped their corn fields down from spring to autumn in five minutes. This is how far they had come." (p.72)
Africa, of course, is not a country, and we're all Twitter-stoked to jump on a writer who might possibly be using Africa merely for metaphoric or symbolic effect (rightly so, in most cases). Rhenisch is a white Canadian, and it's weird to see him comparing Kenya with Canada, and it's weird to have him writing about the impact of subsequent waves of European colonization on previous colonists in Canada. But the world is a complicated place, and part of his point is that much of his Canadian childhood was lived not in BC but in an imaginary Heimat Deutschland. More broadly, too, the terrain of rural BC now is an overgrown checkerboard of failed colonist dreams (p.152), orchards and homesteads and small towns with lives so short that they never earned dots on a map, leaving nary a shadow or an echo unless -- like in a medieval English field -- you stumble over a hummock that you belatedly recognize as an overwhelmed fence.

British Columbia is Indian country, no question. Rhenisch is utterly clear about the intensity and depth of the prior claims on the land here, noting that "the Secwepemc knew the Cariboo before there were any trees on it, that they watched the trees come." At this date, though, Rhenisch wants to say that "Native and immigrant earths mingle in this country," even though over everything hang still "the stars out in the Chilcotin, in territory never ceded to Western civilization, which has never been owned" (pp.208-10). His family raised him in a transplanted Heimat, but ever since, he has been trying to think and write his way into a British Columbia that differs from the official version, and my imagination lives somewhere like the place he's trying to build.

As a nerdy English prof, lately I've been trying to think my way through to what might count as an honourable settler-colonial ecocriticism, and there's something in Rhenisch that I can't let go of, even if I can't grab onto it, either. I keep hoping that I'll figure out, for good, even just one thing about all this. Maybe one day.
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Admittedly, I somehow haven't read his whole oeuvre yet, but it's coming: comments one, two and three on Tom Thomson's Shack, plus Winging Home, and now also The Wolves at Evelyn.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Nick Hornby, Shakespeare Wrote For Money

Such a fun book, SUCH a fun book: mind you, Nick Hornby's three collections of "Stuff I've Been Reading" articles, including Shakespeare Wrote for Money, means that I might as well mothball Book Addiction HQ.

The columns Hornby wrote for The Believer are chatty and detailed, thoughtful and personable, and who needs that?

For some readers, the great pleasure in this book will be Hornby's discovery of YA literature, especially fiction, and especially fantasy. In answer to the broad anxiety that grownups shouldn't waste their time on kids' books, Hornby answers simply that if you think YA is for children, you're saying that SF is for engineers. With that absurdity out of the way, he's off to the races, adoring MT Anderson's Feed and Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and a bunch of other YA novels.

But he enjoys poetry, and he gossips about his friends and family, and he rhapsodizes about fiction (Ondaatje's CanLit classic Coming Through Slaughter coming in for the highest praise), and he makes a credible case for reading nonfiction attentively for its artistry, as well as for its content.

Hornby reads for fun and for wisdom, and he reads well. He's a book club all to himself.

Bastard.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Thomas Wharton, The Logogryph

If Thomas Wharton's novel The Logogryph isn't the strangest book you've read in a little while, you can just keep your unconscious to yourself.

At bottom, it's a fragmentary narrative that depends on its reader both to surrender to the fragmentation and to persist in teasing together the threads, thus celebrating not just fragmentation (yay, postmodernism) but also something like a old-school sense of connectedness (yay, Victorian fiction). There are some 30 pieces here, many of them seeming unrelated to each other, but several touch on the story of the Weaver family from Jasper, Alberta.

One of the little delights for me in this novel flows from how Wharton handles the inevitable worry about the relative priority we place on world and text. The caricature about postmodernism is that it privileges the textual over the material, the intellectual game over the business of life: that's a diminished, cartoonish version of such a powerful literary mode, but you hear it regardless. Anyway, this book works from all kinds of postmodern strategies, and yet as the "I" of the recurring stories looks out at the Rockies from a library window, "In some way it seemed that the inaccessible heights out there were intimately connected to the mysterious depths of these unknown books" (p.14). The world is implicated in the novel, and there's a clear pleasure taken in the depiction of a sensually experienced world.
Best. Author photo. EVER.

The Logogryph is fun even for those of us who find themselves reading an awful lot of nonfiction lately, is what I'm saying.

The longish chapter/section on Atlantean fiction was terrific, with the quiet joke that its great proponent was Rupert Brooke, the poet who in this chapter survived WWI and wrote movingly about Atlantis and its complicated culture (three genders, an intense focus on indigeneity, alternate history inside an alternate history, etc).

And the selections from the lost journals of Da Vinci; a tale about the invention (in China) of paper; a character who falls out of a novel into the world; two readers who annotate books subsequently deposited in second-hand bookstores to torment each other; entries under "A" in the index for an imaginary book ("Albacore tuna, 724-29; mention of in Proust, 738"); the mention of a novella published with a 27-volume appendix of everything edited out before publication….

And yet for all the games and technique, this is a sweet, open novel. Don't try to figure it out, because if you spend the necessary time with The Logogryph, it'll just come to life on its own. Or as Wharton's now-deceased alter-ego on Twitter might have said:

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Adam Leith Gollner, The Fruit Hunters

To paraphrase the great Norman Maclean, the world is full of weirdos, the number increasing rapidly the further one gets from Missoula, Montana. (He said "bastards," but the intertubes suggest that mostly people remember the reference as "assholes." Moving on, though.)

In The Fruit Hunters, Adam Leith Gollner introduces us to a cast of fruit-obsessed millionaires, loners, and other misfits, all of whom share a passion not just for fruit but for weird fruit, exotic fruit from all over the world. The real stars of the book, though, is the fruit, and so the book's subtitle is a clearer portrait of the book's subject than it is of my increasingly scattered recollection, a few very busy weeks since closing the covers: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce and Obsession.

Ever since then, I've been buying unexpected fruit from assorted groceries (granadilla, dragon fruits, persimmons, etc). Not all of them have been pleasant, BC being a long way from these fruits' homes, but I've come to appreciate a little more the obsessiveness of Gollner's human subjects. If you're eating something whose flavour makes no sense to you, and yet you can tell could be incredibly appealing if you could just get a better specimen, why wouldn't you spend some time and energy seeking out a better specimen? And then another specimen, and then a better variety, and then maybe a visit to its home? And why not one that might grow in your greenhouse, orangery, espalier?

That way madness lies, true enough and clear, but say the names: monkey fruit, Grains of Paradise, coco-de-mer, rambutans, jaboticaba…. These are words to conjure by, and surely flavours, too. What's not to like about a little madness among friends like these, anyway?

Well, carbon footprints, for one thing, plus exploitation tourism and gluttony capitalism and competitive foodie wankfests, all of which Gellner takes the time to describe and shame.

Oddly, I don't know who to recommend should read this book -- fascinating, but less entrancing than I would've expected. Definitely for aficionados of farmers' market who wonder about alternatives, though, and about places far away.