Thursday, July 21, 2016

Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings

You want to know something about how complicated Jamaica is? Read just this one commentary in the Jamaica Observer, "When a simple 'to rahtid' will not do", and follow the clues: power cuts in the House of Parliament; a 30% year-over-year increase in robberies in the commercial district; and most importantly for this post, the Tivoli Report on the 2010 Kingston unrest (a.k.a. the Tivoli incursion), in which 86 people were killed in the search for a don who had already promised to surrender himself.

Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings is loosely based on the personalities and histories behind the Tivoli incursion, with Christopher "Dudus" Coke recreated in the figure of Josey Wales. The novel's all about voice, James says in his acknowledgements section, "a novel that would be driven only by voice," and frankly it would've been good to know that before starting to try and keep track of the novel's dozens of characters (some of them with multiple names) in several locations interacting in all sorts of ways. I'm considering dropping the word "bombocloth" into conversation, though, so that's something.

There are lots of reviews of this novel, some of them lengthy and most of them glowing, so feel free to spend time with Anupa Mistry (Toronto Star), Scott Carey (Medium.com), Christopher Tayler (London Review of Books), or Zachary Lazar (New York Times). Heck, stop by Rolling Stone itself to learn more about the author.

Just don't look to me for much praise. Sure, yes, this novel is ripped from the headlines, a voice-driven reanimation of recent Jamaica history, a postcolonial wunderkammer of kaleidoscopic Faulkneriana, but it's not my novel. Certainly I see myself as blameworthy, to some extent, in James' powerful objections that writers of colour have had to satisfy white readers in order to say obliquely the kinds of things they should have been able to write about directly: I wanted to quit reading A Brief History of Seven Killings long before the last page. There are so many voices out there, though, so many stories, and why shouldn't I privilege those struggling to articulate the troubles and complications in my own country?

Tonight, mind you, I couldn't avoid hearing Donald "IT'S NOT A COMBOVER" Trump say he'd choose Americanism over globalism every damned time, so I'm pained by the possibility that I'm just a parochial whitey with no more than misguided good intentions. Still, I say it again: A Brief History of Seven Killings isn't my novel. If you're into glorious messes of novels, then maybe it's for you, but you'd better like learning a new patois, overlooking sadism, and not counting the dead. For 700 pages.

You'd be better off reading Tamara Scott-Williams in the Jamaica Observer, and seeing where the references lead you.

(Good luck, book club!)

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Leanne Simpson, Islands of Decolonial Love

I'll let Lee Maracle have the first word here about Leanne Simpson's collection Islands of Decolonial Love, which Maracle blurbs: this "is the sort of book [she has] been looking for all [her] life."

One reason for this, is that this isn't a readily accessible book if you don't have the secret handshake, and Maracle has it. Marilyn Dumont, a terrific writer herself, has some advice for the less connected:
"Some readers may take exception to Simpson's unconventional approach to story structure, characterization, and European literary aesthetic, but her use of Indigenous rhetoric when working in the English language exposes the power imbalance inherent in the colonizing effects of English, which undermined our stories as legend and our songs as entertainment. Through her moving stories and credible characters, Simpson reasserts and honours Indigenous forms of expression."
In other words, this isn't standard CanLit, and its relations to works produced from within a broadly European literary tradition aren't overly recognizable. More specifically, the book's tissue of references and allusions, that foundation underlying every text's identity, have everything to do with Anishinaabe culture, with settler Canadian culture visible only as caricature, only rarely, and generally either ignorant or villainous. Settler readers have to get over themselves if they're going to enjoy a book like this, but if they don't know the references, good intentions won't take them very far.

And so I'm not able to say very much about this book. When it comes to reading Indigenous story, nothing good comes from faking it.

Having said that, I thought "she told him 10 000 years of everything" was stunning, this very short story about recognizing yourself in someone else, feeling immediately that all of history has led to this one moment. These people are meeting for the first time, but they're also ancient individuals, as ancient as Anishinaabe culture, wandering mostly alone among settlers, and so the intensity even of just their conversation highlights the poverty of romantic writing. Or maybe it illuminates just how deeply we're missing such intensity in our lives? Either way, this aren't characters whose lives we can simply imagine our way into. It's phenomenal writing, in every sense.

Some other highlights for me were "binesiwag," "this beautiful disaster," and "jiimaanag," but one of the greatest things about this book is simply that you can listen to Leanne Simpson perform parts of it. This is story that you need to engage with, and that without compromising, is prepared for you to engage. Remarkable, remarkable stuff!

Friday, July 15, 2016

Basma Kavanagh, Niche

Front to back, Basma Kavanagh’s Niche is my favourite book of poetry this year: each turn of the page brought me something unexpected, even if she's pursuing some themes repeatedly throughout the book. The mythic as real comes up several times, in “How to Find New Myths,” for example, and extinction is a persistent theme:
We taste our death
in every extinction,
our extinction
in every death.
("Threatened," p.70: the whole poem, cf. Atwood's "You fit into me")
Kavanagh has the ability to adopt multiple perspectives in aid of a consistent ethic, speaking often for what I take to be some version of herself but also imagining herself (sometimes anthropomorphically) into the desires of the nonhuman:
The sphagnum bog tingles, its granite on edge, crests of Cladina lichen tender and expectant, alert to a pain that never arrives, forests of reindeer lichen with no reindeer in sight....
The ocean lacy and tattered, crumpling down to suffocating darkness as its auk-shaped, cod-shaped, salmon-shaped, tuna-shaped, walrus-shaped, leatherback-shaped, sea mink-shaped veins collapse. (“Phantom Limbs”, p.42 – prose poetry, I think)
These assorted themes and approaches come together in how Kavanagh reflects on human efforts to address the environmental crises of climate change, resource extraction, ocean acidification, and so on. At bottom, Kavanagh recognizes that any actions we take will lead to change that we will never ourselves see, and so the intimacy her readers seek with the world is never to be fully achieved—but that’s all the more reason for us to seek it.

And in the heartbreaking “Coda,” too, Kavanagh imagines the assorted happinesses that the world might experience after human extinction: “Only hawks will eat songbirds on the new earth, / no naked animal cover itself with another’s skin” (“Coda” part 4, p.107). Hers is a comprehensive sympathy, in other words, a sympathy even for humans in our collective inability to care for the world that made us, and that's an emotion I find myself craving. Sure, conservatives presumably loathed CBC for making the superficially humanity-hating "Coda" one of its 2014 poetry prize nominees, but who says those guys are reading attentively?

Seriously, this is a fantastic book, one that can be enjoyed by a whole lot of readers, and I know I've got some people I'm buying it for...

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Ariel Gordon, Stowaway

Oh god, Ariel Gordon is going to email me. And I just don't know what she's going to say.

Quite simply, I felt conflicted about Ariel Gordon’s Stowaways.

On a per-page basis, I felt myself more at home here than in most poetry books I've read in the last few years, more comfortable especially with the voice and the store of images. In the end, though, I just don't know what I think of it overall. Do I distrust funny, which is all over this book? Probably: I’m not sure how to weigh humour. Do I overvalue the complicated, which this book isn’t? Probably: but I don't particular enjoy overtly complicated poetry.

When I came back again to the book, I felt like Stowaways showed more inconsistency than it should. It may be simply that Gordon's going after enough different targets and goals that I'm not quite keeping up, but I'm not sure it's a collection so much as it is a book of separate poems. Still, at its best, there’s a sly and telling humour to Gordon’s verse that I very much appreciate:
how the word wild has begun to beg,
as a half-starved
bear begs: defeated, but with one eye
on the toddlers
& lap dogs.
(“How to Survive in the Woods,” p.58)
As much as I enjoyed the separate poems, I wanted more from Stowaways, and I hope that Ariel Gordon will achieve even more with her next collection. I'm planning on buying that one as well, and I hope you do, too.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Emily McGiffin, Subduction Zone

You know what? Enough with my recent anxieties about my approaches to poetry: I loved Emily McGiffin's Subduction Zone.

ASLE chose well to make Subduction Zone its 2015 winner of the Creative Book Award. McGiffin shows great range in her form, moving from villanelle to free verse without the form ever seeming either obvious or unnecessary. More than that, she consistently manages the neat trick of bridging the conversational and the poetical, writing for example of how to learn a language in another country (the Philippines, in this case) through understanding place above all:
In the evenings, I write out the new words.
By day, transcribe them onto the landscape.
("The Work," p.53)
Subduction Zone memorializes places of significant human cost, such as Bolivia’s Cerro Rico, the mountain above Potosí that claimed roughly two million lives to mine silver for Spain, as well as ongoing catastrophes for the non-human (as in “Red List,” on endangered species, or “Levee,” on a denuded industrial landscape). Its opening sequence draws its inspiration from specific Burtynsky photos, each one anchoring its description of the capitalist monument (ship-breaking, giant mines) in an ancient monument (the Sphinx, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon), and it’s one of the most powerful, striking poetic sequences I’ve read in a long time.

It's possible that this collection could become a minor classic, appreciated for a long time, even if I might be reading nostalgically. After all, there's something a little old-school about McGiffin's stylistics, which place her on the side of Don McKay (who's noted in her acknowledgements) rather than, say, Lisa Robertson, and these days I feel both old and old-school myself. But McGiffin's achievements in classical poetic form marry beautifully with her readings both of large-scale environmental crises and of personal journeys in a scarred, inexplicable world, and it's the kind of book I want to share.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Theresa Kishkan, Winter Wren

Should John Pass ever have gotten concerned at how pleased I always am to read new work from Theresa Kishkan?

Kishkan's new novella, Winter Wren, is a phenomenal read, and the latest evidence that there's no accounting for which artists are the ones who get famous. Kishkan has a wonderful touch with small moments, and indeed this novella is largely constructed of small moments surrounding some vastly larger moments, laconically told.

Winter Wren is set in 1974, and Grace Oakden has bought a tiny, isolated cabin above Sandcut Beach on southern Vancouver Island. The title is in homage to the song of the winter wrens which frequent the area, birds whom Grace recognizes to be singing what sounds very like something by Bach. Fairly early in the book, she visits the cabin's previous owner at the nursing home where he has been confined. Many years have passed now since his boyhood travels with his father who plundered (collected from) First Nations villages, and she asks him about the winter wrens:
     In reply, the old man whistled the run of notes she had heard in the salal. He covered his face with his hands and began to weep. Grace bent to the wheelchair and touched his shoulder. He kept his hands over his face and his whole body shuddered as he wept. If I can find us some tea, she asked, would you drink a cup? (p.36)
The novella has strands of narration, each within its own strand of time: the nearly 60-year-old Grace, who has lived an artist's life in Europe for decades without ever quite being The Artist; Grace in some younger days; some men at different points in her life, not all of them romantic interests. In Grace's company we visit Paris and Venice, as well as Memorial Crescent here in Victoria BC, and in Tom Winston's company we visit some of the villages and sites to which he accompanied his father. I'm still puzzling over which theme is truly at the core of the book, the meaning of artistic production (painting, pottery, photography), the artistry of meaningful cultural production (First Nations objects of ritual and ceremony, plus those other arts), the inhabitation of space and place, and so on. To be honest, however, the intersection of these themes through the poignant, wry mind of Grace Oakden means that there's no disentangling them.

And the end of the book is so very, very rewarding, though I'm giving nothing away about that!

Autobiography and fiction have a complicated relationship, and Kishkan's reflection on this particular book's genesis illuminates some of that complication. Winter Wren is the first book from Fish Gotta Swim, a new imprint led by Kishkan and the very talented Anik See (whose book Saudade is itself a treasure). With this as a starting point, we should all be excited to see where they take us.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Liz Howard, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent

The 2016 Griffin poetry prize went to Liz Howard and her book Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, and this was a very good call. At least, that's the official view of the Association for Literature, Environment, and Culture in Canada (ALECC), which selected this volume as one of the top four entrants for its inaugural book prize, the only creative work to be so honoured. It's a very strong collection, with some remarkable poems:
If I moan from an animal throat it is in hope you
will return to me what I lost in learning to speak.
(“A Wake,” p.12)
Lines like these sparkle like gems, but to me, at least, they're impressive because they stand out from less engaging sections. This is a poetic mode that depends for its success not on accessibility but on intricacy, complication, sometimes the appearance of impenetrability. Howard's are highly polished poems, and Howard stands in good company with the mentors she acknowledges, Ken Babstock, Dionne Brand, Erin Moure, and Lisa Robertson in particular. More than that, I admire and appreciate Howard's efforts to link her mentors' poetic practice with the other practices and traditions in which she participates.

In terms of its content and thematics, I was taken by the intensity with which Howard takes on the challenge of bringing together human perception and nonhuman existence, the complicated relations between perception, being, and being perceived:
what else is a river but the promise of a text      this is my delta some neural asymptote    where else could you cull such a clanging nerve? (“Foramen Magnum,” p.56)
I don't mean this to be faint praise, because who am I to query the wisdom of the Griffin and ALECC juries? But regardless of its strengths, this collection hasn’t become a favourite for me. Just as there are many modes of fiction, there are many poetries, and my preferences lie elsewhere. These things happen: it's hardly the first prize winner that didn't work for me....

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Climate change and settler-colonials, redux

Image from the San Diego Free Press
So, I'm way, way, WAY overdue for ordering the texts we'll cover in my September 2016 course "Climate Change in a Settler-Colonial Environment," but these things happen. Here are the six likely candidates at this point, and I'd love to hear people's thoughts:

  • Maleea Acker, Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC's South Coast -- creative nonfiction, carefully researched, by a settler who gives lots of space to local First Nations voices
  • Larissa Lai, Salt Fish Girl - a near-future dystopic novel set mostly in the Lower Mainland, involving myth alive in the world, queer sexualities, and transgenic beings
  • Philip Kevin Paul, Taking the Names Down from the Hill - WSÁ,NEC poetry, anchored in place and thinking about time
  • Eden Robinson, Traplines - short stories, full of disaster and pain and humour, what the New York Times Book Review called proof that "Canadians are as weird and violent as anyone else on this continent"
  • Bertrand Sinclair, The Inverted Pyramid - a settler-colonial origins story about BC's rise into independence, via logging, financial speculation, and its role in the First World War
  • Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Red: A Haida Manga - a graphic novel (illustrating the looseness of that term) that retells a Haida narrative about a vengeance-bent leader so focused on his lost sister that his community finds itself on the edge of devastation.
And we'll be working as well with excerpts from the reports of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to ground what we're trying to achieve.

If this all comes together, it's going to be amazing!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Gerry Alanguilan, Elmer

Am I late to the party, or was there unaccountably no party?

From the author's site
Does everyone already know Gerry Alanguilan's graphic novel Elmer, or is it instead some kind of cult object or under-appreciated gem?

If you read only one graphic novel this year, you owe it to yourself to enter this alternate Earth, where chickens have suddenly and inexplicably acquired human-comparable intelligence and consciousness, including ability to understand, speak and write in human languages. In what ways, Alanguilan asks, does our current mode of existence depend on the instrumentalization of other beings?

On the ideas front, Elmer questions the notions of species identity, discrimination, inter-species relations, and surviving trauma. It's a persistent, inescapable question, how one goes about recovering from a life of absolute subjection: the chickens who changed on that . On the details front, we've got Jake, a cranky and somewhat foul-mouthed young chicken as sensitive to discrimination as George Jefferson; his brother Freddie, a suspiciously metrosexual movie star who wants to be called "Francis" now; and their sister May, who's marrying a doctor -- and human. ("Fucking banana ketchup!" shouts Jake, in part of his rant about why chicken-eating humans must not, as a species, ever ever ever be trusted or forgiven.)

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

ENGL 478, Sept 2016 - text options

"Climate Change in a Settler-Colonial Environment": I'm confident that I'm under-qualified to teach this course, but if nobody else is going to teach a course that I could enrol in, what am I to do?

Image from Unsettling America
But of course I'm behind in my book ordering, because of course, and also because I'm more or less stuck. A single semester is never long enough to cover all the good stuff, and in consequence my usual approach is to blend some of the good stuff with some unpredictable choices. Sometimes these are works I haven't read but expect are worth my trust; sometimes they're not obvious fits, but I think there's something worth figuring out about them.

In sum, I need to choose only six or seven titles. Happy to hear other suggestions, but here's the shortlist I'm starting from, with bolding for the current lead candidates:
There's no link yet to the 2016 course calendar, so here's the 2015 base description for this variable-content course. More usefully, perhaps, here's the short description for our department handbook:
How can we read ethically and ecocritically on Canada’s West Coast, in our inescapably settler-colonial present? 
ENGL 478 will start from the position that Canadian literature, including West Coast literature, has been and continues to be shaped by the local, individual, collective ramifications of the ongoing colonial enterprise, its crises and momentum growing out of Canada’s settler-colonial past, present, and future. We’ll be reading realist fiction, science fiction, graphic novels, and eco-memoir by both Indigenous and settler authors, in the shadow of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

"I wouldn't say I've been missing it, Bob."

Have I read anything since February 20th? Absolutely, but it's complicated, and I haven't read as much as, or in the same way that, I'd normally prefer.



Most importantly, I'm a juror for a book prize. This means that I've read about fifteen books, rapidly and judgmentally, since mid-February. For obvious reasons, I'm not yet able to talk about those, and I won't be able to until after the mid-June announcement. This is my first time on such a jury, and I don't know that I'm cut out for it: everyone is awesome, everything is amazing, and how the hell do you choose? It's one thing to feel this pressure in a rich industry (hello, Emmy's!), and quite another when you're dealing with Canadian literary and academic presses.

The pressure's a nightmare, but the reading is deeply rewarding -- well, almost all of it, anyway....

More quotidianly, once bargaining concluded here at UVic, I moved back into the classroom on a full-time basis. I'm a platypus, technically, because we have a tenure-like line called "teaching professor." That's how my position is classified, so while I've got no publishing obligation, my teaching load is eight courses per year (unlike the four or five for research faculty), so I'm teaching four per term. Generally I've got three sections per term of composition, but sometimes two, plus one or two other things (most often this, this, or this), and all this is vastly more than is supported by the research.

And it turned out that in my three years of bargaining, I developed some unsustainable teaching and assessment practices (Utopia for Everyone!), and I'd also forgotten some long-ago-evolved tricks for managing workload (We Can Do Everything!).

So that's been fun.

Adding all this to the usual kinds of family and assorted personal things at play, I'm planning a summer of recovery. A certain amount of casual travel (the Okanagan in July, maybe Yellowknife in August), a little bit of academic travel, lots of reading and cooking: this starts now, or I won't be ready for September. And I really, really want to be ready for September--though a joyful summer may be higher on my priority list today!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Nancy Huston, Losing North

I've not read much by Nancy Huston: as I did with many of my friends from the 1990s, I gave up Huston in the divorce that capped that decade. My then-partner was passionate about Huston, especially the wonderful 1993 novel Plainsong, and if she'd seen it, she just might have burned Publisher's Weekly to the ground for their snide commentary on the occasion of Plainsong's American publication ("a narrator fond of the em-dash, intermittently partial to the comma and dismissive of quotation marks").

As with many things lost well before one hits middle age, I'm realizing that if I'd just made more of an effort, I could have been enjoying Nancy Huston's books for years now. Recently I stumbled across her brief 1999 volume of linked essays Losing North: Musings on Land, Tongue and Self. Born in Canada, moving to the United States with her family as a teenager, Huston wrote her Master's thesis in France on linguistic taboo, under the supervision of Roland Barthes, no less. Taken together, this almost perfectly qualifies Huston to ponder what it means to live transnationally, translingually, without a place of one's own, as a writer insistent on the peculiarities and particularities of both language and place.

One's claim to place, if it's an individual claim based on one's own connections to place, can only ever be ephemeral; it ends ultimately with death, of course, but it fades long before that with the erosion of memory, as well as (more crucially) the lack of shared meaning. For Huston, the expatriate has not two places, not two or more languages and communities and families, but an absolute absence:
A person who decides, voluntarily, as an adult, unconstrained by outside circumstances, to leave her native land and adopt a hitherto unfamiliar language and culture, has to face the fact that for the rest of her life she will be involved in theatre, imitation, make-believe. (p.19)
The phrasing throughout the book is full of doubt, though controlled and rendered (relatively) safe as a stylistic tic that makes it sound as if she merely prefers parallel phrases, clauses, near-synonyms. Huston lives and has lived a rich life, so this may all feel like first world problems, but that's not to say they're not genuine problems. The more mobility the average person has, assuming that the quasi-Singularity of synchronous cross-world intimacy isn't approaching on the next Elon Musk-mobile, the more common this situation will be, and the more problematic.

Assuming it's a problem, of course, and I do assume that. I'm persuaded by Huston's claims that she has a hard time understanding where she lives, or understanding how one understands where one's life occurs, in part because even though I've lived in British Columbia for almost my entire life, I'm still at times unsure how to articulate that. I'm thinking a lot these days about on Lee Maracle's Ravensong, which features some very careful reflection about the difference between individualist settler experience of place and a more collectivist Indigenous experience. The prompt in Ravensong is a person's death: when someone dies in town, the settlers experience it as a darned shame, after which life goes on uninterrupted, but when someone dies in the narrator's village, it's a crisis, an existential threat to the community's viability.

Not that Huston goes there: she's French in how she's thinking through this particular issue, far from the ongoing colonial and colonist interface that's the reality of life in British Columbia at this point. It's a helpful book nonetheless, though, and for readers not trying to figure their way through the legacies of colonialism, Huston's a wonderful prose stylist, and you won't mind missing that.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Ben Aaronovitch, Midnight Riot

"What would happen," asked Diana Gabaldon, "if Harry Potter grew up and joined the Fuzz?", is the key question that the publishers of Ben Aaronovitch's Midnight Riot, the first volume in his Rivers of London series (which was the volume's original name, as it happens).

Based on the evidence, I'm comfortable arguing that Gabaldon has neither read anything by JK Rowling nor seen any of the Harry Potter movies. That's a meaningless and deeply non-representative blurb, and I don't care how sexy a publisher would find it.

PC Peter Grant is a young mixed-race police officer who ends up getting posted to a resented but official and long-standing branch of London's Metropolitan Police Service, a branch dedicated to the investigation and resolution of incidents related to magic. It's comic at times, not un-reminiscent of Jasper Fforde's The Big Over Easy, though there's enough blood and violence that this novel's case clearly doesn't belong to Fforde's Nursery Crimes Division.

Crucially, there's nothing wizard-y here that'd remind one of Dumbledore, Hogwart's, Severus Snape, and all the other Potteriana. This is the story of a young police officer learning to be a detective, who specializes not in homicide or prostitution or restricted substances, but in magic. All of London's many streams and rivers appear as more and less petty deities, with hinted-at but wildly complicated rituals and powers to accompany their foible-laden personalities, and there's possibly some connection with, for example, the whomping willow, but they're Aaronovitch's creation, not Rowling's. It left me thinking of Andre Alexis' Fifteen Dogs, and remembering that I keep meaning to read Marie Phillips' Gods Behaving Badly, but it's a book all of its own, and it's pretty great.

For off-the-beaten-track reviews, please pick up The Book On My Desk, or get lost in The Geekiary.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Lars Mytting, Norwegian Wood

If I may be so bold as to open this review with a fairly technical term from the world of literary criticism, Haruki Murakami, author of the acclaimed novel Norwegian Wood, can suck it. Quite simply, his is no longer the most interesting book of that name.

Image from le-petit-jardin.com:
buy the book there!
You people can stop laughing any time, though. What's so funny about Lars Mytting's Norwegian Wood having the subtitle Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way, a subtitle that happens to be accurate and precise and without even the smallest shred of irony?

Fine. Yes.

Yes, I do see that this book is the perfect IKEA fake-book prop, perfect enough that not even IKEA would allow it on their shelves, and yes, the joke's on me for seeing it at Bolen Books before Christmas, thinking it'd be hilarious to buy it for my brother-in-law, and then having it turn up under my tree. ("Because you're a tree-hugging hippie with glasses! Right? Right?")

And especially for having it become one of the most pleasurable reads I've had in a long time.

Murakami can keep his ambiguity, his allusiveness, his narrative instability, because I appreciated Mytting's clarity of purpose in this book, mirroring the clarity he describes as essential to splitting logs: "The work requires your full and complete attention, and if it doesn't get it you might find the ax sticking out of your leg" (p96).

This version of Norwegian Wood is nonfiction and useful, stuffed with detail, but somehow it's neither a manual nor a handbook. A 25-page chapter about how different woods burn; a 25-pager about the history of axes and saws, plus current options for same; a 15-pager about how to dry firewood, plus how dry it should be (17% moisture, if you're wondering): somehow, with all this detail, Mytting's writing is so engaging as to approach addictiveness.

Estonian nuns climb ladders, annually,
to build these woodpiles. Lars Mytting says so.
It's killing me, for example, that I haven't yet used my oven to kiln-dry a few chunks of fresh firewood so that I can establish a baseline for how dry my current batch of firewood is getting outside. I can hardly believe that I don't have three different axes. I'm ashamed of just how unlike the image here is my tiny, fragmented, barely flammable woodpile: "Like the fermentation of beer, the seasoning of wood should be a slow and undisturbed natural process, untouched by the bustle of life elsewhere. The time it takes is the time it takes" (p.135).

Frankly, I suspect that I've started to become an elderly Scandinavian man. At one point Mytting explains that anthropological studies have confirmed that there's a measurable phenomenon in Scandinavia that's referred to colloquially as "the wood age" or "the wood bug." Later in life, men become obsessed with their woodpiles, enough that I don't think Viagra sells very well there, committed to splitting wood properly, drying it carefully, and stacking it immaculately. Swedish men over 65 living in the country, in fact, apparently spend an average of 98 hours per year in "firewood-related activity" (p97). I just hope my family's prepared for The Change.

And yes, of course I've seen Peter Kavanagh's loathing-filled complaint in The Walrus about all things Scandinavian: "At his best, Mytting delivers a clear exploration of Norway's wood fetish. But in so doing, he has made himself the fetishist-in-chief." Kavanagh's real objection, in true Walrus style, and in true-north-strong-and-free style too, is that there's not enough fetishizing of Canada. Rather than "Why Scandinavia?" (or "Why Portland?", come to that), Kavangh's real complaint beneath his presumably self-ironizing hater-ism about Lars Mytting and Norwegian Wood is "Why not Canada"?: we're just as hearty, we think of ourselves as similarly progressive, and damn it, we're just as weird under the surface, but somehow the whole world's reading Scandinavian detective fiction on IKEA couches!?!

Get over it, Peter. Canada's doing just fine. Let the Scandinavians have their fun.

Now, if anybody needs me....

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Joe Sacco, Journalism

Joe Sacco draws comics about the terrible, terrible things that humans do to each other, and to the places where we live. They depict horrible stories and activities, and if you don't read them, you may not quite correctly understand humanity or the human experiment.

Readers unused to comics about the darkness don't know what to do with Sacco's work, because neither Archie nor New Yorker essays can prepare you adequately for Sacco's graphic journalism, but that's precisely the point, a point that's lost a little bit on people who come to Sacco from artists whose drawings look like his (R. Crumb or Harvey Pekar, for example). In brief, they give us the illusion of immersive experience in the horrors of the modern, dropping us into Chechen refugee camps, historically corrupt villages in India, the Gaza Strip, and so on, and an open reader without pre-existing coping strategies for such imagery can be radicalized.

Well, no. Radicalization should have changed some things by now if the pieces collected in Journalism had had such an effect, and there's still room to improve things around here. Clearly, though, it's not Sacco's fault, because he's been doing his damnedest to make us pay attention, and then to do something about it. We're implicated in and by this comics journalism, immersed in the images as we are and yet failing and refusing to act.

But don't take my word for it: read in the Guardian, where it first appeared, the essay "Not in My Country" that also appears in Journalism.

Or maybe read Sacco's interview in The Believer, possibly the best fit between interviewer and publication since, well, who knows. (Maybe Vladimir Nabokov in Playboy? Who knows. Or cares. Sacco's interview is fantastic, is my point.)

Or maybe read Jeet Heer, something of a polarizing figure, admittedly, for his twitter-essays if nothing else, which everyone should stop selectively RT'ing into my timeline, THANK YOU VERY MUCH. Anyway, when Journalism first came out, Heer wrote effusively in the National Post about the book and its artist: "The images Sacco draws are so powerful that they burn deep into your retina and reconfigure how you see the world." Not how I'd put it, nor an ophthalmologist, neither, but point taken.

But presumably everyone knows Joe Sacco by now, so just add my name under the column "Fans."

Read this book. It's incredible. We're such a horrible, horrible species.