Friday, August 15, 2014

David Adams Richards, Mercy Among the Children

Powerful, bleak, inevitable: this novel's a downbound train, man. I've read and taught darker novels recently, but those are apocalyptic ones, and the entirely non-apocalyptic Mercy Among the Children ranks pretty high on the depression-o-meter. On the other hand, it's literary Canadian fiction, so it kind of goes with the territory. Misery piled on misery, though with some lovely prose and memorable images, and I suspect it's the kind of thing that drives Canadian book clubs out of existence. You take yourselves too seriously, and you'll spend whole years reading terrific books that crush your soul. No amount of unoaked Chardonnay can save a book club that spends too much time on this kind of thing.

I'm not much for escapism, but look around. I'm thinking today about the Mount Polley mine spill; protests in Ferguson, Missouri; Gaza, always Gaza; Africa, always Africa. Sometimes you just need to escape, and if you do, then Mercy Among the Children is not your friend.

But of course that's not the point of this remarkable novel, nor of so many other high-end works of art. There are elements of parable and allegory here, moral fable cloaked as ultra-realist social-justice fiction, and we're meant to ponder the meaning of conscience, the possibility of evil, the law of unintended consequences, etc etc, and there's a lot here to reward a careful, committed reader. Some of it you could get from watching Fargo (movie or TV), but Adams Richards writes a hell of a novel: he deserves more readers.

I don't have the strength to write a full review of my own, frankly, but here's a useful comment from Stephanie Merritt's balanced and very thoughtful review in the Guardian:
"Set in the weather-blasted Maritimes, the story is as bleak as the landscape that overshadows it. Lyle Henderson, now in his mid-twenties, relates the story of his childhood in grinding rural poverty with his saint-like parents and albino sister, and his family's long-standing feud with the family of Mathew Pit. The catalogue of tragedies to befall the Hendersons is so relentless, and their suffering so patient and good-hearted, that it begins to make Hardy's later novels look like episodes of Friends…. Adams Richards's characters are compelling, if not entirely convincing, in the simplicity of their allegiances and vendettas, so that it comes as a shock when every now and again a narrative detail reminds us that the novel is set at the end of the twentieth century and not the mid-nineteenth. Glimpses of redemption are held out and then cruelly snatched away, but the just and the unjust suffer in equal measure, and no one, it seems, is exempt."
Or try this suite of student responses, in the comments thread on a Vermont professor's blog. It's a terrific novel, if you're strong enough to be vulnerable enough.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Jonas Jonasson, The One-Hundred-Year-Old Man etc etc

What were they expecting, I wonder?  So cranky, readers who really ought to have just enjoyed this novel (or the movie based on it, in this particular case).

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out His Window and Disappeared, like so very very many novels, just isn't serious. And that's fine. Yes, it's from Scandinavia, and it has a long and somewhat cryptic-sounding title that's directly referential to something central to the novel, but this doesn't mean it's a dark novel ghost-written by Stieg Larsson. It's possible to read it as something like an absurdist commentary on the personality-driven machinery behind modern culture, but it's neither sweet like Forrest Gump nor openly satiric like Being There. This doesn't mean it's a failure on the terms of either of those other novels (or the movies based on them, which are really what people are thinking about when they talk about the texts); it's a different novel, aiming at something different.

Précis: a centenarian climbs out the window of his nursing home and disappears into the Swedish afternoon, finding himself on the run from an increasingly large number of criminals, police officers, and journalists. While on the road with a motley herd of one-off characters, Allan Karlsson tells his companions (and readers) the deliberately unbelievably complicated story of his life, almost all of which was spent accidentally influencing international politics in numerous countries all over the world.

If you look at blogged book reviews of this novel, like this one for example, in most cases you'll see reasonable readers making just the right assessment: in spite of there being several deaths, in the end it's "light-hearted and silly: the kind of book to read on a rainy day with a mug of hot chocolate." Fargo, frankly, isn't a bad comparison, including the mixed reactions, though with Fargo there was some pre-hipster peer pressure to love the Coen brothers even if you didn't get the humour….

The Manly Book Club™ was unanimous in its mild appreciation, incidentally. Our female fellow readers (wives, sisters, etc) tended not to appreciate it, but I'm not willing to call it a gender issue. So there.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

John McPhee, Coming Into the Country

I've commented before on the deep, nerdish pleasure I take in reading John McPhee, and Coming Into the Country (about Alaska, from 1976) confirms my thoughts in those other reviews. He has an unparalleled ability to make you obsess nerdishly about subjects you knew next to nothing about, before falling into his book, and you really must find one of his books that won't put you off. The people in this book might put you off, so The Pine Barrens would be a safer bet, but seriously, you'll be better off if you can just spend some time with McPhee, sometime.

Coming Into the Country, if I can carelessly summarize a nonfiction classic, is about perspectives on Alaska from people with different attitudes toward government and the frontier, with those differences being utterly American in scope and angle. The garrulous man of independence, rabidly opposed to government support of those who can't do for themselves, being cared for hand and foot by his third wife; the sneakers-wearing environmentalist from outside Alaska, unaware of basic wilderness protocol and yet vastly more competent in the wilds; the outside-educated Native Alaskan, who returns to his home to be scorned as un-Alaskan by whites from Michigan with three winters behind them: you know McPhee's politics, but this book's not really about politics. It's about a place where politics are nakedly revealed, are deeply implicated in local conflicts of every kind, and are almost entirely irrelevant to the business of survival, which is the only business that matters in 1970s Alaska.

By this time, McPhee had put a lot of months and miles into wild places, but he wasn't prepared for Alaska, which he had thought of as the culmination of this work:
"I may have liked places that are wild and been quickened all my days just by the sound of the word, but I see now I never knew what it could mean. I can see why people who come to Alaska are unprepared. In four decades of times beyond some sort of road, I never set foot in a place like this. It is in no way an extension of what I've known before. The constructions I have lived by ought not, and do not, apply here. Left on my own here, I would have to change in a hurry, and learn in a hurry, or I'd never last a year." (p.271)
Human death, quite simply, haunts every page of Coming Into the Country. Very few deaths are depicted, fewer reported on at something close to first-hand knowledge, and yet it's clear that for McPhee, the likelihood of dying because of your own actions is the key to understanding human existence in Alaska.

Not that humans are all that important in McPhee's Alaska, "a place so vast and unpeopled that if anyone could figure out how to steal Italy, Alaska would be a place to hide it" (p.57). We have great power to damage ecosystems in Alaska, particularly through destroying the protective cover over permafrost and through injuring the thin, slow-growing vegetation of the tundra, but in the end, Alaska exceeds us, exceeds our capacities.

This book could have been three books, so distinct are the three sections, and the later McPhee would likely have written three separate books that could subsequently be collapsed into something massively larger than this already hefty volume: I would probably have enjoyed that more, but he was young. How could he have known the publishing strangenesses that he was going to be allowed to get away with, once he started working in the highly marketable, bodice-ripping genre of geological nonfiction?

Like McPhee's geological books, Coming Into the Country isn't for everyone -- but for those who'd like that sort of thing, it'll be one of the best books you'll ever read about this kind of place and this kind of subject. Remarkable.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Rowan Jacobsen, American Terroir

For a small subset of people, it's a genuine question, so I'm glad to see an answer. With American Terror Terroir, Rowan Jacobsen has convinced me that the environmental defense of place can amplify (and be amplified by) the foodie's defense of special flavours.

The worry behind this question, for those who see it as a question, is whether food culture is inevitably faddish, snobbish, and exploitative, or whether these characteristics are avoidable. Jacobsen's talent in his food writing, as with his science writing, is to put place first beyond any doubt, with that term "place" encompassing concepts like surrounding environment, species identity, human relationship with place, and elemental components (like the mineral composition of soil in a particular area). He's writing as a confirmed and dedicated foodie, comfortable in any food conversation imaginable in the world of high-end restaurants, but in a way, that's only flavouring for the main conversation, which is place.

Each chapter addresses a different food from a different place, which Jacobsen discusses in terms of time he spends in each location: avocados from Michoacán, coffee from Panama, salmon from Alaska's Yukon River, varietal honey from all over…. Each chapter, too, ends with information about how to order or obtain these specific foods, information about how to get a reasonable version of it without breaking the bank, and some recipes for showcasing the special flavours of the especially local foodstuff. I was hungry the whole time I was reading this book, hating most of my pantry's contents but eating better as a result. With only three people in my house, I still often find myself cooking two and sometimes three different dinners each night, and Jacobsen left me feeling like the effort's worth it if we're getting the flavours we all crave. (Of course, family peace means it's worth it anyway, but it's nice to have the support of philosophy, no?)

I'm teaching an activist-oriented course this fall at my university on the intersection of literature and environment, and as a result I'm spending a lot of energy thinking about battles and opposition and conflict. So great to be reminded that compromise is sometimes possible (though only sometimes, and only with partial effect): it was a real treat to spend time with Rowan Jacobsen, these remarkable foods, and the remarkable people who produce them.

The book's full title is American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters, and Fields, and it's terrific. Sure, the adjective "American" is worryingly expansionist here, encompassing Central America as well as Canada, but it's about place rather than borders, so I'll give him a pass on that. Read it, buy it, give it away!

Monday, June 30, 2014

Roy Meyers, Dolphin Boy

I guess it's always been this way: come up with a cool enough concept, and you might be able to find someone willing to bet on your novel. Of course, "someone" is now the self-publishing industry, just like it used to be vanity presses and (long before that) subscription publishing, but there was a brief but mythical period where actual presses might publish the craziest things, just because it thumped onto the right person's desk after the right combination of cocktails.

So yeah, in 1967 someone just had to fall in love with Roy Meyers' manuscript for Dolphin Boy: "The gentle dolphins knew exactly what to do when a small human baby fell into their midst," as the back cover puts it. (In other words, it is in no way affiliated with the Arab/Israeli documentary Dolphin Boy.)

Basically, a baby lands in the ocean where no human is able to save it, and the dolphins decide to look after it. Though obviously he understands that he's not a dolphin but a human, he's raised as a dolphin, and grows into the manliest manly man ever. Serious conflict arises, predictably, when young John finds himself among humans for what might as well be the first time: will he be able to overcome human deceit, ignorance, and destructiveness, and retain the dolphins' openness, compassion, and wisdom?

And I'm not going to give you any spoilers, but … that's because you probably expect most of them already. Romance, inheritance, pirate treasure: tell me what you'd see as predictable, and I'll tell you both what your obsessions are and that it's betwixt these covers.

Plus it's the first volume of a trilogy, so it ends with almost nothing resolved, less even than with your usual trilogy. Meyers is keenly interested in dolphins and in whale welfare, so I wanted to like Dolphin Boy for that reason, and he's thoughtful about educational theory, but ain't no way I'm reading two more novels like this one just to get whatever payback there might eventually be. Disappointing.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Bertrand Sinclair, Big Timber

Modern times: we're so much smarter than our forerunners, you know? Writers from the past are lucky to be mocked by us, because we see so much more clearly than they do that if they only knew what we're doing to them, they'd count themselves lucky that we're insulting them, since otherwise they'd deserve their ignominious anonymity.

Plus it's, like, the golden age of television, or whatever.

Probably a lost film
When we look back at any previous literary period, however short it might be, the texts that remain visible to us are really just the recovered teeth that allow archaeologists to theorize, accurately, the divisions and overlaps between species or evolutionary stages. Those teeth (so to speak) were anchored in jaws, which were wrapped in muscles, which were dangling from skulls, etc etc, and we only get the full picture if we read the forgotten works, including works that maybe don't have much claim to live on in memory.

But the thing is, and here's where we start belatedly to approach the point of this post, novels from the first years of the twentieth century sometimes got abandoned for strange reasons, including just plain randomness. Dig around, and you'll find some seriously cool stuff. Possibly not something great, but wouldn't it be tiring if you could read only great novels? (I've said before that the pre-WW2 period produced some odd novels, though: here, and also here, and most definitely here and here.)

In 2012, Ronsdale Press reprinted Bertrand Sinclair's 1924 logging novel The Inverted Pyramid, and I immediately assigned it for my UVic course on British Columbia literature. Ronsdale made the right call in not reprinting Sinclair's 1916 novel Big Timber (Gutenberg version here), because The Inverted Pyramid was more ambitious, more literary, more politically charged, and I'm comfortable that we read it in ENGL 456 last fall. But when a prolific author has only one book in print, students are going to get limited access to the worldview behind the book, so it's a shame that Big Timber hasn't made it into reprint status yet.

Plus it's a shame for its own merits, really, because the world needs more romance novels set inside logging camps. In Big Timber, Bertrand Sinclair moves between reflections on the nature of nature as landscape and as resource; rumination on the gendering of social restrictions; and doubts about the exploitive capitalist structure of colonial resource extraction industries. Also, fisticuffs and opera, so we all win!

Plot summary blogged here
The book opens with 22-year-old Estella Benton arriving by train at what appears to be Harrison Hot Springs, from Philadelphia. Her father has died, leaving no estate to speak of in spite of his enormous income from working in finance, throwing her onto the tender mercies of her brother Charlie who has been seeking his fortune as a rapacious small-time logger on the BC coast. Stella has been trained to no useful end, and through a variety of elliptical phrasings, Sinclair makes it clear that her family have fitted her only for some version of servitude, either through marriage, ill repute, or low employment. Her brother makes her a low-paid cog in his logging operation, from which perspective she judges the moral lapses of all the men in camp, including Charlie, coming over time to develop bitterness as well as wisdom, and the tension between these attitudes toward the world is what animates the remainder of Big Timber (bearing in mind that this is just the novel's set-up).

As the novel develops, we encounter competing would-be lumber barons, a shooting, babies, a homoerotic fight scene, a lengthy visit to Seattle, forest fires, a white picket fence, and a First Nations female character who rather blows up Stella's naive notion of Indians. Something for everyone, really, and I'm serious when I say that Big Timber would be a really enjoyable book for an awful lot of readers who are much, much too cool for this sort of thing.

I confess, yes: aesthetically the pulling together of narrative threads leaves something to be desired at the end of the book, and politically the novel's apparent push towards feminism and away from both colonialism and capitalism falters badly as it all wears on, but come on: the novel's from British Columbia in 1916, and it's out of print at this point except for an over-priced uncorrected print-on-demand facsimile version from a dodgy publisher. You look only for nuggets, you'll miss all the gold dust. This is one heck of a dusty novel -- up to you to decide whether it's also just a heck of a novel!

Friday, June 06, 2014

Book club, July 2014 - February 2015

Oh, to be in Singapore….
So, the Beer and Books crew has chosen its books for the next several months (July 2014 through February 2015), and they're fantastic:
We talked about several other books, too, that we couldn't agree to include. One of the criteria is that no one can have read the book yet, so when we talk at any length about something, inevitably someone reads it, so it'll never become a club title. That's fine, but it means we tend to keep track of titles that didn't make it onto the roster, like these ones (some of which, I have to say, came in for some pretty serious mockery...):
Going to be a good year, I'd say!

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Hugh Brody, Maps and Dreams (2014)

Oil and gas exploration occurring in tandem with pipeline expansion and construction, leading to runaway anthropogenic climate change: the stakes are so high for all of us.

More than that, the stakes are unimaginably high in culturally specific ways for the First Nations whose territories are being exploited by the natural gas fairyland in what's currently known as northeastern British Columbia, that frankly I'm not sure how I could have sounded so terribly blasé, just three years ago, the first time I read Hugh Brody's remarkable 1981 book Maps and Dreams. Everyone needs to read this book even now, absolutely everyone, and if a copy had been put in front of every Canadian university student in the early 1980s, the quasi-utopian impulse that's basically my brain's reptilian core wonders whether we might collectively have built a different world by now.

Okay, sure, maybe Jason Kenney, Christy Clark, and John Baird would have found a way into power regardless, so maybe we'd still be short on butterflies and unicorns. But the thing is, Brody wrote Maps and Dreams in an attempt to blow up or otherwise transform Canadians' perceptions of Indians; economic expansion; oil and gas development; and frontier mythologies. It's detailed, thorough, narratively intriguing, and intimate, but it didn't achieve what it needed to. Thirty years on, this book still reads like a revelation to most people, with 1981's worrying current events remaining worryingly current in 2014:
We need to change, the circle cannot hold, time to raise the black flag, etc etc. Hugh Brody managed to articulate all sorts of reasons for this in 1981, writing from and about a rapacious carbon-economy context whose grip on our collective imagination has only intensified over the years:
Any restraint upon the search for, and exploitation of, oil and gas reserves is held to be mistaken, futile, or simply unimaginable. We no longer believe that national interests, still less the needs of even a majority of an electorate, can much influence large oil and gas corporations. We are lured into being fatalistic about the very possibility of politics that mean anything to ordinary people, and about any prospect for control over our everyday lives. (p.274)
So, yeah. That right there is why I'm teaching Maps and Dreams in the fall, in English 478 at UVic. Time to radicalize, time to reimagine the humanities, time to prove that John Baird's Canada is not a real place.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Harold Rhenisch, Tom Thomson's Shack (2014)

Most often, this blog is a place for first thoughts: careful thoughts, but first thoughts rather than professionally considered opinions. I read a book for the first time, and then I write about how the reading experience went, or what I didn't quite get about the book, or what the book leads me to reflect on from some element of my life. (Cheap memoir, I guess, is what I write sometimes in lieu of book reviews….)

And then there's Tom Thomson's Shack, from the inimitable Harold Rhenisch, which today makes its third appearance in this space, after a 2008 initial reveal and a second read the same year, before teaching it for the first time. These days, it's competing seriously for the position of Book I've Most Often Read, with M. Wylie Blanchet's Curve of Time and Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, as I've been finding that scenes and lines from the book keep climbing out of my memory to bother me at odd moments: teaching, walking, gardening, trying to sleep, I've been seeing my normal internal soundtrack replaced by this book's insights and worries, and that's a good thing.

If nothing else, and there are lots of somethings else anyway, the book's incursion into my unconscious validates my decision to teach Tom Thomson's Shack this fall at UVic (described here and here), for the second time. I first tried to teach it in an elective second-year class that ended up having only eight or nine students, so there weren't enough voices that this book's strangeness could really exist out in the spaces between us in class, and in general I refuse to lecture when the whole audience could fit in an Econoline van.

This fall, Tom Thomson's Shack will be in an upper-level undergrad class that has always had at least 35 students, the three times I've taught it, so I'm genuinely optimistic that we'll be a large enough group that we can crowd-source some variant ways into this prickly, engaging book whose genre is utterly undecidable. In theory, it's about Rhenisch's trip to Toronto to promote his poetry volume Iodine, his first time in Toronto, as it happens, but the experience was epochal for Rhenisch, as he realizes that by visiting Ontario for the first time, after living his whole life in British Columbia, mostly in the Okanagan, for the first time he's physically entering the idea and image of Canada. This realization leads him to think about wine-making, dirt, transcendence, colonialism, an Apple II-E computer, pruning fruit trees, the Group of Seven, and frozen lakes. Mostly it all makes sense, but usually not until you're a few pages past the sparks that you appreciate but that puzzle you, and it's full of both assertive self-confidence and persistently reflexive self-doubt, and it's fabulous:
My country, the Interior, and its culture were founded, largely, in 1909, in an era of art, formality, dance, and classicism. It was a time of Beauty and Empire, of honour, loyalty, royalty, polo, snobbism, suppression of Indians, repression of women, and a belief in progress, pianos, and war. Whatever prejudices we bring to this matrix, and whatever knowledge we have gained, whatever we have suffered and endured because of it--however we have grown beyond it--it is still only through that point that we live, however it may have changed in its contact with the wild, inhuman land. We live here at the edge of the wilderness, the edge of the human. We live in landscape. This is the painting entered, and lived. (p155)
("Fabulous" as a word meaning both "amazing" and "fable-making," you understand….) This book is going to pair so very well with Hugh Brody's Maps and Dreams, and with Angie Abdou's Canterbury Trail. Course registration starts in the next week or so -- why is it not September yet?!?

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Douglas Coupland, Worst. Person. Ever

American cover
I'm writing this review of Douglas Coupland's Worst. Person. Ever. shortly after a young man in California killed six people and wounded more than a dozen more, largely because young women wouldn't have sex with him: today, I'm having a harder time remembering why I kept laughing while reading this novel.

Don't get me wrong, I think that Lucy Ellmann's scathing review in the Guardian was tone-deaf and extreme ("It's hard not to feel revulsion for everything while reading this book--certainly the human body, sex, thoughts, animals, and life itself"), but then Ellmann's recent novel Mimi has been insulted in similar terms, and Coupland's narrator Raymond Gunt is himself tone-deaf and extreme. (After all, that's why Gunt keeps getting attacked, arrested, infected, sodomised….) By reading Worst. Person. Ever. without making room for satire or irony, Lucy Ellmann initiates something like a death spiral of loathing that Coupland managed to intensify by tweeting about her review … as well as by tweeting a link to a harsh review of Ellmann's own novel, in which she was blamed for many of the same things she was blaming him for.

For his part, Coupland told NPR that with Worst. Person. Ever., he had finally written "something that, you know, might actually damage a person's soul if they read it."

But I'm off track. Not a fun review to write, obviously, or I'd just write the damned thing.

Canadian cover
During Worst. Person. Ever., more than one character calls Raymond Gunt exactly that, the Worst. Person. Ever., and he deserves it. He's a deeply, deeply offensive man, with more prejudices than a cactus has spines and yet apparently ignorant of them, living in a social circle of people who understand him and whose prejudices rival his own. If Cards Against Humanity came in novel form, this would be it: filthy, disgusting, foul-mouthed, vile, entirely Couplandian, and mostly funny.

The thing is, a lot of the novel's energy comes from its being an inside joke that's way too intense for me today, with the flood of #YesAllWomen tweets building on the California murders. Ray and his friends are appalling human beings that shouldn't be alive, which is fine because they're only characters in a book, so they're not real and not alive: what are people so fussed about, seriously? Besides, since we're all appalled and disgusted anyway, we're not all versions of Ray, so really the racist, coprophilic, misogynistic excesses of Worst. Person. Ever. confirm our liberal feminist ideologies by triggering our disgust -- yay liberalism, yay feminism, as Ray might put it, right before shitting all over something that might once have been lovely.

If you've ever enjoyed playing Cards Against Humanity, or haven't played but could imagine enjoying it, then you're perfectly capable of enjoying Worst. Person. Ever.. The novel's ending, as is usual with Coupland, induces a bit of eye-rolling, and the characters are a little more cartoony even than they usually are in his novels, but really everything depends on whether you can read corrosive misogyny for laffs: on whether it's acceptable just to be better than the characters of the novel you're reading.

Today, after what Elliot Rodger seems to have done in Isla Vista, California, presumably with a more complicated backstory than we're all getting so far, I'm not going to mind if you refuse to make an effort to find laffs in misogyny.

(You want an actual review of the novel? Here's a thoughtful positive one; here's a thoughtful negative one. It's a good novel, provocative in good ways but reflecting a hateful world that you just might mistake for hateful characters.)

Friday, May 23, 2014

Louise Welsh, A Lovely Way to Burn

If the world was collapsing around you, bodies accumulating, civilization and social order falling away: could you catch the killer of someone you care about, if the police and government and military were focused on the orderly winding-down of the nation in the face of a death-dealing epidemic?

In A Lovely Way to Burn, Louise Welsh does a great job of capturing both the obsessiveness of a solitary investigator, overwhelmingly focused on the details at hand, and the scope of a world undergoing seismic change. The apocalypse might be happening here, but the novel isn't about that: the apocalypse is just background. Plus there's a tertiary plot around medical malpractice and distrust of the entire medical-industrial system, if you wanted more.

I'm torn, I should say, between reading the novel straight and reading the novel's layering as itself something like commentary. Stevie Flint is so focused on the case she wants to resolve that she just doesn't commit to the enormous transformation that the whole planet is going through, and that's got to be a comment on human egotism, doesn't it?

Other reviewers seem distracted by the layered effect of the novel: some readers want more apocalypse and think the mystery a distraction, some see the mystery narrative to be weakened by the strength of Welsh's representation of the end of the world. Those readers are weak. If you're able to like two or more kinds of novels at once (end of the world, murder mystery, medical drama), then A Lovely Way to Burn should occupy you pretty intensely.

Friday, May 16, 2014

William Least Heat-Moon, River-Horse

I've long admired the huge tomes of William Least Heat-Moon, which are larger even than the volume of pages that they occupy: at a little over 400 pages, Blue Highways shouldn't seem all that long, but it's the record of 13,000 miles of driving around the United States (mapped interactively here); focused obsessively on a single county in Kansas, PrairyErth: A Deep Map shouldn't feel that immense, but I gather than its 650 over-sized pages are entrancingly slow as a consequence of their richness. (Is it meaningful that it has inspired its own fandom movie, I wonder?)

I've long admired them, but I haven't read them. I've meant to, though, and I've finally begun, with my first completion being River-Horse: Across American by Boat, being a near-Quixotic first-world-problems memoir of a trip from New York City to Portland, Atlantic Ocean to Pacific Ocean, almost entirely by boat across the upper third of the United States. Like Blue Highways, River-Horse follows Heat-Moon's apparently focused wanderings in a determined attempt to learn what American means, while at the same time recounting his self-inflicted abandoning of a marriage. It's not about the marriage, or the separation, and yet neither book would occur without it, and neither one makes sense fully unless you keep in mind the tension between the coming into knowledge and the choice against marriage.

It's immensely enjoyable, River-Horse, if you can buy into it and if you can set aside all of the conditions making it come about (particularly the leisure, the planning, the bankroll, as Randall Roorda noted in his extremely wise review). Even though I managed mostly to set aside all those things, the pleasures of the book have been surprisingly fleeting: intense at the time, but fleeting, as hard to keep a hold on as can be Heat-Moon's prose and occasionally near-encyclopedic knowledge:
The inside of the river was slick with frog skins, sharp with fish fins, a dim realm still warming from the long Dakota winter and ready to be shot full of the spurt and squirt of milt, the bottom alive and everlastingly creeping about and wanting nothing more than food, safety, and a little sex, as it the creatures were the dullest of desk-bound scriveners with no urge to find the mountains, to cross them down to the sea--those undertakings they left to the world above them, to migratory birds from rain forests and jungles, to humans who could only dream of the ill-lit under-river world. (p.305)
That being quite the turmoil of a sentence, but also just one long sentence among many.

River-Horse is a book that's easy to fall into, but easier to extricate yourself from than I'd like. Maybe it's just that I feel with this book what I've so often felt when confronted by declarative art produced by the American 1960s generation, namely that their consuming self-examination leaves their art inaccessible and meaningless to the rest of us, though apparently intimate and timeless.

Weird, the experience of not being able to recommend a book that you found pleasing, but that's where I'm at with River-Horse. A bunch of well-read, mostly well-heeled middle-aged men travel across America by boat, taking a trip that no one has ever done before in just this way, talking loftily about Literature and Culture, making self-confidently self-deprecating jokes about how Fate and Coincidence are helping them along: the book's aware and thoughtful about colonialism, but it sure as hell isn't an object lesson in decolonization.

Kind of like if the Rolling Stones wrote a protest song, which you know would get your feet moving and deserve to get lots of play, but would mostly just perpetuate the Stones industry. I've bought that album, but no matter how grinding the Keith Richards guitar or lyrical the Heat-Moon prose, the best I'm going to feel is conflicted.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

William Bryant Logan, Dirt

While reading the second book from mystic biologist William Bryant Logan, I found myself …. No, that's not right. Christian ecospiritual arborist? God's gardener? Gardening faithful?

Anyway, it's a remarkable book, Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, even if it's not clear quite how to describe or characterize it (not even to decide whether it's an essay collection, an essay sequence, or a book: and I don't know how I feel about it also becoming somehow a movie). Logan really is an arborist, and apparently also a long-time writer-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. While these occupations may seem likely to represent competing drives, at least in some ways, in fact Logan manages in Dirt to burrow deeply into both soil and faith, reflections between the two spheres making the whole affair additionally profound.

Crucial to Dirt (and to Logan's method) is the way in which he sustains a narrow focus on whatever his immediate topic might be, often through particularly clear images:
To try to understand the soil by taking a few trowelsful and submitting them to chemical tests is like trying to understand the human body by cutting off the finger, grinding it to paste, and performing the same tests. You may learn a lot about the chemistry of pastes, but about the intricate anatomical linkage of systems--and about the body's functions as a whole--you will learn nothing at all. (p.177)
Logan makes this point in the course of placing soil at the intersection of atmosphere and inert matter, a synthesis of stardust and fire and nothingness. Clay, for example, doesn't really make sense chemically; if you think of clay as alive, then suddenly its odd properties of persistent moisture, plasticity, and friction become explicable. It's almost (though not quite, of course) the only way to explain clay's ability to evolve under pressure and over time into separate "clay species" (p.126), and Logan's not the only person wondering whether clay's ability to host developing long-chain organic molecules might make clay a precondition for life itself (or at least, forms of life depending on amino acids).

This is a book of protest against the despoliation of soil and country life (p.50); of love for those who appreciate dirt, like Virgil (p.164); and of immersion into the physical sciences, including human biology (p.55). For all those reasons, it's worth a great deal of all our time. If you're a person of faith, which emphatically I'm not, then it's worth even more of your time, in part because Logan does such a great job of contextualizing the tenets and shape of his faith within the natural structures of the world: soil, microbes, the human gut, and above all compost.

If you can buy into the book fully, and feel like you're learning from Logan rather than simply reading his words, then Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth just might change the way you understand the world, maybe even the way you live in it:
     While we live, we ourselves are inhabited. A full ten percent of our dry weight is not us, properly speaking, but the assembly of microbes that feed on, in, and with us. Our bodies are the kitchens where our food is cooked, digested, and then burned to cook us. We live until death in a perpetual fever, 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. When at last we are well done, we begin to cool, becoming food ourselves. More and more ordered, more and more stable, like a good piece of roasted meat, we are made ready. (p.55)
Remarkable, no? Christopher Hirst gets it more or less right in his review, even if he did make his point with a bit of a sniff: "Though Logan's passion sometimes comes perilously close to sentimentality, this monograph on an unlikely subject is a minor masterpiece of startling originality." What Hirst doesn't communicate is just how much fun this book can be, how much ecstasy there is for the reader to grab onto and share. You won't regret trying it, I promise.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane

So yesterday, @GenreADay reminded all of us that progressive was once upon a thing:
And with that one tweet, away went a good chunk of the evening's productivity.

They didn't consume me the way they did some friends, but Marillion was a minor obsession for my entire life as a teenager. I had all the LP's from the years before Fish left the band, including some picture discs (like for Script for a Jester's Tear, a title to cringe at if ever there was one), 12-inch LP singles, even some bootleg concert recordings, but Fish's departure wasn't some sort of trigger to break my Marillion habit. The songs just weren't connecting in the same way anymore. They had never been about my own life, a small BC logging town having little to do with early 80s British prog rock, and I got that my time at an English-style boarding school didn't qualify me to feel like a Marillion character. By Clutching at Straws, it had become obvious, and they were mostly dead to me.

It's embarrassing, now, listening for example to Fish's keening laments in "Kayleigh" ("Kayleigh, I just want to say I'm sorry, / But Kayleigh, I'm too scared to pick up the phone") or the snarling venom of "Forgotten Sons" ("Minister, minister, care for your children -- order them not into damnation / To eliminate those who would trespass against you!"), remembering how strongly I felt the lyrics even though at the time, I was an 14-year-old afraid of girls and unkissed, unexposed to even a hint of genuine political action, and yet I can air-play every instrument for every one of those songs. Badly but emphatically and in private, just how one ought to play air guitar.

Which brings me, obviously, to Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane, this month's reading for the book club.

I'm leery of giving too much away from this novel, because if you're not going to like this book, it's best if I don't do anything that might persuade you to give it a a try, and if you're the kind of reader who might fall in love with it, then your pleasure might be a little fragile. Even at 170 pages, it's more of a novella than a novel, and Gaiman develops and pursues a very narrow thread here. I'm not touching the book's final third, I should say, even though there's so very much to talk about in terms of who the narrator turns out to have become, because you need to come to this novel as open as possible.

Really, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a novel of childhood, a fantasy novel that should also be understood as a realist dispatch from inside the very different reality that children occupy, as well as a reflection on the years afterward. Gaiman's epigraph from Maurice Sendak shouldn't be overlooked as merely a stick-tap to the author of Where the Wild Things Are, though it's that as well, even if you appreciated the movie as much as I did, loved also the Dave Eggers novel:
"I remember my own childhood vividly…. I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn't let adults know I knew. It would scare them."
The narrator, an unnamed middle-aged man reflecting on his childhood while on the lam from his father's funeral, is Gaiman himself, is Gaiman's aging fanboys, is every fantasy narrator. In the successive generations of Hempstock women (hemp as pot-style expansion of the mind?) that his narrator encounters to such transformative effect, Gaiman recalls all sorts of magic female-led or female-centric communities; the villain and/or antagonist (also a woman, as maybe she had to be…) echoes numerous nightmare scenes in her shifted shapes. I don't think Gaiman's stealing anything unduly, but I don't spend all that much time with fantasy, so I'm not the best judge. My sense, though, is that everything's invigorated here, and that originality would be unhelpful anyway.

And so it was helpful to be pushed to reflect again, for the first time in many years, on how important, how overwhelmingly important, the 1980s version of Marillion was to me at the time, in spite of its bombast and its utter irrelevance to my actual life, because that's what my childhood youth felt like. All our childhoods feel like that, and it's why our departures from childhood have to be so absolute, and why we get so twitchy about adults who play video games or the like: leave part of it behind just once, and it's all gone, all lost.

And so the shouting responses to somewhat negative reviews of the book make great sense to me, even though I'm absolutely on board with the mixed reviews. I know that the terms make no sense, but it's my blog, so I'm using them: the more adult you get about The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by which I mean that if you take a critically remote stance, the further you get from your childhood brain, and the paler the novel becomes. Magic disappears when you get rational, and while that's precisely how I approach the atheism/religion question, I've got vast amounts of time for imaginary magic in fiction.

So … maybe don't think too hard about The Ocean at the End of the Lane? Manage that trick, and it'll turn out to be magical after all, at least for a little while. Distrust the novel, and the glass will fall away, unrecoverably turning back into sand.

Up to you to say whether that makes it a novel worth tracking down, I should think. But there are some really smart reviews out there, should you want to read one.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Nick Cutter, The Troop

I don't read a lot of horror, and very little of what I watch has anything to do with horror. While I was impressed with the pseudonymous Nick Cutter's The Troop, it didn't do anything to shift me toward spending a second more with horror than I need to.

Don't get me wrong: Rob Wiersema remains a terrific reviewer, and his admiration for this book doesn't make me doubt him. And while I thought "Nick Cutter" comes off as more than a little impressed with his own cleverness during interviews wherein he considers allegations about his identity, my eye-rolling won't be held against him.

But really … I get that there are genres, and that each genre has its fans, but this one? Disgusting, but not in a good way; descriptive, though not in a way I trusted. If this is the good stuff, then next time I stray from my usual, I'll probably skip horror and go for romance.

In sum: yeah, you're right, I gather that it's pretty great. Just not for me.