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 alter-ego on Twitter might say:

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.

Andrew Nikiforuk, The Energy of Slaves

Fun fact #1: In North America, about 27% of the total volume of would-be food is discarded without ever being eaten by humans.

Fun fact #2: The production, transportation, and storage of this never-eaten food accounts for about 2% of the continent's total spending on oil and electricity (Nikiforuk, pp.88-89).

We're living inside a leaky pipeline, in other words. Food banks, food insecurity, climate change: we do it to ourselves, and in the end, after all the hand-wringing and multi-variate analyses and flourishing rhetorical Actions, we give not a fuck, not really.

As regular Tyee contributor Andrew Nikiforuk makes painfully clear in The Energy of Slaves, the fossil-fuel economy over-reaches its grasp so far that there's just no hope. (His last chapter pretends otherwise -- locavorism! farmers' markets! pipeline protests! -- but it rang pretty hollow in my ears….) Hardly news, that, though we mostly keep living as if it'll all be fine eventually.

What's different and striking in this book is Nikiforuk's sustained assertion that economies are all about energy, and that while Western economies (and civilization) modernized impressively by commandeering the work and energy of human slaves, slavery was really only a dress rehearsal for the consumption of archived energy in our few hundred fossil-fuel years. This energizes what otherwise might read like a digression, Nikiforuk's chapter about economists, but his basic point is that we've built an entire culture that ignores, deliberately and pathologically, our absolute dependence on the cheapest of fuels. That includes all of our sciences, not just our corporations. "A once distinguished moral philosophy has degenerated into a bogus science whose experts offer predictions more inaccurate than daily weather forecasts" (p.131): it's not a fair comment on economics, entertaining as it might be, but on the other hand, do economic projections consistently account for the historical accident of fossil fuels and their rampant consumption?

This book isn't about climate change, either. That's a shadow behind all of this, clearly, but it's not the point of the book. If you're a skeptic on climate change, if such people genuinely exist, this book might still grip you: just pay attention to the consumption of fossil fuels, and the certainty that we'll run out of accessible fossil fuels eventually, and you'll be hooked as firmly as was this anthropogenic climate change believer.

I'm uncomfortable, I should say, by Nikiforuk's equation of human slavery and technological innovation: enslaving a human is not the same as burning a barrel of oil. I appreciate that from an energy perspective, it makes little difference whether the energy consumed is the captive force of a person or the composted carbon of an ancient marsh, but the enslaved person would beg to differ. And I can't just leave that be. Don't get me wrong, I'm not as fussed as some ("For this reviewer, Nikiforuk asks too much"), or the fascinating and insightful Alanna Mitchell, who strangely remarks of Nikiforuk that "His brain is like a bacon slicer," whatever that means, but I'm bothered.

What bothers me more, though, vastly more, is the profligate waste of the planet's accumulated energy store. Or as OPEC founder Juan Pablo Perez Alfonso once said, "We are drowning in the devil's excrement" (p.181).

Nikiforuk's "slavery" metaphor gets stretched to breaking, often, and other metaphors and descriptors might have been safer and more effective and less unproductively distracting, but overall the book's point is shatteringly clear. The Energy of Slaves is a provocative, essential work, even if you may have to persuade yourself to let ride the central conceit (slavery = fossil fuels).

Or if you'd prefer, there's always Nadeah's fun cover of "Mercedes Benz." There's always a reason to just live better, or wish you could. Anybody want to buy me a new car?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Joseph Boyden, The Orenda

When I was a kid, I used to dream regularly that I had been killed: not just killed, but beaten to death and left on the grounds of Chase Primary School, my elementary school.

Whether this is the root or the cause of my neuroses, I can't tell, but I have a deep antipathy to representations of violence. It's not that I'm phobic about them, or offended, or indeed squeamish, but they bump me out of the narrative and out of my immersion with the film or literature. Presumably I'm an outlier, making this a pathological distinction that marks me as ripe for culling from the herd, but so be it.

And so went my reading of Joseph Boyden's acclaimed novel The Orenda. I'm not sure that I disagree with a scintilla of the praise that has been accumulating around The Orenda, because I can tell that it's genuinely a novel to amaze. This is a historical novel that reads immediately and intimately while still being the product of exhaustive research; it presents its narrative from three quite distinct points of view, each one of which feels fully realized, and each one of which was fully capable of sustaining its own novel; it's a novel of community and place and faith, and all the ways in which those terms can be understood oppositionally; and most importantly (in my view) it's about life and death in the face of overlapping cataclysmic changes that intersect in terrifying ways.

But it's also a novel stuffed full of periodically horrifying torture, or promises of torture to come, or explicitly declared hope at being able to survive torture with pride.

Clearly my discomfort stems in large part from my absolute separation from the lifeways that Boyden's writing about: the Wendat (or Huron) and the Haudenosaunee are not my peoples, settler that I am, and so Boyden quite rightly isn't writing for my outsider sensibilities. Or rather, he is, and he's expecting that I'm going to feel like the outsider. If in general I was okay with graphic depictions of violence, then I'd be able to assess the extent to which this book is successful in what I take to be Boyden's aim, but the problem is that I'm not.

And I should say, too, that I anxiously appreciate Christina Turner's worry that "a narrative has been created around The Orenda that is more comforting than unsettling to settler Canada." We're better people for having appreciated this novel, we settlers, maybe, but our obligation to decolonize this place doesn't end with literary prizes and Christmas handovers of The Orenda to our fellow settlers, for them to donate to next year's charity book drive.

It's an amazing novel, and for now, I'm seeing myself as deficient for not being able to appreciate it properly: violence does that to me, and especially torture. Sue me.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

William Stolzenburg, Rat Island

On the other hand….

My most recent review here was of Ken Thompson's debunking Where Do Camels Belong?, which among other things attacks the foundations of invasion biology as well as all practices related to the suppression and elimination of invasive species. In that review, I said that I came away anxious that our collective imaginary about invasive species is getting things wrong: I was persuaded, in other words, even though I'm going to keep up my own miniature campaign against ivy, holly, daphne, and Scotch broom (all of which I tend to pull while hiking in parks, or while walking around my neighbourhood), that we need to get a different and broader perspective collectively on the issue of "invasive" and "native" species.

Was I wrong to find Thompson's account persuasive? No, because indeed the outside analysis of invasive species and invasion biology, in particular from the fields of biology and economics, suggests quite clearly that there are good reasons to be anxious. Mind you, his argumentation about how scientists need grants, and hence plump up the risks of species invasion, deserves a little bit of contempt, and I didn't say that in my review, but that's a separate question: invasion biologists are NOT a bunch of opportunistic and funding-crazed nerds who couldn't cut it in an existing discipline, and Thompson is both wrong and petty to suggest otherwise.

But island ecology is a different thing altogether, and so when in Rat Island: Predators in Paradise and the World's Greatest Wildlife Rescue William Stolzenburg looks closely at species extinction and invasion on islands, mostly in the Pacific Ocean, then Thompson's objections need to be set aside. Continent-scale biological evolution is different from island-scale, and Pacific islands have seen new species arrive and dominate in extraordinarily short periods of time. When we're thinking about species that differ in any significant way from one that evolved with continental influence, then human-oriented species of any kind spell absolute doom: pigs, cats and dogs (especially those which run free or go feral), stoats and ferrets, and above all rats.

Rat Island is a popularly written book that's not unsatisfying even for as nerdy a reader as I am, much like Robert Sullivan's Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants. It savours quite a lot of what Richard Preston achieved in The Wild Trees, which was a swashbuckling nonfiction book about tree canopy biology, in that you come away interested in the topic, impressed by the characters involved, and yet not bogged down with all that pesky knowledge. Clearly this is only in part a good thing, though I think it's a very large part.

In brief (since I've wasted almost of a normal person's attention span already -- sorry about that), Stolzenburg offers both a lengthy narrative about the rolling waves of human-powered species extinctions across the Pacific Islands, almost always from rats rather than from humans directly, as well as a series of interlinked portraits of the humans involved in resisting the ongoing effects of these overlapping waves of colonization by multiple species. Stolzenburg doesn't handle with enough nuance the worries about eradication campaigns, including some of the people involved, but (a) Ken Thompson had the same weakness in Where Do Camels Belong?, and (b) these debates tend to involve rather more rhetorical flourish than nuance anyway, so he's using the same language and approach that the depicted opponents would use, though with quite a lot more restraint. Stolzenburg's eradication experts and biologists come off, in general, as heroic and well-intentioned, and it all makes for a very good story.

Structurally, the narrative ends before it should, because the book was being written while the real showpiece of rat eradication was still being planned, and indeed Kiska Island, complete with active volcano, remains rat-infested today. (The island was occupied by Japanese forces for a time during WW2, but when the Americans came with strength against the Japanese in 1943, the Japanese had already left under cover of fog and darkness, with more than 300 American soldiers dying from friendly fire. Plenty of infrastructure remains, decaying impressively.) The book builds up to an assault on Kiska, introducing it early on and reaching back to it on occasion, and yet complications intervene, and both the science and the practice of rat eradication have yet to improve before Kiska can be taken back.

Rat Island is very much worth your time, and it'd work for an awful lot of readers. If your circle includes a fan of either Jared Diamond or Malcolm Gladwell, then it's time to expand this person's horizons, and you could do a whole lot worse than passing along Stolzenburg's book: if indeed a fan of either Diamond or Gladwell can be redeemed….

(For background: Yereth Rosen wrote a very clear story for the Alaska Dispatch News about rat eradication on the actual Rat Island, in the Aleutians. A good read!)

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Ken Thompson, Where Do Camels Belong?

What if we were wrong, completely and expensively wrong, about a crucial tenet of contemporary environmental anxiety and citizen environmentalism?

Ken Thompson, in other words, spends most of Where Do Camels Belong?: Why Invasive Species Aren't All Bad a distressingly long way from talking about camels. (The hook is that camels evolved their greatest diversity in North America, only becoming extinct in North America about 8000 years ago, and so they're arguably more native to North America than to anywhere else, but who thinks about anything but the Sahara?) Invasion biology is a comparatively new academic sub discipline, possibly a sub-subdiscipline if you want to house it within conservation biology, and its media-friendly ways have in Thompson's view led it into a place of tenets and beliefs, rather than inquiry. In consequence, invasion biology finds itself used to support wildly expensive, doomed, and sometimes ecologically destructive exercises, when really it should just be buckling down to the slow, difficult work of establishing its own principles.

An example: throughout southern Europe, alpine plants are moving uphill on mountains, climbing toward summits where they've never been seen. This is generally taken to be a signal of climate change, anthropogenic climate change inextricably linked to increased carbon emissions since the Industrial Revolution, and that's probably not incorrect. But the more closely you look at this uphill migration of slow-transmission alpine plants, the more it looks like a recolonization following the Little Ice Age from the 16th through 19th centuries in Europe (p.116). Until there's clarity about these two issues, then it's scientifically unwise, and possible scandalous, to describe it only in terms of anthropogenic climate change.

I was prepared to dislike this book pretty intensely, given my attachment to the Garry Oak meadows of southern Vancouver Island, my antipathy to Scotch broom in the same region, and my general distrust of the corporate, the domineering, and the disengaged. Thompson's strategy was highly appealing, though, his mixture of trivia, scholarship, and economics, and I've come away impressed and troubled. Do I agree with him that a principle-based opposition to invasive species (or even to "invasive species") is wrong-headed? Well, no, but that's not the point. Instead, he wants his readers to come away concerned at the current state of invasion biology and at the uncritical application of practices very, very crudely derived from what he describes as either unpolished science or the inappropriate generalization from a scientific library consisting of far too few studies.

Mission accomplished, for this reader.

One of Thompson's main points (and he does have several) is that what we tend to think of as "invasive species" have their fates quite tightly bound up with our own, to the extent that their migration is facilitated in part or in sum by humans, and that their ongoing survival owes much to humans, either because of our impacts on previously established species or because of ongoing local ecological disruption. He doesn't quite coin the term, but he uses the concept of "anthropophiles" to describe the relationship between humans and the invasive species that we resist or fear most strongly: they follow us around, we drag them around with us and protect them without noticing it, and so we loathe them because they remind us that as a species, we really are great shambling idiots (p.48).

There are North American flatworms in Loch Ness, among other exemplars, because of sterilization protocol failures amongst the North American scientists -- sorry, I mean "scientists" -- pursuing the Loch Ness monster. As Thompson remarks in another context, "We have the plants (and animals) we deserve" (p.121).

Or in California, there's a problematical radish: the garden-variety radish (from Europe, so not a native) has in the wild hybridized with the European "wild" radish to generate a species not seen elsewhere. This new hybrid, which exists nowhere else outside California, has so strongly outcompeted its progenitors that the European wild radish has in essence been extirpated from California, after a relatively short tenure there. Should we think of these potent hybrid radishes as California native plants, now? (There's a similar situation in the UK with rhododendrons, if that helps….)

Or in North America more generally, the current proliferating health of vegetation (both alien and native) owes an incalculably large debt to two invasive European species: honeybees and earthworms. Critical to the fertilization and, um, fertilization of so many plants in North America, these two species were imported from Europe after Columbus. While some species of native earthworm remain in some parts of the continent, and many other kinds of bees have always existed here, the dominant species in each case is a deliberately imported invader.

Thompson is arguing, at length and with sometimes undue intensity, for common sense to be exerted in humanity's many long and expensive campaigns against invasive species. I'm with him on this, in part because I had no idea how little common sense there has sometimes been.

To be clear, though, I'm still going to be pulling broom every chance I get, and ivy and holly and all the rest. The small-scale war continues, around here!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Chris Hadfield, An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth

Yup, we read it for book club, Chris Hadfield's memoir / humblebrag / self-help book Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth. It's perfectly calibrated to appeal to well-meaning book clubs and to Christmas shoppers, being by an ACTUAL ASTRONAUT who's clearly a very nice guy on top of being very smart, passionate, talented, and all the rest.

I just wish I'd enjoyed the book. (Also, visit Amazon's review space a very funny and hate-filled, though possibly self-hatred-filled, and possibly self-ironizing, review.) I get bored easily when I'm not reading something that feeds my inner nerd, and this book didn't do anything at all for me. Great guy, amazing career, achievements to die/kill for: not my kind of author, and more pity him, I say.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Red: A Haida Manga

You people with your graphic novels, you wouldn't know art if it … well, did something that only art can do. Who knows what that'd be, given the diversity and freedom of artistic production, but I bet that Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas would have some ideas about that.

Linked from West Coast Reader
Graphic novels are a legitimate art form, to be sure, but that's not quite what Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas has produced in Red: A Haida Manga. But it's also not manga as such, either, though Yahgulanaas has described it as such, nor folk tale nor history nor classical tragedy. I don't have much interest in questions of form generally, and less so for texts that clearly live in the borderlands, but it's worth setting Red deliberately apart. This book is like nothing you've seen before, and unless you've spent some time with stories of First Nations on the Pacific coast of North America, the story itself might not make sense to you.

Just don't let any of this get in the way of your picking up Red, because it's a very, very special book.

Does it mean anything to summarize the plot? To say that orphaned young Red comes to lead his people, that many years later he seeks revenge for the abduction of his sister, and that in stories, revenge  is inseparable from tragedy?

Does it achieve anything to describe the visuals? To comment on the sense of movement between panels, the continuous overflowing of panel boundaries, the connections between pages into a single giant image, the overwhelming colours, the intersections between represented places and worlds?

Not every reader gets this book, and that's as it should be. It's a simple story with a significant moral component, rendered elliptically through remarkable imagery, and there are lots of prickly details here that'll turn off some readers. None of this means that it isn't remarkable.

Or you could just listen to Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas talk about Red. That's what I'm going to do.

John McPhee, Oranges

John McPhee, everybody: just go read some John McPhee, because it'll be time better spent than almost any other way I can think of.

Nonfiction doesn't get much better than this, as long as your tastes don't run toward celebrity (horrors!) or self-help (lord no!). McPhee has published more than 30 books in his career, about subjects ranging from a kind of fish called the shad to the Swiss Army, from experimental aircraft to medical practitioners, and invariably these books are engaging, personable, and nerdy, in the very best sense. His third volume, 1967's Oranges, just has to be one of the best, or I'm never going to be able to find time for other authors.

A short account of the book is simply that in 1965, McPhee found himself wondering why orange juice in New York didn't always taste the same. The New Yorker agreed to an article on the subject, but in true McPhee fashion, he ended up collecting vast troves of material, and after two New Yorker articles only scratched the surface, a book was the only logical outcome.
Linked from the Tampa Bay Times

(I shudder to think at the vast bloggy ecosystem that McPhee would now be responsible for having generated, had be been born a half-century further on. Genuinely, I worry about such writers I'll never be able to enjoy in the same way, as I'll never encounter their work in a form that encourages climbing inside the material, the way a book does.)

Oranges is full of trivia, often arranged in catalogue form, and I found it kind of delightful to be swamped in context-free minutiae about citrus: "A pile of green oranges will turn orange if stored in a room with enough bananas" (p.113), for example, or "Sir Francis Drake levelled the orange trees of St. Augustine [Florida] when he sacked the town in 1586, but the stumps put out new shoots and eventually bore fruit again. Nearly all were Bitter Oranges" (p.89). At one point McPhee lists 23 different pests or infestations that orchardists need to guard against, ending drily with "to name a few" (p.41). I always find McPhee's fascination infectious, and never more so than I did here.

Really, this book offers a window onto the citrus-related human history, including the weird biology of taste; onto the mores of 1960s food production and consumption; and onto the idiosyncratic characters that McPhee has spent a career finding himself in the company of -- characters that most of us imagine, rather than meet. There's something here for everyone, if you don't mind a world full of oranges.

Highly recommended (and with Christmas coming, too!).

(Further testimony to my John McPhee addiction can be found here, here, and here, so far. A newspaper commentary on the book's genesis and development can be found at the Orlando Sentinel.)

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Margaret Atwood, Payback

I'm always keen to read the books produced out of the CBC's Massey lecture series: not that I'm very good at rushing out to buy them, but I've read about a third of them over the years, and I've commented on a few of them here at Book Addiction HQ. They're consistently thoughtful, provoking examples of committed writing, skewing sometimes toward the academic, with their authors standing publicly for something and expressing their own perspectives on the world in a really appealing hybrid mode that, while being a heavily edited and expanded version of the lectures, still (usually) emphasizes their speech rhythms.

Margaret Atwood's 2008 Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth precisely fits this description, and if that's good for you, then you'll appreciate her efforts in the volume. Mostly she's unpacking the history of ideas of debt, focusing on concepts like revenge and honour and non-monetary debts, so if you're expecting a discussion of, say, the 2008 financial crisis, you're out of luck. (And that's a real shame, because it would've been great to hear her reflections on that, while events unfolded during her lecture series!)

For me, the most interesting sections were speculative rather than historical. Atwood's thoughts on what the world would be like now if the United States had responded differently to 9/11, well, those are worth the price of admission all on their own, even if it's only a couple of pages long. Her lengthy narrative of a 21st-century Scrooge will get your eyes rolling on occasion, but she's in on the joke, and it's intentionally cartoonish in the same way that Dickens' Christmas Carol can be at times: but it also offers some incisive remarks on the alternative futures that we're refusing to choose between. The ideas of her closing chapter connect neatly with those she dramatized in her MaddAddam trilogy, with social decay and environmental collapse being integrally related to each other in a catastrophic feedback loop.

Still, I read this book with the spectre of my book club on my shoulder: we've not had a lot of luck with nonfiction, since an unfortunate year where we tried to be Serious Gentlemen and inflicted a lot of Very Bad News on ourselves, and I'm gun-shy as well about anything that sounds the least bit academic. Worrying, but we'll see on September 30th!

Plus it became a movie, which I learned while standing in a Victoria video-rental shop (remember those?) telling a clerk how much I enjoyed Manufactured Landscapes, only to have the mother of its filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal chime in and say that her next project was in pursuit of Atwood's book. The world being, of course, a very small place to house seven billion people.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Jon Mooallem, Wild Ones

The deep desires of the human species exhibit the wildest, widest biodiversity imaginable: we want everything, and we want it so very, very much.

In his 2013 book Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America, Jon Mooallem documents his time spent with activists of many kinds, each with a fascination with either polar bears, Lange's metal-mark butterflies, or whooping cranes. The tale he comes away with has no more to do with the miracles of non-human evolution than it does with the vagaries of human passions.

Really, the book's about the fundamental paradox of a culture that's aware of its debts to nature: "wildness fulfills certain human needs and is also trampled by them; how easily we can wind up short-circuiting and celebrating it at the same time" (p.271). Or to be vastly more complimentary about it: "The best of us are cursed with caring, with a bungling and undying determination to protect whatever looks like beauty, even if our vision is blurry" (p.293).

Depression is a ready companion when you dip regularly into stories about wildlife, so many of which raise the spectre of extinction. Mooallem confronts and welcomes this depression, since extinction is one of the sparks that generated this book, but it's a bracing read. There's a lot to worry about, but it helps just to know that so many of us are worried -- especially when so many of us are unrepentant weirdos. Weirdness is biodiversity, if I may say, a phrase that just might become my first tattoo.

Incidentally, this book ended up being part of the COOLEST PROMOTIONAL MATERIAL EVER, namely an EP of Mooallem performing stories from the book with the band Black Prairie, in the form of a CD covered in artificial fur. Let's see John Vaillant top that! (Or alternatively, there's Mooallem's TED talk, because of course.)

It's an excellent book, Wild Ones, very appealing in its blend of frank humour and nerdish learnedness. You're really going to enjoy it.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Richard Alley, The Two-Mile TIme Machine

Climate change: it feels not entirely unmanageable, doesn't it, if we think of it in terms of gradual change occurring across a span of decades, maybe generations. The oceans will rise by [x] centimetres by 2050 here in Victoria, but by a full [y] centimetres in Miami, and while that's big news, most of us will be dead or will have shifted residence a couple of times since then, Jeffersons-style.* There just has to be enough resilience and redundancy in the underlying system to let humanity survive this type of climate change with a pretty low ratio of cannibalism, or we would've been doomed multiple times in the past.

Which is why we need, so very much, books like Richard B. Alley's The Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change, and Our Future. We need to be much more afraid than we are, and Alley's book is very helpful in that respect.

I should say, first, that Alley's book is engrossingly and endearingly nerdy, in the way that it tries so very hard to be accessible to The Casual Reader. Not many casual readers are going to wade through lengthy explanations (even if in relatively accessible prose) of the history of the Antarctic ice-core drilling projects, or of the forms of mathematical analysis that allow for the interpretation of ice-bubble gas composition as representative of particular historical climatic conditions. One sentence at a time, it's a very helpful book to understand climate change and ice-core research, but overall it's an awful lot to take in.

But to business: How abrupt is the sub-titular "abrupt climate change" Alley's talking about? Well, that all depends, but the Antarctic ice-core data illustrates pretty conclusively that at least a few times, global temperatures increased by 5 to 10 degrees Celsius within a decade or two. The last ice age ended within three years. Climatic variability means that some places would have warmed by considerably less than that, but others would have warmed by considerably more: maybe 20 degrees Celsius.

Generally, it takes centuries for the gradual cooling to ratchet things back down again, and for sea-level to drop by the few metres by which it would almost certainly have risen.

If you've read this far into the post, you'll be nerdy enough to know already that all of human history -- well, the comfortable bits, anyway, since the invention and spread of agriculture -- has occurred within a period of relative climatic calm. If there's any native resilience in being human, it evolved to suit a change of a few degrees. Richard Alley, in The Two-Mile Time Machine, gives us a world that seems more likely to destroy us than to spur our creativity:
"the climate of the last few thousand years is about as good as it gets--most of the last 110,000 years have have involved larger, faster, more wide-spread climate changes." (p.192)
Good times.

It does give you perspective on those deadlines that zoom up at you.

* "Yeah, we're moving' on up
(Moving on up!)
To the East Side …."

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Bill McKibben, Oil and Honey

In the current contest to see whether humanity will make the necessary effort to avoid cataclysmic spasms of extinction and refugee, it's easy to see that Bill McKibben is one of the hardest-working characters in climate-change show business. He has been thinking about these issues for years, of course, since before his 1989 book The End of Nature, but it's a huge change for a writer to move from the realm of words into full-on activism, and that's the trajectory of McKibben's career. We're fortunate, then, that McKibben has now written about how he came to make this transition, and in a really enjoyable book, too.

Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist does savour a bit of the aw-shucks and it's-only-me, but it's not false modesty, or it doesn't read that way. Instead, it feels (to me, anyway) like the genuine story of how McKibben came to understand that people had accepted him as a leader before he recognized that they saw him that way. He knew he was becoming an activist, and abandoning his writing in order to do so, but since he didn't think this entitled him to a leadership role, he kept looking elsewhere for authority and for approval of assorted actions (marches, protests, petitions, and so on).

And then we were all looking to him, and he got to work.

But this memoir, of a short period in McKibben's life, isn't about the activist mission, at least not directly. While it's certainly about his work in opposition to the oil industry and the American petrostate apparatus, it's just as much about the honey side of the book's title pairing. See, McKibben has put his money where his mouth was on locavorism and community agriculture. He bought a farm, and immediately deeded a life interest to a bee-keeper he respected but who was having difficulty getting out of the difficult situation of renting land rather than owning. Recently savaged by 76 wasp stings in a single attack, McKibben nonetheless charges ahead into collaboration with bees -- with the bee-keeper, obviously, but in fact he has begun working directly with the bees, with the suit and everything.

Local action matters, he's unsubtly telling us.

It's not an especially subtle book, nor even a particularly artful one, and yet I found it deeply, deeply engaging. Me, I'm teaching environmental humanities courses that focus on the reading experience, constantly aware that this is an awfully long way from direct action. There's something in McKibben's apparent transparency in Oil and Honey, both the plain-spoken appeals and the eschewing of manipulative narrative structures, that cheers me enormously.

Plus McKibben's contesting the Keystone XL pipeline, along with anthropogenic climate change generally, and he's not sure what'll happen. I'm opposed to the Enbridge pipeline from the tar sands to the BC coast, and I'm sure that this pipeline will not happen. I need his doubt, to feed my will.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Kathryn Shevelow, For the Love of Animals

What a lovely, lovely book of scholarship! All kinds of readers should discover Kathryn Shevelow's For the Love of Animals: The Rise of the Animal Protection Movement, so I hope that eventually it'll escape academics' bookshelves into the larger world. Presumably publishers have some sort of metrics to predict the likelihood of this happening, but I have no idea why this one failed to break larger in 2008 when it was first published.

Not that all of For the Love of Animals is easy to read, mind you. When you spend any time learning about animal rights or animal welfare, you find yourself being dragged through some seriously dark passages, and Kathryn Shevelow takes you down those necessary roads into bull-baiting, cockpits, a monkey who killed dogs in the ring, horses worked until they starved in the street and beaten until their bones shattered....

And, okay, if I'm honest, maybe there aren't all THAT many people who want to read a history of British legislation, sprinkled with toxic images of violence against animals. As accurate a description as that might be, however, it's also a terribly, terribly limited way to characterize the reading experience of For the Love of Animals. Shevelow turns legislative history into a fairly chatty narrative of outsized personalities who happened to spend a lot of years failing to convince legislators to pass one law or another, and offers tips on which chapters and sections that the sentimental reader should skip over. The potential weight of these subjects simply isn't there.

Shevelow is a scholar of 18th-century studies, and that does skew her book toward her period of expertise. As academic reviews of her book point out, she doesn't spend as much time with 19th-century history as might be appropriate, and she luxuriates a bit with colourful 18th-century personalities (like my own favourite, Christopher Smart). Still, it's a thoughtful, engaging, powerful book, and I'd absolutely recommend it.

And if you need more evidence, there are some very thoughtful reviews out there:

Or maybe just watch Shevelow talk about the book, when she was summoned to chat with the good people at Google HQ: great stuff in this video, to match what you'll see in the book.

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.