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.

Reinhard Kleist, Castro

If I had to choose a single graphic novel to accompany my desert island discs, so to speak, it'd be Reinhard Kleist's biography of Johnny Cash, I See A Darkness. A remarkable book, seriously, for fans if not for the unenlightened, I See A Darkness is one of those works of art that help you understand what other works should always have been accomplishing. (And probably Cash's At San Quentin, Big Country's Steeltown, and Cowboy Junkies' desperately under-appreciated Whites Off Earth Now! [here's "State Trooper" if you don't believe me])

Kleist's bio-graphic novel Castro takes a similar approach, and for anyone keen on Castro and Cuba, it'd be a rewarding read. That's especially true about Kleist's handling of Cuba before the revolution, as well as Castro's activities during and immediately after the revolution (so roughly 1950 until 1963), where Kleist does a great job of rendering the man's energy and the complexity of Cuban politics both nationally and among the revolutionary forces. The basic structure follows the life of a German emigre, Karl Mertens, from his arrival in Cuba through his coverage of the conflict to his life in the conflicted and eternally collapsing and reviving country that's the standard view of Cuba; Mertens is a nice stand-in for Kleist, and for non-Cubans reading this book, though it does put the story at one remove from its subject.

I wish I liked the book more, though. Probably I was never going to appreciate a Kleist book as much as I did I See A Darkness, but that's the Cash effect rather than Kleist's fault. Still, some characters feel a bit interchangeable, both in their actions and in the rendering of their faces, and I just don't see that the Mertens character was essential to the novel. Kleist was presumably trying to represent Castro in all his looked-at-ness, his iconicity, but the Mertens character wasn't the only way to achieve that. Generally I assume that I'm failing to understand something about a book, when I don't like it as much as I should, so I trust I'll get remedied in the comments.

But if you want to see what Kleist thought of the book, here's an interview; the 9th Blog ("We love comics and want to share that love with you") loves them some Castro; and Arsenal Pulp Press is keen to get you into a copy of the book.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Derrick Stacey Denholm, Ground Truthing

The forests of BC's North Coast are ancient beings, historically unceded Storied Lands, cathedrals, mycelium, and an extreme recycling facility:
In Prince Rupert, I once found a Boletus eludis mushroom fruiting from a smashed computer monitor that had been thrown off a roadside and become hidden within mouldering leaves under a glade of cottonwoods. Here on the North Coast, covering everything, there is both the hypersense and the hyperreality of almost everything everywhere evergreen. (p.23)
Derrick Stacey Denholm, you get the impression, has seen a lot in his time as a timber cruiser and wandering poet, all of which feeds into his fascinating Ground Truthing: Reimagining the Indigenous Rainforests of BC's North Coast. I've long had a habit of reading quickly, linearly, in pursuit of The Point Of The Text, and that's just not a profitable approach with Ground Truthing. Instead, I had to keep thinking about the angles, the details, the perspectives that diverge from the straight-line approach I'd normally take. (This is also the approach recommended by Rob Budde in his characteristically thoughtful review of the book.) In managing to read this way, I found rewards here that I hadn't expected, and certainly wouldn't have found if I'd read like the cartoon academic I usually am.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Alejandro Frid, A World for My Daughter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Jim Robbins, The Man Who Planted Trees

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Maleea Acker, Gardens Aflame (take #2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sarah de Leeuw, Skeena

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

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Theresa Kishkan, Patrin

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 02, 2015

Carol Shaben, Into the Abyss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 02, 2015

My Baby Rides the Short Bus

We must do everything we can to help our children to change what is different about them, make it *undifferent*, so they can integrate, so they can be as normal as possible.... We must reprogram our children, go against their nature, go against nature itself. Constantly. It would be considered emotional abuse to do that to a "normal" child, to tell them every day in many ways they cannot be who they are. (Lisa Carver, p.x)
There's no understanding us, the parents of kids with special needs children -- parents of children with special needs -- parents with special needs with children.

Lisa Carver's comment above, though, I may end up tattooing down my forearm, because those words generated the most visceral agreement I've felt with parental writing in years. Our co-parenting journey with medical professionals can often be tantamount to persistent emotional abuse, and we all know that, all of us. But I'm not sure I've ever seen it written as clearly as that before.

All things considered, My Baby Rides the Short Bus, a collection co-edited by Yantra Bertelli, Jennifer Silverman, and Sarah Talbot, is the most helpful and community-minded book I've ever read about special-needs parenting.

Me, I read about this stuff because I need to know our family isn't alone. Not every allegedly relevant book offers much in the way of help. This one, though, kept arresting me enough that I had no choice but to put it down for a little while in order just to think and feel. (And I usually put down parenting books in frustration, maybe even rage!)

I think it's a very good sign when a book makes me tear up, even when prickly tear ducts are also a reliable indicator of looming burnout, and this book caught me out several times.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Directions to the Red Creek Fir

The world's largest remaining Douglas fir is known as the Red Creek Fir, and it's enormous: 73.8 metres tall (242 feet), and 13.3 metres around (nearly 44 feet in circumference). Not many people have seen it, however, and this post is meant as an encouragement to get you out there.

The tree's location is no secret, since the Ancient Forest Alliance has had directions to the Red Creek Fir on their website for a long time. Most of the route follows logging roads, which of course are varyingly bumpy, dusty, and travelled by huge trucks uninterested in your possible right of way, but that's predictable. The trouble is, though, that the AFA's directions are sketchy at some key points, with phrases like "Continue a short ways past the bridge" and "down hill for quite a ways." Their page links to photos of each junction, and I found those essential the first time I went out there (in 2010), but there are two problems. First, you'll have no cell coverage in the Renfrew area, so you'd have to print off the photos in advance, and second, there have been significant changes in road conditions and undergrowth since the AFA's photos were taken.

When Junior and I drove out there yesterday, as a result, I kept an eye on distances and times. To be honest, I was doing this only for future reference, but it's clear that there aren't many people driving out that way. Spiders had nearly closed the road with cobwebs, mushrooms were growing in the middle of the road, no tire tracks near the damp areas: the road's still readily passable, and in the summer you don't need 4WD so much as a short wheelbase, but I think it's a very rare trip even for your more dedicated treehuggers, like me. That's a real shame, because the Red Creek Fir is truly a remarkable tree, and more of us should see it as a destination. (Spend some money in Port Renfrew, too, if you're going out there!)

Without further ado, then, here are what I'd call clearer written directions to the Red Creek Fir, if you're coming from Victoria. Steps 1-5, plus 7, are taken almost verbatim from the Ancient Forest Alliance site, with links to their pictures (thanks, AFA! Please don't mind...), but the rest of the steps are amended, with all distances being my references:

  1. Drive to Port Renfrew along the West Coast Hwy #14.
  2. Immediately upon reaching Port Renfrew turn RIGHT downhill onto Deering Road.
  3. Cross the long bridge over the San Juan River and stay to the right on Deering until you cross a second single lane bridge and come to a “T” in the road.
  4. Turn RIGHT at the T and start heading towards Lake Cowichan on the Pacific Marine Circle Route.
  5. Travel along the Pacific Marine Circle Route for approximately 12 km. where you will hit a major fork in the road. Turn RIGHT at the fork. You will now be heading onto a gravel road.
  6. Watching for signs put up to guide you to the tree, keep to the RIGHT on this road for 4.4 km, until you cross a bridge over the San Juan River at the San Juan River Recreation Site. (The San Juan Spruce, in the middle of this site, is Canada's largest Sitka spruce, so be sure to stop there.)
  7. Approximately 2.2 km past the bridge, turn RIGHT onto Bear Main.
  8. After roughly 3.6 km on Bear Main, bear RIGHT onto Mosquito Main. (Depending on road conditions, Mosquito may be better maintained than Bear, so you may think you're still on Bear unless you notice a sign -- which may or may not be present anyway.)
  9. Keep your eye out for a small road to the RIGHT about 800 metres down Mosquito. This is the Red Creek Main, but there likely isn't a sign. (When we were there, a handmade sign with an arrow was propped against a rock on the ground, but I wouldn't rely on that. Also, the AFA photo is seriously misleading, as the road is in nowhere NEAR that condition now.)
  10. Continue down this road about 3.2 km to an intersection that's somewhere between a T and a Y: turn RIGHT. (This section of road is seriously bumpy, with significant potholes and outcroppings: we took 19 minutes to drive this 3.2 km stretch, or 10 km/h.)
  11. The parking pullout is about 1.1 km down this flat stretch. The entrance to the trail is about 20 metres further down the road past the pullout, but it's easy to miss. (If you drive past it, as we did, you could find yourself going for about another 2 km down an increasingly narrow road with increasingly tall brush in the middle of the road. Definitely best to avoid this.)

San Juan Spruce, in 2010
Most writers, incidentally, say that you need four-wheel drive to get to this tree. You'd definitely be better off with four-wheel drive, especially if there's been rain at any point in the last couple of weeks, but this was my second trip with two-wheel drive, the first time in a Mazda MPV and this time in a Nissan Cube. You'll have to drive very slowly and carefully on some stretches, picking your way around hazards, and for God's sake don't put yourself at risk of bashing your oil pan like this guy or going over the edge, but when the weather has been dry for some time (not all that common, in that area), you could manage it in a range of vehicles.

Timing for us, in a 2WD Nissan Cube with excellent intentions but precious little ground clearance:

  • Step 6: 4.4 km, 8 minutes
  • Step 7: 2.2 km, 7 minutes
  • Step 8: 3.6 km, 9 minutes
  • Step 9: 0.8 km, 2 minutes
  • Step 10: 3.2 km, 19 minutes
  • Step 11: 1.1 km, 7 minutes
The Ancient Forest Alliance posted a YouTube video about this tree in June 2011, if you're still on the fence about whether to visit (which you totally shouldn't be!):

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Ken Kesey, Sometimes a Great Notion

It's a measure of how much things have changed, here on the West Coast of North America, that the author of the 1960's classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey, could follow up his countercultural epic with a novel about a family logging company on the Oregon coast.

And not just a family logging company, either, but a multigenerational, frontier-busting, hands-on logging family, and not just a novel, either, but a novel that almost deserves the glossary provided at the back of small-press volumes of logging fiction and logging poetry (and also unforgettable romance novels about logging).

In capsule form, the plot follows the Stamper family's efforts, in their non-union company, to get enough timber to the mill contracting them during a strike that has kept the union saws idle. The complication is that the elder Stamper has been injured, leaving his son to run things on his own, and then his son from a second marriage flees grad school (English literature!) in the Northeast arrives with complicated desires of revenge and belonging. Will they get the logs to the mill? Will the family survive? Will the manly remain manly?

The thing is, though, that unlike virtually every other work of logging fiction, Sometimes a Great Notion isn't the kind of novel that would have been appreciated by loggers working in the times generally depicted in these kinds of works: the 1930s through, at the very latest, the early 1960s. Kesey uses all the Beat-type tools here, especially proto-postmodernist narrative instability and loose baggy monster sentence structure, such that readers regularly encounter 200-word sentences that contain the interior monologues of two or three characters.

It's not impenetrable, and the more time you spend with it, the more you get used to the stylistic eccentricities, but me, I can't help reading these kinds of works with my father and grandfather in mind, and I just can't see them reading Sometimes a Great Notion without derision, even if the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and its readers regard it as the definitive novel of the Pacific Northwest.

Am I underestimating them? Kesey was remarkable, after all, fitting comfortably as he did into a Stanford writing program taught by Wallace Stegner that featured Kesey, Wendell Berry, Larry McMurtry, and others, and I don't disagree with Kesey's own assessment in the Paris Review of Sometimes a Great Notion: "It's my best work, and I'll never write anything that good again." But at bottom, it's not that the book is too smart for them, so much as divorced from their standard reading material.

And also, I really need to watch the Paul Newman movie made from this novel: