Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Michael Crummey, Sweetland

Michael Crummey's Sweetland is a remarkable novel -- maybe predictably remarkable, but that's hardly a genuine strike against it, even if I'd slot Sweetland pretty high on my coveted and top-secret shortlist for "best Canadian novel not to hook me".

Mind you, maybe it's just that my bones are too Western Canadian for me to be able to read East Coast fiction with the right frame of mind. (Not that this is a problem for the National Post reviewer quoted below….) Crummey's is a satisfyingly evocative Newfoundland, a richly drawn world that's almost entirely unlike my experience in the same country. On the island of Sweetland, there aren't any First Nations; the settlers have been there in the same houses with the same neighbours for generations on generations; and the trees are more like shrubs.

It's a long way from BC, is what I'm saying.

But the novel's lessons are familiar ones, even if I believe in Moses Sweetland (and I do), even if I admired Crummey's creation of the autistic young boy Jesse, and even if the landscape of Sweetland's island is as loaded with significance as that of Pilgrim's Progress. A city will change you -- Toronto might eat you alive, when you come to it from the country. If there's no one to speak for a place, the place dies. I get it. These are traditional lessons in rural Canadian fiction, highly traditional in East Coast fiction, and I didn't want to read that book again. Not this month, anyway, for whatever reason, even if it's a polished and impressive book.

Everybody else loves this novel, though:

  • "Crummey's novel is all of a piece, its apparent simplicity of style, like that of its protagonist and his setting, concealing a primordial power" (Aparnya Sanyal, Globe and Mail)
  • "Sweetland is a thing of beauty, one of the finest novels we are likely to encounter this year" (Robert Wiersema, National Post)
  • "Crummey's finest novel yet" (Brian Bethune, Maclean's)

What the hell do I know.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Chief Earl Maquinna George, Living on the Edge

Here at Book Addiction HQ, most of our fiction reading is of the arty variety, unless it's for the book club, and a lot of our nonfiction reading is similarly self-conscious and, to a worryingly large degree, fancy-pants. I'm not sure how this is the road I've found myself on, but if those sorts of books make your eyes roll, today might be your day.

One of the most valuable books I've read in a long time isn't the least bit annoyingly literary, and that's Chief Earl Maquinna George's chronicle Living on the Edge: Nuu-Chah-Nulth History from an Ahousaht Chief's Perspective. Let me be clear, because I don't mean that this book hasn't been constructed with close attention to the structure of story or the aesthetics of how a writer connects with audience: it's just that when you read this book (and you really should read this book), you won't need to remember any lessons from English class, from New York Times book reviewers, or from book bloggers vastly cleverer than I am. You need to open up to the book, give it enough time that you can hear some stories, and let the stories work.

Canada likes to think of itself as a First World country, a developed nation, with the history and cultural complexity that those descriptors seem to imply as following naturally from its current economic status. As Chief George notes, though, the fishing industry that transformed coastal BC and coastal First Nations communities didn't get seriously rolling until the 1930s, at which time it was still common for First Nations to travel in dugout canoes (p.109). Thousands of years of occupancy and history have been buried in a too-late treaty process, with the year 1846 getting a semi-mystical status at some treaty tables to represent a fixed date for the precise outline of Aboriginal rights and title, with some large structural changes not beginning until the last years before World War Two.

In essence, Living on the Edge represents Chief Earl Maquinna George's personal corrective to decades of outsider anthropological and ethnographic study: "Documentation by outsiders is an artifact of the order and the orderliness of western cultures; it is not a part of our way of knowledge" (p.39). Though a personal response first, it is also an authoritative declaration of cultural difference.

And I'm not going to tell you this book's stories. I don't own them, although I've now been told them.

The simple fact is that if you don't read Living on the Edge, you're not going to understand what it means to live on the BC coast. You don't need to agree, or to respond: you need to listen. Chief Earl Maquinna George is talking here. Join the audience.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Patrick Lane, There Is a Season

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Thomas Wharton, Salamander

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 16, 2015

Harold Rhenisch, The Wolves at Evelyn

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Nick Hornby, Shakespeare Wrote For Money

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

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

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

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

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

Bastard.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Thomas Wharton, The Logogryph

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Adam Leith Gollner, The Fruit Hunters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.)