Thursday, April 28, 2016

Climate change and settler-colonials, redux

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Gerry Alanguilan, Elmer

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

ENGL 478, Sept 2016 - text options

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

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

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



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

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

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

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

So that's been fun.

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

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Nancy Huston, Losing North

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Ben Aaronovitch, Midnight Riot

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Lars Mytting, Norwegian Wood

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

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

Fine. Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, if anybody needs me....

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Joe Sacco, Journalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.