Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Red: A Haida Manga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John McPhee, Oranges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Margaret Atwood, Payback

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Jon Mooallem, Wild Ones

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 05, 2014

Richard Alley, The Two-Mile TIme Machine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Bill McKibben, Oil and Honey

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

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

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

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

Local action matters, he's unsubtly telling us.

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

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

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Kathryn Shevelow, For the Love of Animals

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 15, 2014

David Adams Richards, Mercy Among the Children

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 28, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 06, 2014

John McPhee, Coming Into the Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Rowan Jacobsen, American Terroir

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 30, 2014

Roy Meyers, Dolphin Boy

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 09, 2014

Bertrand Sinclair, Big Timber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 06, 2014

Book club, July 2014 - February 2015

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

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Hugh Brody, Maps and Dreams (2014)

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

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

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