Thursday, May 31, 2007

Terence Young, After Goodlake's

The first read is done, and I'm processing. I'll have to go through After Goodlake's again before Book Club, so I look smart in front of the Honoured Guest, but I definitely enjoyed this novel.

It's about an affair, which isn't giving anything away since the dust jacket is full of detail about that. It's also based in Victoria, in two time periods: around 2000 somewhere, and March 1964. Both times, Fergus Goodlake suffers an existential crisis with accompanying physical injury. There are so few characters, barely a half-dozen who recur meaningfully, that I was impressed throughout with the richness of relationships Young manages to invoke.

The next post I'll get into the meat of it all, but let me say now just that I had trouble with the end of the novel at first, because it felt far too abrupt. Three hundred pages of build-up, then fifty of utter irresolution in the narrative and in the characters' lives: I felt a bit ripped off. Since then, though, it's been making more and more sense to me. Of course their 25 years together get more space than the first months after the end of their marriage as they know it. Of course they would have to start anew, with new locales and people and lives. Victoria is a city of history, in that no one seems ever to leave, and you never seem to meet anyone entirely unconnected with other parts of your life, so it's a thoroughly local solution to depart, at least for a time.

But it's not that Fergus and Annie simply leave. They revert to a pre-adult condition, which I suppose is one reason for the parallel time periods. In 1964 Fergus is a 12-year-old being bullied, terrified all the time, so he flees the city when there's word of a tsunami coming after an Alaskan earthquake. He runs, foolishly, hoping that the water will save him by destroying all sources of unhappiness. Older and not happy (if not exactly unhappy either), he starts an affair, foolishly, hoping ... what? He says he wouldn't change his life, wouldn't want to, that's not what the affair is about. But an affair changes things. Changes everything. We know this, and it doesn't matter whether he would have recognized it, because it's our reading, not his, through which we understand him.

When his life gets washed away in and by this metaphysical wave he's created, we're not surprised. The instant decay afterward surprised me, though, especially the thoroughness of the destruction, and I kept thinking "Really? This is what would happen?", but it's not my novel or life, so who am I to say? The reader, I suppose, but on reflection I think the writer got it mostly right, in spite of my first reaction to closing the covers.

There's some very good writing here, as anyone would expect who'd read his poetry (deservedly nominated for the Governor-General's award in 1999) or his short stories. My favourite passage, when the tsunami doesn't come and Fergus knows he has to go back to the city he thought he'd fled:
"In the same way that he was once forced to acknowledge that his house contains no secret passages and no hidden rooms, he now understands that there is only one method of time travel, the one he is using at this very moment, and that in its slow and predictable fashion, it will take him all the way to the end of the century where he will be just as unhappy as he is now" (209).
Forced to acknowledge by whom? Life as time travel, not just slow but also predictable, "just as unhappy" -- good stuff. At first I wanted a comma after "century" ("why no comma, the pause, the pause!"), but he's right: a comma would make the clause non-restrictive, and it's essential to recognize that he'll be unhappy. (Grammar weenie. - ed.)

I'll keep thinking about this one, and I'd recommend it pretty widely.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

May 27 - Hornby "free store"

I lifted a few books today from the capacious shelves of the Hornby Island free store, conveniently located at the island's fiercely communal recycling centre (complete with $30,000 outhouse, I kid you not). Two will be left at the B&B:
  • Randy Ray & Mark Kearney, The Great Canadian Trivia Book 2
  • Gordon Payne, Against Architecture: An Installation (it deserves to stay, since this artist lives on Hornby)
The other four will go home with me:
  • Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner
  • Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
  • Patrick Suskind, Perfume
  • ed. Ian Katz, The Guardian Year, 2001
The Guardian volume contains some powerful and thoughtful essays responding to 9/11, among other valued things. How can one volume contain Ian McEwan on 9/11, published on 9/13/01; Salman Rushdie on reality TV; Jeanette Winterson on the mass-marketing of pornography; and Richard Dawkins on the death of Douglas Adams?

Friday, May 25, 2007

how to see the world

I've been a fan of Brian Fawcett for a long time. Here's something I happened to stumble across today at Dooney's Cafe:
By nature, I awaken each day with the possibility that any thought is possible to think, and that, since no one is trying to hit me in the face with a rifle butt, life is a pretty sunny affair. At the end of most days this sanguinity has generally been kicked to death by incoming information and events, but that’s the price we all pay for consciousness in an unjust world that is accelerating out of easy understanding.
He reminds us that he goes on to wake up the next morning sunny all over again. Not a bad summary, I'd say.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Looking for new blogs to read

I tried an experiment last night. I have my favourite blogs that I read, some by friends and some I've collected over the last few years, but there's this whole world of blogs out there that I feel guilty for not knowing more about. I teach writing, and since some of my students write blogs, I need to know more.

So I spent half an hour clicking "Next Blog" at the top of blog pages, and here's what I learned.
  • Spammers have blogs that outwit whatever randomization algorithms Blogger has attached to the "Next Blog" function.
  • The interweb displays text in waaaaay more languages than I thought it did, and there are more non-Roman alphabetic systems than I was aware of. This in no way helps my understanding of other cultures.
  • There's vastly less teen angst in blogs than I thought -- maybe it's off in places like Facebook now? -- except among girls in English-speaking Asian countries.
  • Did I mention spammers' blogs yet? And their pop-ups?
  • I'm embarrassed by my extraordinarily low tolerance for people who don't rapidly jump off the screen at me as Smart or Interesting or Literate.
  • I would rather watch Stephen Fry host QI on alloftv.net than browse through random blogs. You should, like, totally watch it.
  • I'd rather spend time with an empty blog that reads well than an issue-filled or opinionated lump. Same criteria as for dinner guests.
I added a couple of blogs to my reading list, but ... man, I don't feel more comfortable in the world today than I did yesterday.

Friday, May 18, 2007

John Harris, Small Rain

I don't know if I liked the writing or not in Small Rain, since it's naked rather than poetic, but I really enjoyed living in this book for a while. Would I recommend it? Dunno. Here are some miscellaneous things it leaves me think about.

The inside jokes make me wish I'd been enmeshed for long enough somewhere to have my own. One paragraph that might just sound odd to most readers, for example, I recognized as lifted from a Brian Fawcett poem. In "Poetic Words," Fawcett says that capitalism is
an economic system grounded upon exploitation and energized by expansion, a system that destroys the commonality of language and fattens the priests of capital on the divine substance of humanity,
which is how Harris here describes one perspective on the normal subject of Canadian prairie fiction. The moaning about plagiarism among college students comes across as even funnier, once you know there are uncited and invisible quotations from at least one other writer here.

And there's plenty of moaning about students, as well as other faculty and unions and management in the higher education industry. I'm always ready for some of that. It's like a David Lodge who deeply believes the materiality in the closing lines from Leonard Cohen's "I Have Not Lingered in European Monasteries," one of my favourite poems: "My favourite cooks prepare my meals, / my body cleans and repairs itself, / and all my work goes well." Yes, sure, but what if you see this materiality as empty and desperate, you need more but don't have the strength to get what you need?

The cover of Small Rain says it's "fifteen stories," and the library code inside says it belongs the fiction section. But I've read enough of and about Brian Fawcett enough to know that many of the names used here are real names from their Prince George circle, so its fictionality is open to debate. The blurb from poet George Stanley is about the best description I can imagine: "There is less that comes between Harris's writing and the reader than is the case with almost any other Canadian writer."

There's such clarity to his writing that you feel inside the speaker. It's absorbing, painfully so, and I'm delighted to have made John Harris' belated acquaintance through this book. Again, would I recommend it? Still dunno. To the right person, yes. Maybe that's you. Definitely it's me.

Book club: the prequel

It went really well! Beer was drunk (as was I), personalities were exhibited, surprising connections between lives were uncovered, and I think we'll find plenty to talk about next time.

The first book will be Terence Young's After Goodlake's, a novel set right here in Victoria and that I bought just yesterday at Coles in the Bay Centre for the princely sum of $5.99. I've bought some of his wife Patricia Young's poetry books at full price, so hopefully that counts for something. (His very good short story collection, Rhymes with Useless, I picked up cheaply some time ago....)

Oh, and one of our members won't be there next time because he'll be running 150 miles in six days that week across -- and there's no other way to put this properly -- the fucking Gobi Desert.

Friday, May 11, 2007

M'Gonigle & Starke, Planet U

First read finished, and I've started the second one. A journal asked me to review Michael M'Gonigle and Justine Starke's Planet U: Sustaining the World, Reinventing the University, so I'm moving right into the book for a little while.

Interesting. It rehearses the usual depression-inducing stuff about environmental decay and social injustice, and the usual updated versions of 60s strategies to remedy same, but it's interwoven with some quality history of the university institution and some thorough argumentation based on the specific example of the University of Victoria. (It also includes some great summaries of local places and history.) The basic thrust is "act very locally, for globally important reasons." That may make the book sound glib, but it kind of is. The great challenge of political writing is how not to sound like a true believer, and M'Gonigle has managed that better in other texts, Forestopia, for example. I've not seen Justine Starke's work before, so I can't yet comment on that.

It's tough to argue against most of its precepts, naturally: local food sources, green construction, reduced vehicle use, and so on. The book's purpose is to argue for what it calls a "constructivist postmodernism" that will generate flexible responses from what have developed as inflexible monoliths, namely universities. I'm resisting, though, because lessons from Glavin's Waiting for the Macaws (particularly the drive toward hope) and Heath & Potter's Rebel Sell keep rattling around my head.

Heath & Potter argue that countercultural thinking dooms us into rejecting small changes in favour of overthrowing the whole system. If we don't turn the ship but instead try to believe that the ship is, I don't know, a goat instead, then the ship steams into the dock while we chase it with a poop shovel. M'Gonigle & Starke want to overthrow the system, but through rapidly incremental small changes. Wonder if the second read will clarify my thinking...

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Book clubbing

Next week marks the inaugural meeting of a men's book club I'm organizing. I've kind of wanted to be in one for years, in spite of the fact that most book clubs I know of spend little time or energy on the books themselves and wind up discussing, I don't know, magazines or pet care. But I've only bumped up against women-only clubs, so I didn't get to see them from The Inside.

No book for the first meeting, but we've got some good suggestions to debate for the following meeting. I think maybe Dracula, one I didn't suggest myself but would definitely like to read.

Anyway, we'll test to see if guys can behave any differently. I think it's a wise move to hold it at a pub, with any non-reader responsible for buying a round....

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Richard Harris, Creeping Conformity

I thought I had a pretty good sense of how suburban life developed in Canada. In a dilettantish way, I've been kind of a social development geek, but this was a really good book.

Creeping Conformity: How Canada Became Suburban, 1900-1960 followed up on some of the ideas raised in Heath and Potter's Rebel Sell. Among other things, it argues that suburban life in Canada didn't begin to develop the conformity we associate with suburbia until the 1950s. Until that point, there were several different "classes" of suburb. The more affluent ones were developed intentionally to avoid similarity, though building restrictions meant that they had to share common elements. The last affluent ones were built without restrictions and in many cases without developers, so each house would be built by an owner/dweller free to follow individual tastes.

Canada didn't have the very large developers that the US did, and its finance system didn't support the evolution of large developers until after the Second World War. As a result, Canadian suburbia followed a different path than did American, so we need to be careful about how we think about suburbia.

Fun fact: many of Canada's old, elite suburbs -- like Victoria's Uplands and Calgary's Mount Royal -- were laid out by John Olmsted, grandson of celebrated landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who laid out Central Park in New York, Boston's Emerald Necklace, and the Biltmore Estate.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

On (not) writing: change of plans

I'm a reader, not a writer, I say sometimes now. But of course that's not true, or not always true, as these very words attest. It's more complicated than that.

There was a point when I stopped trying to write. Eventually I started again, surreptitiously, but it was a poisoned time of my life. I wasn't the writer in the relationship, so it just wasn't my business to write -- even if the other party wasn't successful, still it was her shot to take. I felt badly if it went well for me, like I didn't deserve it. That same attitude infected other parts of my life, too, and while I've grown a lot, in some ways I'm still recovering. Poison abides.

It was freeing to give up the struggle this time, a couple of years ago. Fatigue was a big part of it, circumstances most of the rest. I couldn't be creative, teaching as much as I was (1.75 times full-time), and being as involved a father, so it was a time-saver not to make the effort anymore. Plus I didn't want to write about -- but couldn't stop thinking about -- the different darknesses I've been through over the years. "I'm a reader, not a writer" meant I could work, and parent, and think, peacefully and alone.

Only I'm not alone, not in my personal life and not in ... however one best refers to a communal sense of actual, implied, and ideal social obligations and networks. So it starts now. I'm a reader, and I'm a writer, too. We'll start with some free writing exercises, see where I want to go, and see what happens.

I've given up too many years already to ghosts and demons.

May 5 - Gordon Head United Church rummage sale

They were trying to close up shop, so the guy finally blurted out "two bucks for the lot" as I was trying to decide which book of poems I was going to get, to go along with a couple of story collections. "Really?" I asked -- "just take 'em, nobody wanted 'em all day." So, for $2, these:
  • Shari Andrews, Walking the Sky
  • ed. Beaulieu, Christie, & Rawlings, Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry
  • ed. Mark Duncan, Section Lines: A Manitoba Anthology
  • Susan Ioannou, Where the Light Waits
  • Sarah Klassen, A Curious Beatitude
  • Kevin Roberts, Writing the Tides: New and Selected Poems
  • Linda Svendsen, Marine Life
  • Priscilla Uppal, Ontological Necessities

Friday, May 04, 2007

May 4 - St. Vincent de Paul

Loitering about downtown led me into the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store, in search of a chairside table that can hold books with the proper sense of authority. No luck on the table, but waiting impatiently for it are:
  • Paul Colinvaux, Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare: An Ecologist's Perspective ($2)
  • Jamie Dopp, On the Other Hand ($1)
  • R.C. Hosie, Native Trees of Canada ($2 -- great reference)
  • J.W. Grant MacEwan, A Short History of Western Canada (50 cents)
  • Birk Sproxton, Headframe: ($1.50)
  • Hendrik Willem Van Loon, Van Loon's Geography: The Story of the World We Live In ($2 -- bought initially for Rob, who collects Van Loon, but it turns out he already had this one, out of sequence on his shelf, thus rendering the confirmatory phone call useless)
  • ed. Reginald Eyre Watters, British Columbia: A Centennial Anthology (75 cents)
Sproxton passed away earlier this year, fairly young, and it had a heavy effect on those who knew him. I didn't know him, in fact I'd never read his work, but I know and trust some who did know him, and their encomia made me want to read what sounded like impressively regionalist stuff. Some fiction, some poems, some essays, some unclassifiable pieces are in Headframe:, and yes, the colon is part of the title. The rear cover indicates that after the colon comes this subtitle:
  • Being a Flin Flon Book with crowbars, a novel, a navel, a raven, hammers and shovels, two fish stories (in divers forms), three jokes, a puck, rink rats, four players playing, and Featuring a carnival with guest appearances by promoters, prospectors, trappers, and suckers, as well as sundry rogues and rascals, and concluding WITH TAILINGS (which contain m/ore to be mined), etc.
Methinks Mr. Sproxton knew his seventeenth- and eighteenth-century publishing history. I look forward to it (though I don't know that it needed to open with poetry from the point of view of a masturbating teenager whose father is banging on the bathroom door -- but I'm a prude).

Thursday, May 03, 2007

May 3 - Value Village

Back for a few minutes without the daughter, who's not much of a help when I'm shopping for books, picked up the following at 99 cents a piece:
  • Earle Birney, The Damnation of Vancouver (a title impossible to leave on the shelf, even though it turned out to be a radio play)
  • Fred Bodsworth, Last of the Curlews (actually about curlews, rather than something ironic)
  • Sinclair Ross, The Lamp at Noon, and Other Stories (with a bitchin' New Canadian Library cover)
  • Tom Wayman, My Father's Cup (a poet I go out of my way to defend)
  • ed. Milton Wilson, Poets Between the Wars

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

May 2 - two stops

From the half-price table at the UVic Bookstore, where there were at least a dozen expensive books I'd like to pick up (E. Ann Kaplan's edited collection Feminism and Film, for example, and a few different works on First Nations governance in Canada):
  • ed. Neilson, Cole, & Knowles, The Art of Writing Inquiry ($34.95 / 2), and
  • James Alexander Teit, The Thompson Indians of British Columbia ($34.95 / 2), which is actually volume 1, part IV of the Jesup North Pacific Expedition, edited by Franz Boas in 1900.
I imagine I'll be back next week for more of the same.

But later that day I hit Value Village with my four-year-old, where we picked up an even dozen books for her (Scuffy the Tugboat; Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb; and so on), as well as:
  • Christopher Dewdney, Signal Fires
Twelve kids' books plus this one at 10 times forty-nine cents, less ten percent for some reason, so fifty-one cents including tax.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

I really had no idea what to expect -- Madame Bovary is the latest entry on my "novels I meant to read at least a decade ago." A person with a PhD in English really ought to have read some of the classics, so I've been embarrassed to find out much about this novel. I knew only what I learned from Woody Allen's "Kugelmass Episode" in English 121 (shout-out to Mel Faber), and we didn't study it in class: I read it because the title sounded cool in the Norton anthology. Geek.

Anyway, the power of this novel took me by surprise. The narrative logic, once it got going, was much more intense than that of any other book I've read in years. It went on longer than I needed it to -- apparently Victorian novels weren't written only in English -- but the thoroughness of the destruction needed every word, even the ones I wouldn't have written myself.

(Who am I kidding, "the ones I wouldn't have written myself" -- I started this blog when I had the freeing, but also kind of crippling, revelation that I'm a reader first, not a writer.)

I'm not going to say much, because what am I going to do for Flaubert's reputation? Hell of a read, with memorable characters and tangible details and powerful themes. It made me question my own life, no exaggeration, and I'm not entirely happy with what I saw.

But I do have to say one thing: the shift to the present tense in the final paragraphs is utterly devastating, especially how it implies permanent punishment for young Berthe Bovary. So simple, so powerful. I'm not sure about ending with Homais the chemist, because Berthe's fate really did rip at me just thirty or so words from the end, but the return to Homais does draw the focus outward to social forces, away from the individuals.

It's been a while since a novel forced me to keep reading until midnight. This one did, more than one night, so I might yet start on those nineteenth-century Russian novels....