Friday, June 29, 2007

Don McKay, Strike/Slip

First: it's not McKay like governmental Peter, but McKai. No, I don't know the reason for the pronunciation, but it's not accent, or not his any longer -- you can listen to him read from his previous book Camber here (once you get past the announcer's length prologue).

Strike/Slip is a really good book of poetry. I'm going to have to see how it ends up in my little pantheon, once I dwell in memories of it for a while, but it's good stuff. There are some passages that seem more precious than they need to be, unnecessarily poetical, but there are also some gems. Much of it is addressed to birds or stone or rock, or about birds or stone or rock, and the materiality of it pleased me greatly.

Take "Apostrophe," for example, which is a little poem addressed to a basalt formation. The speaker comes to this chunk of rock expecting to find something to say to it, all learned and poet-cool, but the material experience overwhelms his words. His textbook learning falls away before the age and permanence and inscrutability of basalt:
Instead I stood there,
snubbed, mostly water, growing younger
at a rate my poor life can't allow. (22-24)
This is what I think of as Good Stuff Indeed, especially that apologetic but physiologically accurate "mostly water." I'm a little surprised that McKay won the $50K Griffin prize for this book, but only a little. I certainly didn't prefer the selections the Griffin site gave for the other nominees; I do have Priscilla Uppal's nominated Ontological Necessities, and I'm OK that it didn't go to her, as much as I'm sure she could have used the money.

I'm a small man. I'm delighted, as always, just to find someone writing something I understand other than merely intellectually.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Diane Schoemperlen, Our Lady of the Lost and Found

Two things. First: I’ve always been fascinated by faith. (But don't tell my friend the mad atheist!)

I refer to other people’s faith, of course, since I have no faith of my own – or at least no religious faith. The truth of the matter is that I have great faith in Canadian society’s desire to do better, always better; in literature’s power to express human experience luminously through the failed vehicle of language; and in each person’s ability for both incalculable monstrosity and incalculable generosity.

Second: My bookshelves are dominated by male names, always have been, so I keep reminding myself to make an effort to seek out female writers I’ve not yet read.

These things came together at some point not too long ago, probably at the 2006 Times-Colonist book sale, leading me to pick up Diane Schoemperlen’s 2001 novel Our Lady of the Lost and Found, which is about the visitation of Mary (yes, that Mary) to the home of an unnamed female writer in her mid-40s who lives in a similarly unnamed Ontario city. At first I was really taken by this book, but the last quarter, well… not so much.

It proceeds more or less in two strands, one about the quiet week-long vacation Mary is taking with this woman she hasn’t met before but knows she can trust to keep mum about it all, and one about the history of Mary’s apparitions and the intense faith they’ve generated. The prose is in a style I very much enjoy – conversational, full of detail – and the humour is gently self-deprecating. The narrator describes, for example, how she laughs when by herself, and the precision encapsulates the tone Schoemperlen manages:
a wry smile with my mouth tightly closed, half of it pulling up, the other half pulling down, while repeatedly making short, heavy exhalations through my nose. (212)
Laughing aloud alone is an odd thing, she feels, and so she has this private version. Reading is a private activity, most of the time, so I appreciated the narrator’s own concern with her own and Mary’s privacy. (Have you tried that private laughter since reading the description? Feel familiar?)

For some reason, though, the end of the book gets away from me. There’s an arc imposed on the material right away, because Mary says she’ll stay a week. The narrator begins to talk early on about her solitary adult existence, and naturally that theme becomes more important as Mary’s departure approaches, but I don’t see a reason for the relative incoherence of the last few chapters. Several times the character says some variation of “I am both the victim and the villain of this story” – sometimes “both/and,” “either/or,” “neither/nor” – because it’s important to her that she tell Mary the story of her life. But she doesn’t tell us the story, and the unsatisfyingly elliptical nature of the final quarter of the book drove me mad.

Schoemperlen remarks in her notes at the end that in recent years she’s been increasingly interested in boundaries between truth and fiction, fiction and nonfiction, and so on, so this book also represents a genre study worth examining from that angle. It doesn’t redeem the closing, not in my reading, but it does give a way for me to understand it. I guess.

In sum: I’m delighted to have read another book about faith, and pleased to have found a female author whose short stories I’m looking forward to reading, but disappointed by the artistic move at the end of the novel.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Book club, second meeting

Stupid strep throat.

The lads gathered Thursday at the Canoe Club for beer and french fries ("hand-cut kennebec potatoes, sweet chili & sour cream," says their online menu, but such cold words for such beauty) for a conversation about Terence Young's first novel, After Goodlake's, featuring Terence Young himself.

Yes, my book club got the month's chosen author to come to a meeting, and I was at home sleeping the fitful and interminable sleep of the recently penicillined. He was a very good honorary member, I hear, full of insight and warmth even before the fries arrived.

Next month is Cormac McCarthy's The Road -- no word on whether he'll make the trip out. They really are good fries, though, if anyone knows Mr. McCarthy. Our questions will be better than Oprah's, and -- OK, we can't compete with your shiny new Pulitzer.

Monday, June 18, 2007

June 18 - Value Village

There's some good stuff to be found in The Village's books section, when you've got 45 minutes to yourself (sans Junior asking to be read to from any of ten dozen children's books, most of which I've already read at least once whilst there). Today's haul:
  • Gregg Easterbrook, A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism ($3.99: from 1995, "a 745-page exercise in sophistry" [Sauder & Rampton, Toxic Sludge is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies, and the Public Relations Industry])
  • C.J. Guiguet, The Birds of British Columbia: Sparrows and Finches ($0.99: BC Provincial Museum Handbook, and therefore a gem)
  • Robert Kroetsch, The Words of My Roaring ($0.99: the day's random purchase, a 2000 reprint of a 1966 novel about a novice Alberta would-be MP who promises rain by election day -- during a drought)
  • Hugh MacLennan, Rivers of Canada ($1.99: gorgeous, and one of the few early coffee-table books that counts as legitimate environmental philosophy)
  • Edward O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life ($3.99: he's won two Pulitzers, not bad for a Harvard biologist; his theories have led to enmity from those as esteemed as his Harvard colleague Stephen Jay Gould; and one of my few published writings appears in a book that contains one of his own essays. Past time to read something by the guy, in other words. Oh, and Wikipedia tells me that he argues that "belief in God and rituals of religion are products of evolution." Interesting...).

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Virgil and "new environmental writing"

So weird to hear people talking about things you study, when you think nobody else gets it: Jordan Fisher Smith, one of the speakers at ASLE's Wednesday evening panel on Orion Magazine and "the new environmental writing," wound up describing much nature writing as "epiphanies from pretty places," inherited from Virgil's Georgics.

He was suggesting that this is what "the new environmental writing" takes as its point of departure, but still -- nice to be on the same page with someone unknown to me.

And what's more, one of the other two panellists, Ginger Strand, wrote an article on Virgil and America in The Believer last year!

Fred Chappell also talks about Virgil's poem as one of the classics, so maybe it's just in the clear Spartanburg air....

Listen to writers

I spent quite a bit of time yesterday listening to online recordings of some writers at the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment conference in Spartanburg, South Carolina. As much as I'm regretting not going (argh! argh!), ASLE is making me feel a bit better by letting everyone listen afterward to the plenary speakers and the subsequent Q&A sessions. So far they've had Bill McKibben, author of the classics The End of Nature and The Year of Missing Information, and Nalini Nadkarni, a brilliant forest canopy biologist who's deeply committed to public communication about environmental issues with a new book coming out called Between Heaven and Earth: Our Intimate Relations to Trees.

Bill McKibben's 50-minute talk is one of the most compelling things I've heard in a while, though his relaxed and mildly self-deprecating style probably isn't for everyone. I'm still processing Nalini Nadkarni's, but her approaches to helping people make sense of complicated data are utterly fascinating: among them, converting data points to musical tones and playing them (data sonification).

And if you're really interested, you can even download a single PDF file that contains all 175 abstracts for papers being presented there. Did I mention how jealous I am about not being there?!?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Orhan Pamuk, Snow

I suppose I should just remain silent about the fact that I've -- entirely against character and the force of history -- given up, for the second time and perhaps for always, on the idea of finishing Orhan Pamuk's acclaimed novel Snow. I mean, Margaret Atwood in the New York Times called it "not only an engrossing feat of tale-spinning, but essential reading for our times." And calm Tom Payne reviewing the novel in the Telegraph: "Orhan Pamuk is the sort of writer for whom the Nobel Prize was invented."

Fortunately for me, though, good old John Updike in the New Yorker said it was at times "attenuated and opaque." (I think he finds that a bad thing.)

I wanted to get into it, I did, because I feel very provincial in my reading these days. An international bestseller, a NYT Notable Book, politically engaged, artistically dense: but I just couldn't get myself to care. Why?

A combination of reasons come to mind. First, the battles felt awfully remote, even if I am interested in the conflict between faith and atheism. Second, the artistry felt too familiar somehow -- not thuddingly so, but common rather than compelling. And these factors came together, constantly, so that I felt forever isolated from the text.

The conflict between faith and blasphemy in Turkey, centred on the issue of headscarves being banned from school, is dramatic and important, but the characters felt ... entirely like characters. I don't expect verisimilitude, or I wouldn't appreciate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I don't need Canadian content, or I wouldn't read every single thing GGM and Salman Rushdie write, and I wouldn't have fallen so hard for Rohinton Mistry's excruciating Such A Long Journey. But somehow, Snow felt almost formulaic. If so, it's a formula too complicated for me to articulate, maddeningly, and I can't think of a single book that does the same thing, but that's how I feel this evening.

Of course, I should feel isolated from this content, so maybe that's the point. Some characters in the novel take the main character, Ka, to task for seeking Western audiences, and this book has a large Western audience, so perhaps one available option may be that my sense of isolation validates the book's artistic project? But what about Atwood? Or Tom "Excitable Boy" Payne?

Saturday, June 09, 2007

June 9 - garage sale

Three classics, to expand my shelf of "this is what BC means to me, stop your academic babbling" books:
  • Herbert L. McDonald, British Columbia: Challenge in Abundance (1966)
  • ed. The BC Centennial '71 Committee, It Happened In British Columbia: A Pictorial Review, 1871 to 1971 (1970, somehow)
  • ed. Borden Spears, photos assembled by Bruce M. Litteljohn, Wilderness Canada (1970)
Admittedly I babble academically myself, but these books help me reconstruct older versions of BC, so it all makes more sense to my students when I read or teach older writings on this place. I love these kinds of books, to be honest, the "trees were SO huge and the men SO tough" genre!

Friday, June 08, 2007

Don McKay, in "Rich Man, Poor Man"

I'm delighted to say I no longer have to feel guilty for having recently bought Don McKay's book of poetry Strike/Slip from a used bookstore, thus denying him the royalties due him. For this very book, McKay this book won $50,000 with the Griffin Poetry Prize. And wonderful lines, I have to say -- really remarkable stuff.

Now, if I can only do the same for the authors of all those other used books I've bought....

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

June 5 - subTEXT

I've mentioned my taste for this place before, but today it confirmed my preference. I've been meaning to read poetry by Don McKay and Jan Zwicky, and there they were:
  • Don McKay, Strike/Slip ($15) and
  • Jan Zwicky, Songs for Relinquishing the Earth ($8).
The McKay really is gorgeous stuff, from my dipping into it. Tom Wayman's My Father's Cup has gone back onto the shelf -- sorry, Tom!

M'Gonigle & Starke, Planet U (redux)

I finished and handed in my review of Michael M'Gonigle & Justine Starke's Planet U: Sustaining the World, Reinventing the University to the online journal last week, then remembered today I was going to say more about the book here too.

The review wound up getting organized around the principle of dialectic, as the authors see the term. If we see conflict as conflict, then we wind up in parallel conversations unable to understand each other. If we see conflict as dialectic, on the other hand, we cannot help but find our way to common ground.

My biggest anxiety about the book is that I got a 60's-ish utopian feel from it, and as someone born in 1970 who lived near communes as a kid, that makes me nervous. I'm a leftie, sure, but I'm more a small-town communal guy (what I used to think of as equivalent to the NDP), not ten people in one outdoor kitchen (what I used to think of as absurd). On the other hand, the NDP's current manifestation pleases me less than earlier versions did, and I'm considering joining a community garden, so....

Anyway, the complexity of my reaction is why I left this part out of the review. I want to like the means and ends that M'Gonigle and Starke set out, but really I'm most sympathetic to their desire for departure from current ways. Do I think the University of Victoria can or should be ruled by consensus by citizen-heavy but intellectually advanced local parliament? Can I take the question seriously?

In the end I said we had to use dialectic against everything we read -- including M'Gonigle and Starke. Cop-out? Probably. But I wanted to like them....

Monday, June 04, 2007

Destination tourism

Back in April, I said a few things about Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter's The Rebel Sell. I found and find the book to be fascinating, even though I haven't figured out how to integrate its lessons into my daily life. (Maybe it didn't have actionable lessons? - ed.)

Anyway, the book leaped back into my head today when I was wandering through the online New York Times, where I saw an article about the other Machu Picchu. The gist: Machu Picchu is amazing, but it gets close to 700,000 tourists a year, so you should, like, totally go to Choquequirao, since it only got 6,800 last year: "Twenty-five years ago, Machu Picchu must have looked much like this."

I don't mean to be cranky, but clearly I am. How else to respond my grumbling apoplexy at this:
We began climbing stone steps and ducking through ancient doorways like two toddlers on a jungle gym. For a precious few minutes, that ridge top, those 15,000-foot violet hills, those buildings so revered by an extinct civilization, were ours, and our sovereign desire was horseplay.
I got crankier yet at this, when the author was talking about the incompetence of the only tour guide visible at the ruins:
For all the stories I’ve heard from older travelers about how the great sites of the world felt before they became household names — Angkor Wat, Prague, Machu Picchu — I finally had one of my own: “I was at Choquequirao when even the tour guides didn’t know what they were doing.”
This is the best example I've seen yet of what Heath and Potter were on about: cool-hunters as the shock troops of consumer capitalism.

The author is the spectacularly named Ethan Todras-Whitehill, whose previous article for the NYT travel section was about - God help us - New Age spirituality tours in Egypt. I'm trying not to look that one up. To his credit, he's well aware of whining like mine, and even addresses it here on his blog. I think I might come to like the group blog he's part of, but today, damn it, I'm just gonna stay cranky.

UPDATE, 2 p.m. on June 5:

I've already come quickly to like Crucial Minutiae very much indeed. I'm still cranky, but I was already comfortably embarrassed enough by my crankiness that I'm just pleased to find something else to read regularly, and enjoyably.