Thursday, November 29, 2007

Baby I Got Books

I love the interweb, judiciously used. It's a terrible thing for productivity, but let's face it, so are books.

I was poking through my favourite book sites last night, and noticed that a chap at Baby Got Books was giving away his copy of a book he'd enjoyed and that sounded really interesting: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. All one had to do was to indicate one's interest in the comments; I did; the book's on its way.

Ah, Tim the magician, you live, you live. Let me know if something reviewed here might work for you in exchange.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Christmas is coming...

Honestly, I love this chair more than any other piece of furniture I've ever seen.

Apart from the shelves all over it, there's storage inside the arms for magnifying glasses, pencil sharpeners, even tissues (for the tear-inducing triple-decker Victorian novels all the kids are reading these days). No word on whether the lamp is electrical or battery-operated!

Presumably the wheel makes it function something like a barrow, when you need to get safer light for the manuscript you're working on. I don't see a reason for their quoted cost of more than $2000 Euros, though, so if there are any carpenters out there willing to give me a quote....

Saturday, November 24, 2007

November 24 - St. George's church

Three books at the St. George's Anglican Church fair for Christmas. Love the grandmother-style baked goods:
  • G.P.V. Akrigg & Helen B. Akrigg, 1001 British Columbia Place Names ($3)
  • David Macfarlane, The Danger Tree: Memory, War, and the Search for a Family’s Past ($1)
  • The Signed English Dictionary for Preschool and Elementary Levels ($3)

Sunday, November 18, 2007

November 18 - book show

They're dangerous, book shows. A decade ago I came awfully near to spending about a thousand bucks on an early copy of John Evelyn's Silva (among other things, a late 17th-century manual on forestry): good condition, illustrated, large format, and last year I saw a similar one for three thousand, so I'm newly alert to the sense of market in these things, rather than just acquisition.

But this show wasn't too difficult for me. There were a few very good tables of BC history, including forestry and related topics, but there were many more tables of postcards and comic books, all of which were being pored over by just the stereotypes you might imagine. I was both impressed and troubled by the table with 18" by 24" oil paintings of fantasy characters, such as Alan Rickman as Severus Snape.

Anyway, I somehow managed to spend less than I budgeted, but I've certainly confirmed the depth of my nerdishness:
  • Ansel Adams and Nancy Newhall, This Is The American Earth ($1: conservationism from 1960)
  • Diamond Jenness, The Indians of Canada ($20: the 1955 third edition, by the oddly named onetime head of anthropology at the Royal BC Museum here in Victoria - a dated but fascinating book, and still important in the field)
  • Dick North, The Mad Trapper of Rat River ($1, author autograph: about Albert Johnson, who in winter 1932 covered 150 miles in 48 days while engaged in a running gun battle with the RCMP, through temperatures averaging the mythical forty below)
  • Dick Turner, Nahanni ($5: autobiography of a sane trapper, if there is such a thing, who lived in the Northwest Territories, around and along the Nahanni River)
  • H.N. Whitford and Roland D. Craig, Forests of British Columbia ($5: I thought I was the only person likely to want to pay for a 1918 Royal Commission on forests, but there were some other candidates for that honour at the show today)
If only I could quit marking and read these gems....

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

Science fiction isn't my thing, so I don't have anything wise to say, but I quite enjoyed Ursula Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness. I'll read more by her, for sure, but I've said that bootlessly about Iain Banks, Asimov, Heinlein.... Mind you, I found it easier to connect with Le Guin's vision than with the others, but this might just say more about where my head is these days. She's a Pacific Coast writer, from Oregon, so I'm tempted to see a Cascadian link between her pen and my eyes, but things are rarely so simple as that.

The preface to the book, though, in which she disavows her skills at prophecy and truth-telling, was worth the price of admission. She deserves her awards, I'd hazard a guess, and there have been plenty of those.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


Canada is a nice country. America, I hear, is also a nice country, even though its troubles are more widely televised, but on occasion I have found myself ruminating on the differences and saying that I prefer Canada, while admitting that there are things about the United States that I do not know and have not taken into account. I stumbled across this map the other day, though, and I think it lets me marvel about some important statistical differences between our countries without being accused of inappropriate judgement. (Yes, I mean you, Zoot!)

A map tracking the murders annually in a single city: it was inconceivable to me before I saw it, and yet with 732 murders in Los Angeles since January 1 of this year, this map has a hypnotic effect on me. Not in a good way, mind you....

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Mark Obmascik, The Big Year

I bought this book for the subtitle (A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession) , not the cover (pale-legged faux-outdoorsy dude in Eddie Bauer gear, looking through binoculars with birds sitting on him). I should have paid a little more attention to the cover, because the cheap n' easy humour of it has a kind of parallel with the relatively lightweight journalistic approach to the topic. I mean no disrespect to Mark Obmascik, author of The Big Year, but because I'm used to reading more directive comments about human engagement with the nonhuman, for me this doesn't count as a nature book.

Not that Krakauer's Into Thin Air counts either, but it doesn't pretend to. But maybe I just misread the book's intentions, and certainly the blurb from the Boston Globe noted that "the true subject here is the human spirit," so maybe nobody but me expected something about nature.

Besides, the Globe got it wrong. "Human spirit," my ass. This is a story about the avariciousness and arrogance of humanity, and about our individual disrespect for our fellow humans, our fellow species, and the planet we share with them. The characters are engaging, and their portrait is realistic and skillfully drawn, and the action is gripping. Big deal. We're bastards, all of us, not just the people who engage in a Big Year and try to see as many species as possible in a calendar year (like the three men depicted here), including me for enjoying this book.

Competitive birders win or lose depending on how many non-native species they see in a year. You can find the 675 North American regulars, but anyone can do that. You only win if you see as many aliens and strays as possible, and that means - critically - finding a way to see individuals, possibly of endangered species, who have been blown off course to unfamiliar terrain and who are unlikely to make it home.

Seeing them. Not helping them. Seeing them - and doing anything it takes to do only that. Greg Miller flew 87,000 miles and drove 36,000 more; he spent $31,000 dollars, mostly debt on credit cards and to his parents. Al Levantin flew 135,000 miles on United alone, more on other airlines, and spent more than $60,000. The details on Sandy Komito, the winner, aren't clearly specified, but it seems that he flew 270,000 miles in calendar 1998.

Or maybe each of them could have bought sandwiches for a school full of kids. Bought a few acres of parkland as bird sanctuaries. Supported lawsuits against chronic polluters. That sort of thing?

It's so annoying me that I had fun reading this book. Damn you, Obmascik!

November 13 - Bolen's

As much as I enjoy the sale tables and appreciate the soaring ceilings at Munro's, there's something lovely about how easy it is to lose time in Bolen's, the mall bookstore that kept growing until it took over the space vacated long ago by a whole grocery store:
  • Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness ($10.99: what, you're buying science fiction now?-ed.)
  • Nancy J. Turner, Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples ($25.95: let the apocalypse come)

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

November 7 - UVic bookstore

Hurt Penguins again:
  • Ted Bishop, Riding with Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books ($7.99 - such a sweet guy. Ted teaches at the University of Alberta, where I barely knew him, and this book was written after a horrific motorcycle crash that almost killed him)
  • Avi Friedman, Room for Thought: Rethinking Home and Community Design ($3.99)
  • William Bryant Logan, Oak: The Frame of Civilization ($2.99)

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Thomas King, The Truth About Stories

The CBC has been hosting the annual Massey lectures since 1961; I've read several of the collected volumes now*, and some of them (including some I haven't made it to yet) deserve a place on any bookshelf. But not one of them matches the artistry and value of Thomas King's The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Not one of them.

Each of the five lectures begins by recalling the story that tells of the turtle supporting the world on its back, a story that always leads a listener to ask what's under the turtle - "another turtle" is the answer, so the same question, and the same answer, and so on, until the listener asks how many turtles there are. "Nobody knows," the storyteller shrugs, "but it's turtles all the way down."

After this five-times-told story is the book's core statement, told six times in all: "The truth about stories is that's all we are."

King talks about First Nations** history, telling stories about critical moments, offering wisdom phrased in self-deprecating ways. He talks about arts, especially literature, produced by First Nations peoples, both the individual artists and the works they've produced. He talks about himself. All this, you and I need to know. I'm not going to summarize it, because damn it, damn it, I'm going to be forcing people to read this book. (Sorry.)


The point I keep worrying away at, now that I've read the book twice in succession, is the constructedness of First Nations identity in Canada. OK, every identity is constructed by every viewer, big deal, but this time it is a big deal. Our lives are organized around the stories we tell about the world and ourselves, and we choose wrong. We keep choosing wrong.

You want a different world? Think it differently; tell a different story. Even better, tell the same story differently. In King's view, and in mine, a creation story that emphasizes boundaries and punishment, like Christianity's, generates a society very different from one generated by a story emphasizing cooperation, like the aforementioned turtle story.

King suggests that one reason First Nations writers rarely write about the "Cowboys and Indians" period of North American history is that the constructed "Indian" is so powerful that it overwhelms the reality that was being lived at the time by the First Nations. Much of White knowledge comes from the exhaustive photographic record developed by Edward Sheriff Curtis, who took some 40,000 pictures in his 30-year project, of which over 2,200 have been published. Thing is, Curtis carried with him backdrops and "Indian" props, including clothing from one tribe that he got members of other tribes to wear. He carried wigs and paid men to shave, so he never photographed a First Nations man with a crewcut or mustache, or a woman in a print dress.

How on earth, King asks, can he compete with that? Let alone the Hollywood tradition of the western, though he doesn't talk about that. No, the stereotypical Indian is so entrenched that there's no fighting it: there is only now, and the stories to tell that have meaning for the lives we live now.

The postscript to the Massey series, which was not delivered as a lecture and which King says is a story he will never tell aloud, about a friendship with a man whose family adopted a girl with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, a friendship King believes he lost through negligence, ends crushingly with dislocation and violence and a paucity of hope. He weeps at this story, he says, not for the family, but for himself:
And for the world I've helped to create. A world in which I allow my intelligence and goodwill to be constantly subverted by my pursuit of comfort and pleasure. And because knowing all this, it's doubtful that given a second chance to make amends for my despicable behaviour, I would do anything different.
It's the story, you see. It's easier to tell a story of self-contempt than to live a life of effort and sacrifice. We need to find different stories to tell.

Or I do, anyway.

* So far I've finished Frye's 1962, MLK's 1967, Fuentes' 1984, Chomsky's 1988, Saul's 1995, and King's 2003 lectures. MLK's is poignant in the extreme, obviously, given his death the following year.
** I know King uses the term "Indian," so I should as well, but I just can't do it. In 1983 I played basketball on a team with Shuswap band members Leigh Anderson and Doug Anthony. We got crushed by Ralph Bell Elementary, in Kamloops. What I remember, especially, is the kid who had to cover Doug shouting out, "I got the chug - he's my check!" So it's hypercorrection, I guess, because I should have spoken up in 1983: I knew it then, and I said nothing. Students at Ralph Bell can learn the Shuswap language now, but I doubt that helps Doug Anthony. They're still going to ski at Sun Peaks.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

William Morris, News From Nowhere

Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection,
The lovers, the dreamers, and me....
I'm used to making fun of utopia and utopians. The religious, for example: not since falling giddily into Nietzche's The Antichrist when I was 16 have I considered it possible to feel myself one of them. The political: I have not yet said the word "bourgeois" with a straight face, no matter how hard I try, and let's face it, a political belief, openly expressed, is just a plea for abuse. You were asking for it. You were.

But then William Morris.... OK, this utopia isn't for everyone. Set in a near future after a relatively peaceful revolution in early 20th-century England that spread across the world once everyone saw just how terrific socialism could be, gosh darn it, this utopia features beautiful hand-crafted items, no advanced technology, little theoretical learning, and that subjugation of women which comes up so persistently, and one would have to think embarrassingly, in utopian visions. (The women are treated well, they're happy about things, and men honour them, but it's not equality as such.)

Maybe it's just because my emotions are close to the surface these days, I don't know. A succession of long days in difficult weeks. An endless succession of memory songs that iTunes keeps digging up in its ongoing pretense at randomness. That sort of thing.

But this book was really lovely. Dystopia is where I feel more at home, in a literary sense. That's not just because I grew up with Orwell and Huxley and Wyndham in the air, though I did, and not just because I spend so much of my free time reading hopelessly about environmental crisis, though I do, but because work was all around me. My grandparents lost two farms to bankruptcy. Our waterline would freeze every winter, for at least days and once for a month, and our water source would dry up every summer. Chores. Snow. Heat. Slivers in your knuckles that got infected. No wonder I had no time for utopians, the lying liars.

But did I mention that News From Nowhere is really lovely? Everyone wears bright colours; mugs and doorknobs and chairs are beautifully carved; work is shared through voluntary collaboration; nobody's the poor kid in the class. It's a dream and a lie, yes, but it's the most seductive, desirable utopia I've ever read. In the early 1960s Lewis Mumford remarked that it wasn't until the Soviet Union that he recognized that Plato's Republic (the Ur-Utopia, if I can link two cities like that) is the first imagined totalitarian state. I got used to thinking utopias were all like that, but they're not. Morris lets me indulge my small-community socialist fantasies, plus my environmentalist bent, plus my love of all things local. The founding revolution isn't very credible, and its expansion into other nation-states is wildly incredible, and women deserve better, but I could live there. I could.

I would.

Good heavens, I'm a utopian after all.


Bless 'em - I finally got hit by a spambot, with comments on nine separate posts, so I've reinstituted the "word verification" protocols.

Apparently hydrocodone is just so damned fantastic that it takes only a push from a random graffiti-sniping bot for me to want it. What the hell do these people think, anyway? Do I look like an idiot? Don't answer that - but you knew I'd say that, didn't you? [Insert offended and exasperated cursing here.]