Monday, December 31, 2007

December 31 - Grafton Bookshop

In Oak Bay, right in the Village, is the Grafton Bookshop. I'm forever distracted by the idea that its name is the road my grandparents live on, a few hours north of here, but it's a good store. I've spent more than a few dollars there over the years, and I'm hoping to get back there in the next few weeks to scour the shelves more closely.

In my five-minute visit today, and for only ten bucks, I stumbled across the 1959 number of Blackwood's Magazine that contains the original essay that became M. Wylie Blanchet's book The Curve of Time. I'm inordinately pleased!

Smith & MacKinnon, The 100-Mile Diet

Why was I not told about this?!?

Somehow I had the impression that Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon's The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating was actually a description of a diet -- or possibly a cookbook with some discussion, I'm not certain which. It sure as hell wasn't this, though: a terrific joint memoir with the occasional recipe, plus tips for local shopping that work for my location here in Victoria, that examines both global commerce and local ground, as well as portraying the strains that long-term relationships habitually go through.

I blame myself, actually. You see, I already knew the writing of both Smith and MacKinnon, having taught essays by each of them last year from Way Out There: The Best of explore magazine: excellent writers, both, so I should have trusted in that.

Here's why I was a sucker for this book:
  • I'm not the only cook in this house, but I am the one who experiments.
  • I've never had the garden I'd like, but that's because in the last eight years we haven't had two summers in the same house.
  • Regardless, I've always grown vegetables, and I've even moved them from one garden to another.
  • Local books are breeding on my shelves.
  • And who couldn't stand to watch a quality relation between quality individuals falter and (maybe) recover?
So I should have known about this book already. I blame myself for making assumptions, though I also blame you for not telling me about it. In case you're not in the know, I say unto you this: Believe the hype. Read the book, regift it, follow its suggestions, learn more on your own. I've become the Ancient Mariner, the way I'm telling people about this book!

Andrew Struthers, The Green Shadow

As promotional material goes, The Green Shadow's back cover describes the book unusually accurately: in the early 1990s, with the town of Tofino divided over the fate of Clayoquot Sound, Andrew Struthers examines both the town's split and his own internal divisions in a comic work that culminates in his run for mayor. Nonfiction, more or less, though with some names changed (barely!) and some comic exaggeration, it's a good read for those with at least some passing familiarity with the history of BC environmental movements, especially Clayoquot Sound.

In some ways, and some sections, it's an excellent read, but I kept wondering who the target audience was for this book. I mean, it's an insider's inside story, available for sale to those of us on the outside. I know that "Tzapata" is Tzeporah Berman (unelucidated allusion to the Mexican revolutionary presumably intended), and I have some ideas about other pseudonyms, so I'm like a tourist who's done some pre-visit homework, but -- really? We need to spend time on chakras, both conceptually and Struthers' own? I guess it's establishing cred with the greens who know chakras (cartoony hardcore ones), to emphasize the depth of Struthers' association with both sides of this division -- as per blurb -- but I don't know.

The town's division (like the one in our society over this kind of issue) was and is real, I get that. But as Struthers' own example makes clear, the external appearance of dualism is false to the internal reality so many of us live on the West Coast. I don't need to see Struthers' cred on both sides, because the riven position he occupies is the one that so many of us occupy anyway. I need his struggle, his conflict, not the two tokenistic and nonrepresentative sides.

Where was I going with this?

Right. Struthers does a great job with the comic scenes, but his hand is uneven in this book. He deserved the 1995 National Magazine Award for humour that the serialized version won, justifiably edging out the great Mordecai Richler in doing so, but (strike me down for saying it) I wasn't gripped by The Green Shadow. I wanted to be gripped, and I've still got the entire Transmontanus lineup on future birthday and Christmas lists (as well as Struthers' succeeding Last Voyage of the Loch Ryan), but ... this book didn't give me what I wanted from it.

Which may of course be my fault anyway. Happy New Year, all.

Friday, December 28, 2007

December 28, Value Village

Five books, four at $3.99 with the fifth (Gordaneer's) for free -- even though I wanted hers, since I did my MA with her lo these many years ago:
  • Oonagh Berry and Helen Levine, Between Friends: A Year in Letters (from July 2001 through July 2002, these friends wrote one 8-10 page letter per week to each other; this book is them - no, I don't know what they're about yet)
  • Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (how did I not have this one already?!?!)
  • Alisa Gordaneer, Dissecting Grace (from a limited edition, only 90 copies - I wonder whose I have...)
  • Drew Hayden Taylor, Fearless Warriors (short stories by an Ojibway writer)
  • Richard Wagamese, Keeper'n Me (a novel by another Ojibway writer, this book winning the 1995 best novel award from the Writers' Guild of Alberta)

December 28, Bolen's

Went to Bolen's and used up a gift certificate on the next book club selection (Clarke) and an odd book I've coveted for a little while (Struthers):
  • Brock Clarke, An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England
  • Andrew Struthers, The Green Shadow (published by Transmontanus, a very nice little imprint connected with New Star Books)

Thursday, December 27, 2007

BC rivers under threat

In BC, the new push toward green power isn't green. I'm increasingly horrified by what I'm learning. Over 500 different rivers have been proposed for significant water diversion, including some with significant salmon runs and in areas of cultural significance for First Nations peoples. Read more at Save Our Rivers, the Ashlu River site (with a picture here of the environmentally sound construction site), or maybe Hydro Facts BC; don't expect a neutral perspective, though.

Admittedly I'm always distrustful when an MLA speaks on camera, and one shows up on this video, but oh, oh, it all makes my stomach hurt so much....



(Hat-tip to Victoria-Marie at SisterSea.)

Terry Glavin, The Last Great Sea

There are still a few days left, but a new entry leads my "fave 2007 read" sweepstakes, Terry Glavin's 2000 book The Last Great Sea: A Voyage Through the Human and Natural History of the North Pacific Ocean. Once again, I've been made to feel positively thick by a well-written work on a topic I felt reasonably aware of. I liked Waiting for the Macaws, but I loved The Last Great Sea. (Though I'm not sure what happened with the copy-editing at the top of page 100....)

Glavin has the rare gift of presenting dense and complex information in clear and readable prose. When I drove by the water this afternoon, it was a different North Pacific Ocean that looked at me, and I'm living in a different British Columbia as well. I can't see not teaching this in September for my "literature and environment in BC" course, because it provides exactly the kind of contemporary perspective that will let us look freshly at older environmental literature (Carr, Haig-Brown, Blanchet, etc).

My only niggle was about a blurb from the Georgia Straight on the back cover, which described the book as partly a "doomsday rebuff." I suppose it is, in that the last page says, "The world is not coming to an end," but that same final page remarks, "We are not just bit players in what goes on out there" (217). Yes, the North Pacific Ocean is more powerful and more important than we are, and yes, the planet is more complicated than (IMHO) we will ever understand, but jeez, we're beating the crap out of it in so many ways. While I'm all for realism and better information, I don't know that we're better off with a "doomsday rebuff."

(And I don't think the book provided this anyway -- which is why the blurb seemed to me an odd choice.)

Another book to buy for as many people as I can find to read it!

Proma Tagore, In Our Own Voices

Books like this are important for a teacher to read, especially one with good intentions but who is after all white, male, and (not old, but) thirty-seven. Proma Tagore edited this collection of essays by students and instructors, In Our Own Voices: Learning and Teaching Toward Decolonisation, and I'll keep working back and forth through it after this quick first read.

I'd like to think I run a non-racist classroom, and I have had non-Caucasian students choose to take multiple classes from me, but I'm confident after reading In Our Own Voices that I don't fully understand how to get to the gold standard anti-racist classroom.

For example, I want students to talk in class, and I'm always careful to prevent individuals from dominating discussion. I want to hear from students of different genders, ethnicities, fashion senses, and degree programs. But as Lisa Okada points out in her thoughtful essay about her experience as a Japanese Canadian student in a Women's Studies course, there is a sense in which her words are not heard as individual, but as representative: "racialised students speak, white students listen and learn.... This superficial and contingent granting of space is what marks racialised minority students' speech as 'special' in spaces that are predominantly white" (25).

If Lisa Okada was in my class, I would encourage her to speak precisely because she is not Caucasian -- not because I think she has any more to say than anyone else, and not because I have a special expectation of her, but because I want opinions and comments to come from multiple students, and because I don't want all the speakers to look alike. This makes my class a non-racist space (I think?), but it doesn't satisfy the really interesting conditions that Okada describes for an anti-racist space.

At this point I can't see big changes that need to be made in my classes, but I've learned some small things, and I've got more background for the ongoing reconsideration of the big issues.

For example: While I can't always remember the differences between terza rima and the villanelle, I need to remember in my class discussions of poetic form that there are all kinds of non-Anglo forms. More than that, I need to learn enough about these other forms that I can at least fumble through the toolbox as necessary.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas extravaganza

Five dandies, courtesy of various nearest / dearest:
  • Tim Bowling, The Lost Coast: Salmon, Memory, and the Death of Wild Culture
  • Terry Glavin, This Ragged Place: Travels Across the Landscape
  • Douglas R. Hofstadter, Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid
  • Giuseppe Pontiggia, Born Twice (which has already had me close to tears)
  • Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Eating Locally

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Nancy Turner, The Earth's Blanket

Nancy J. Turner is one of the best. By training she's an ethnobotanist, specializing in the intersections of plants, food, and First Nations in British Columbia, but she does some work as well in the fields of linguistics, social justice advocacy, environmental advocacy, and who knows what else. Her new book, The Earth's Blanket: Traditional Teachings for Sustainable Living, represents a bringing together of everything she does.

Which is of course a good thing, but I came away a little discomfitted. Not like with passionate writings that leave me self-castigating and guilt-ridden, which is what I expected, but just ... not as delighted as I thought I would be.

Most of the chapters are descriptive. They talk about stories told by the Wsanec people (Saanich) about their home places; about how to harvest bark or berries or fish; about how to prepare things for eating or weaving; that sort of thing. Great stuff, all of it, but there's no guiding message, like I'm used to from Derrick Jensen or Carol J. Adams or Terry Glavin or Wallace Stegner. Instead the first seven of her eight chapters function as a kind of apprenticeship. The final chapter addresses programs and actions, but I think it only makes sense fully if it's read after all the others. Much like Turner herself had to serve a lengthy apprenticeship with her friends and sources among the First Nations peoples of B.C., we have to serve a surrogate apprenticeship with her before we can come to understand what she's telling us.

I think I knew enough that I could have received the final chapter without preparation, so I was champing at the bit all the way through wanting to get on to something other than description, but that just means I'm not her target audience with this book. It has sold fairly well, I think, and it's had some positive reviews (like this one in the Georgia Straight by Glavin, even though it's more focused on two other books).

Besides, it's not a traditional non-fiction book; this is how she writes her academic books and articles, descriptively rather than prescriptively, with an eye toward increasing other people's knowledge about a subject. Her academic writing is lovingly detailed and accessible, though her love for details can make it run longer than you think is absolutely necessary -- and while I enjoyed this book, and can see myself giving it as a gift, I kind of preferred her academic work.

Which may, of course, say more about my own geek status than about Nancy Turner....

Ted Bishop, Riding with Rilke

I'm of a few minds about Ted Bishop's Riding with Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books.

(Background: the book opens with a horrific crash, then we travel with Bishop by bike in the previous months through western North America from Edmonton, Alberta, to Austin, Texas, where he spent time working on James Joyce archival material. The book ends with the recovery after the accident.)

First, it's a book that few enough other people could write that in a way he was born to write it. It would have been a real shame if he hadn't managed the complex task of writing this book, and then the even more complex task of getting it published in a form he was happy with. It must have been very gratifying for everyone who knew him on his path. Obviously it meant something to more people than that, or it wouldn't have been a finalist for the Governor General's Awards in 2005, but I do think that there's more to like here for people who know Bishop already.

Second, I really enjoyed the reflections on place from his travels through western North America, from Edmonton to Austin and back, especially the complex little differences between small towns and road surfaces and wind temperatures. There are seeds of a dozen worthwhile essays (or books!) about how one experiences place as a reader, and how one experiences place as a biker (or "rider," as Bishop comes to define himself). 

Third, I kind of wish that Bishop had written another non-fiction book first. For me, this one took a little while to achieve the kind of sophistication that the final two-thirds had. The prologue was gripping and well written, but the opening chapters lacked a little sharpness in the delivery somehow. I can't find specific things that got to me, in part because it took me too damn long to give the book the time it deserved, but something about it felt like pieces to me, rather than like a single united work. I just think maybe if he had had the chance to practice on a book that was less important to him, then this one would have been better -- but what do I know, maybe the really terrific one is still to come!

A good read, though not one of my favourites for the year.

December 18 - memorial sale

I picked up a small armload of books today from the department office. A respected and loved professor passed away this fall, Margot Louis; I didn't know her, but she cast a long shadow around here. The university library got their pick of her book collection, and the remaining few thousand volumes are for sale in the department office. So, I picked up the following for $30 and a thought for the lost:
  • Robert Bringhurst, Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music
  • Thomas de Quincey, Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets
  • Peter Elbow, Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process
  • Louise Bernice Halfe, Blue Marrow
  • Sarah Orne Jewett, A Country Doctor
  • Theresa Kishkan, Ikons of the Hunt
  • Primo Levi, The Periodic Table
  • St. Thomas More, Utopia
  • Pindar, The Odes
  • ed. William Pratt, The Imagist Poem: Modern Poetry in Miniature
  • ed. Jerome Rothenberg, Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas
I'm most pleased with Halfe, Kishkan, and Rothenberg, but I'm hopeful that I'll like Levi more than I do Italo Calvino.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

December 16 - Shepherd Books

While Christmas shopping this afternoon, I found what might be my new favourite bookstore, Shepherd Books on Fort Street here in Victoria. All used books, the majority of them seriously interesting (apart from the necessary mysteries, romances, etc that let such a store make money), this is a store I'll be spending time in whenever I get downtown, and a store I'll be making excuses for trips downtown to visit.

Only had time to pick up, for $11.50, the inestimable Terry Glavin's The Last Great Sea: A Voyage through the Human and Natural History of the North Pacific Ocean -- maybe a longer subtitle on the next book, Terry? Apart from writing consistently interesting and idiosyncratic books, he's also been editing for Transmontanus Books. (Actually maybe he's running the show. I should know this.)

I've fondled this one a few times at stores, and I couldn't bear to leave Shepherd Books without something. I've been thinking of teaching from this book next year, so I'm looking forward to reading it. A detailed summary review by Bruce Serafin here at Dooney's Cafe, unfortunately 3 1/2 years old now.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Doris Lessing is god

The great Doris Lessing's acceptance speech for this year's Nobel prize is now online at The Guardian, and you need to read it. Everyone you know needs to read it.

Frankly I've never seen a more powerful criticism of tech culture, or a more potent defense of book culture. I'm easily influenced anyway, as regular readers know, but good heavens. If ever something was likely to get me offline again and back into a paper notebook, it'd be this speech.

Key moments:
we never thought to ask, "How will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by the internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc?"
Not long ago, a friend in Zimbabwe told me about a village where the people had not eaten for three days, but they were still talking about books and how to get them, about education.
And I sit here blogging as a distraction from marking, when my nonfiction students have exposed their lives and faiths and weaknesses for me, and I lack the strength either to judge or to honour them as they deserve. Granted, I don't have the peace or the space or the silence that Lessing sees as essential for a writer's existence, but [insert curse here], why am I so ready to waste time rather than to claim a place in the world? What the -- and I use this word with great caution in this blog -- fuck?

UPDATE: For a rebuttal, it's well worth reading the reliably cogent Todd Swift, who offers this in reply to Lessing's complaint about blogs etc:
the enemy of great writing is not the web. It may, instead, be the mind-dulling latter stages of capitalism, which increasingly bamboozles us all. The Internet can oppose, as much as support, this ad-copy-world.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Plagiarism by profs

I gotta say, I thought this article was utterly fascinating. I'm always busting students for plagiarism - I mean, "intellectual dishonesty" - but it turns out that as with priests and parents, profs sometimes play the "do as I say etc" card.

I understand the pressure to publish, I do, but if you're really only publishing ghost-written books that devour the time and energy and originality of your grad students, you're a vampire, and you deserve the stake of bad publicity through your evil tenured heart.

Wow, and I thought I got cranky about the spectre of undergrad plagiarism....

(Hat-tip to the Little Professor on this one.)

UPDATE: The link works now. It no longer points to A Journal of the Plague Year, but to a recent issue of 02138, a journal mostly related to Harvard University and its alumni.

UPDATE #2: For those of you for whom the link didn't work in IE (Fiona!), the address is http://www.02138mag.com/magazine/article/1763.html, and the article is entitled "A Million Little Writers: Welcome to the world of celebrity academics–and the behind-the-scenes scribes who help make their fame and fortune possible."

(It begins with a brief story about Harvard prof Charles Ogletree, whose 2004 book lifts several paragraphs from one by Yale prof Jack Balkin. Ogletree's defense was that one research assistant had added the paragraphs rather than summarizing them; a second RA submitted the MS before he reviewed it; and Ogletree apparently didn't read the proofs of the book before publication. In other words, this noted academic hires students to write books and articles that he publishes as his own, and at times he never even reviews their writing. Ogletree, let me be clear, is just a representative case, not a rarity.)

UPDATE #3: As I've just remarked in the comments to this post, apparently none of the stories in 02138 works in Internet Explorer. Gosh, I guess we'll all just have to use Firefox or Mozilla or something. Maybe if Microsoft still had a Mac version of IE, they wouldn't lose so many of us. (And while they're at it, it'd be really great if Microsoft could maybe find a way for Office 2007 files to open directly in Office for Mac, 'kay?)

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Journal of the Plague Month

I do love Daniel Defoe - and I prefer not Robinson Crusoe, but the historical fiction Journal of the Plague Year. The segue? November is hell. Diseases among the family. Students hacking all around you, even on you. Tears shed in your office, rarely your own. The peak of the semester's 400,000 words of essays for marking.

I'll be back. Probably.