Friday, January 18, 2008

Harold Rhenisch, Tom Thomson's Shack

I've got to read this one a few more times to get as much out of Harold Rhenisch's nonfiction work Tom Thomson's Shack as the book deserves to have gotten out of it. The blurb comment from me would be something like "Makes the definitive case that Canada needs always to remember those aspects of itself neither urban nor bucolically rural, in prose at times forcefully spare and at times ornamented with sharp, imagistic detail."

Only it'd actually get people to buy the book, rather than merely summarize my own view, because I really really want people to read it.

Some parts don't work as well for me. I've never trusted how Buddhism has been used in the West as part of an allegedly internal critique, because it seems to me to have developed externally enough that it needs translation before there can be a legitimate conversation. So the Zenny orchardworker's comments about the world being an illusion, but that we need to be either creative or destructive in our actions in order to affect karma and hence future incarnations of self, well, I get annoyed and have to restrain myself from flipping pages.

Actually I had to restrain myself more than I'd like through the first fifty or sixty pages -- I knew there was beauty and value and worth in Tom Thomson's Shack, because I saw some of it on almost every page, but I kept getting distracted. I kept tangling myself in guesses about where Rhenisch was going, whether I was going to appreciate the journey. Once I surrendered to the knowledge that the flashes would come, then the flashes came more often, and finally the light just turned on.
I sit on the shore of a high plateau lake. The grasses and naked aspens around me are white with hoarfrost. Never before have I felt the world to be so quiet, and so still. From an urban perspective, nothing is happening here, yet from a rural perspective, nothing is happening here either. We are at a crossroads. I stand in the stillness and look both ways: back to the farmers, clamouring for subsidy as the world of industrial trading defeats their efforts to leave it, and forward to the cities, where it is possible to gain the perspective to write poetry and see the land (and yet impossible to leave the city), and for the first time in years I realize again that I am tired of false choices: I am tired of tinkering; I am tired of judgement. I want a new civilization. I want it, because everything is alright. Everything that is alive is alright. We don't have to choose; we have to talk to each other about what concerns us deeply. (228)
Good stuff, no?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Sarah de Leeuw, Unmarked

I tell you, I really enjoyed Sarah de Leeuw's Unmarked: Landscapes Along Highway 16 (which runs from Prince Rupert to Prince George in BC, for the uninitiated). 

Partly it's the sense of recognition. I've never lived up there, and I've only been to Prince Rupert once and onto the highway a handful of times, but Unmarked gives you a version of BC I'm comfortable with, from growing up in the Thompson-Shuswap myself.

Partly it's just fun to watch a young(er) writer using almost the whole toolbox. She deliberately cuts out commas in lists, for example, to express movement and to emphasize both the simultaneity of experience and the running together of memories. Some essays are in the second person, too, which is always fun, though most are in the first or third.

But mostly it's the intimacy of it, the sense of real youthfulness in these recollections. It's an adult writing from within an experience that no longer envelops her, but with a very sure hand. The persistent references to teen fears of pregnancy, for example, and to alcohol; the rough deaths that happen in small towns; the keen childhood observations that impose no judgment on what's seen: these things involve me in the book.

I'm looking forward to teaching Unmarked!

For a bit more, check ABC Bookword. For a really great post, see rob mclennan on de Leeuw and Stan Dragland.

(Unfortunately it does suffer from weak editing, which can happen at small publishing houses. Spelling counts, and even when an author submits a mistake, an editor needs to catch it: NeWest Press needs to keep an eye on the person assigned to this book, I'd say.)

Super Cool

I imagine that YouTube will take it down, but until they do, this one goes out to the dog-owners among you:


Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Douglas Coupland, JPod

I received Douglas Coupland's JPod as a birthday present over a year ago, and I didn't jump right into it. I was buried with teaching at the time, and my limited leisure that month went to Julian Barnes' wonderful History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters instead. I felt guilty not reading it, since I generally consider Coupland one of my favourite authors. I recognize Coupland's view of the world as a version of mine, as I once said in a lengthy discussion-with drinks years ago with a friend now rarely within touch, and I see Coupland's characters as versions of me and of mine own people.

But I'm uncomfortable with this assessment today. It's not because of last night's CBC premiere of JPod, the series based on the book, though I should talk about that a bit as well. It's because of this book. Because of these characters. Because, mostly, of their sense of purpose.

The term "J pod," for those who don't live on the BC coast, refers not just to a group of fictional employees of a fictional electronic gaming company in this novel, but to a group of resident orcas (a.k.a. killer whales). Local knowledge is always worth having, but I don't know if there's anything more than a secret handshake in this tidbit.

Microserfs, a novel I once taught successfully to a gang of recalcitrant first-year business students, is the obvious predecessor to JPod. The earlier novel was heady with the hopes and dreams of the 1990s dotcom boom, following a group of coders as they moved from Microsoft toward their own vision in founding and growing their own firm, their own product, while at the same time discovering the miracles of community and valued labour and transformative love. It's a back-to-the-land novel without land, in a way, a rediscovery and affirmation of older ways in the midst of all things new.

JPod has none of that hope. It's not a dark book, because things work out fine in the end, but ... no one has any hope. The programmers are tech slaves; they do in the end find their way to more money and independence, as in Microserfs, but they don't follow their own path. The collectivity is more tenuous, more dependent. They follow opportunities, not visions, and this depressed me. As the book went on the effect became more intense, and it wasn't just because of the narrative, but because of the book's physical structure itself.

For example: Microserfs has pages that look like gibberish, but they're given a narrative purpose. Daniel Underwood, that novel's narrator, explains that he's trying to build a subconscious for his computer. What's more, you can research the words and phrases on these faux-gibberish pages to uncover what kind of subconscious Coupland is implying for Daniel's computer. JPod has pages that look the same, but the book doesn't provide a reason for their presence, and there doesn't seem to be a narrative purpose. They're disruptive, which is fine (maybe like advertising? maybe mimicking the "multitasking" we're supposedly so good at now?), but that seems to be all they are.

And that's the core of my dissatisfaction with JPod. Every other Coupland book, even with its less-than-adequate ending and its suspiciously transferrable characters, has a narrative toward greater knowledge: Truth! Valour! Compassion! Etc! This one just has a narrative. And the absence hurt.

I suppose that the presence of "novelist Douglas Coupland" as a character in the book was meant to impress upon me the shallowness of our lives, how we see people as characters in our own dramas much like the tech workers in this novel do, and it works as a dandy gimmick. But I got cranky about it, even though it's some of the funniest writing in the novel.

CBC's version worked well, I think -- but I'm not the best person to ask. The show left me similarly unengaged, not really caring about the characters or their lives, seeing them as cartoons rather than people. Maybe this is meant to evoke the gaming milieu they work and live in, I don't know, but today, I'm just not motivated to think much about it. Unusually for a Coupland book, JPod had no real effect on me.

And I'm saddened by that.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Brock Clarke, An Arsonist's Guide, etc.

I can do no better than to begin by quoting in its entirety the opening sentence of 30GreatBooks' review of Brock Clarke's splendidly titled An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England: "Bleh."

But to clarify, I understand this "Bleh" not as pure opposition, but like the muti-purpose shoulder shrug that Clarke's character Peter Le Clair uses. Maybe I mean "Meh" instead? Anyway, this is one of those novels that get critics Very Excited Indeed. I hoped that it would mean this novel really is exciting, but instead I think the critical reception needs to be thought of as a parallel to the effect on film critics of movies about making movies: they seem funnier and wiser if it looks like your own humour and knowledge. I shrug, say, "Bleh," and move on to something from which I hope for better.

Regular commenter here "Keith Talent" said he'd be interested to see what I thought of this book. His theory, based purely on browsing the Amazon reviews, was that either (a) "it's really bad," or (b) it's had enough publicity that people have bought it who didn't appreciate its literariness. Well, it's certainly not "really bad." And to my eyes, it's not the valuable kind of "literariness," so while that may be why the Amazon readers don't like the book, I don't see that as the strike against them that I normally would.

Clarke has succeeded extremely well at achieving what I take to be his purpose in writing the book: he makes fun of all sorts of literary details, from book clubs and Harry Potter to aphoristic memoirists and confessional narrative, with a narrator that has much in common with John Irving's characters. I thought that even before I read it somewhere online -- but since our book club had only a 10% completion rate in November on A Prayer for Owen Meany, I think you're safe in seeing this as not a compliment.

I proudly claim Ishtar among my favourite movies, but only because it's nearly universally seen as a terrible movie. If Ishtar got terrific press, particularly for what I think of as its very funny scenes of entertainers failing to entertain, I'd be a lot less excited about it: it's a small story, with small interest, and if film critics raved about it, they'd be sold only because it talked about what they already knew. That's the problem for me with reviews of An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England: it's a fun little novel, not much more than summer reading for people who claim not to be "summer reading people," so the review I saw that said the novel gave that reader faith in the "Great American Novel"* made my eyes roll so wildly I'm able to proof-read this post only with my peripheral vision.

Which may explain the length and foolishness of that last sentence. But it also has the same tone as Clarke's narrative voice.

I wanted to care about this book, I did, but I support this post at Alex Carnevale's This Recording:
"I want to recommend this book but I can’t. Instead I am going to recommend Brock Clarke’s next, unpublished book, which will hopefully have the same deftness of writing but take its comedy cues from a less manic source."
I recognize that Clarke is being very clever indeed in this novel, satirizing while seeming to write straight, so I need to take not seriously the narrative devices that move the novel forward: but once I do that, I fail to see much novel here. Gadgetry seduces me, it does, but temporarily. In the end I drop the reciprocating saw and go back to my dead grandfather's handsaw with the busted handle, not because it works so well (it doesn't), but because a trick eventually quits impressing me.

* - For some reason I can no longer find the referenced review....

Thursday, January 03, 2008

January 3 - UVic Bookstore

I went looking for books I might teach from in the fall, and picked up three likely candidates:
  • Bruce Braun, The Intemperate Rainforest: Nature, Culture, and Power on Canada's West Coast ($22.95, academic nonfiction)
  • Sarah de Leeuw, Unmarked: Landscapes Along Highway 16 ($19.95, personal nonfiction)
  • Eden Robinson, Monkey Beach ($21, a novel)
They all look good; the problem for me in planning this course will be the richness of texts to choose from!

(In other news, already I'm officially out of Christmas money to spend on books....)

Giuseppe Pontiggia, Born Twice

I haven't read a lot of Italian literature: a few novels, Calvino and Eco most recently, and neither of these writers felt like this one. But in reading Giuseppe Peruggia's Born Twice, I couldn't stop thinking about Oriana Fallaci's Letter to a Child Never Born (that I read as an undergrad as Carta a un nino que nunca nacio). In both of these sensitive, articulate explorations of a boundary mental state involving a child's medical crisis, the voice veers between wilful distance and claustrophobic intimacy. I like both works, but Fallaci's was more affecting -- even though my situation now is more like that of Professor Frigerio in Born Twice, whose son was born in crisis and with disabilities.

Or maybe because my situation is more like his?

I admit it, I came to this book looking for a reflection of myself, complete with pats on the back and advice and -- yes, I'll use the two-dollar word -- validation. His son has tremendous difficulty with basic activities, like standing upright, walking, or speaking intelligibly, so he faces a more difficult road than my daughter probably does, but the more we learn about her future struggles, the more self-conscious I get about my own reactions to her and about her, moment by moment.

There are some gleaming lines here, and some terrific scenes that make this book ring truly to me. It's not a disability book, and not a father's book -- and I wouldn't suggest you baldly refer to it to just anyone you know who's the father of a child with a disability -- but that's how I read it. I couldn't read it any other way, so I don't really know whether it's a good novel. Here's the money passage, though, explaining the title, the words of a doctor to young Paolo's parents:
"These children are born twice. They have to learn to get by in a world that their first birth made difficult for them. Their second birth depends on you, on what you can give them. Because they are born twice, their journey through life is a far more agonizing one than most. Yet ultimately their rebirth will be yours too. This, at least, has been my experience. I have no more to tell you."
You tell me. I can't say.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

2007: look back without anger

A very good reading year, 2007 -- I've never tracked my reading as closely before, so I don't know whether this year's 53 completions since March is a lot for me. I think I read more in grad school, but less variedly, and with less room for self-expression in the choices; I know I've read less than this in the previous few years. We'll see how 2008 goes.

In no particular order, here are the year's favourites in the modes of nonfiction, poetry, and fiction, with a single winner at the bottom of the list.

Favourite nonfiction:
Favourite poetry:
Favourite fiction:
Best in show:
Clearly, for me this was the year for Terry Glavin, whose 2003 The Last Great Sea was my favourite read of 2007. A couple of the other books on the year’s list give him credit for inspiration and/or advice, his blog has become a regular stop for me, and I keep bumping up against his name wherever I go.

We’ll see what 2008 brings, but I'm off to a good start with Harold Rhenisch's Tom Thomson's Shack underway, along with Giuseppe Pontiggia's Born Twice. Plus Douglas Coupland's JPod is staring at me from the ottoman, so I can without guilt watch the CBC series based on the novel....

January 2 - Shepherd Books

Yep, my second visit confirms that Shepherd Books is one of my favourite bookstores. It hasn't been around long, but it has high quality copies of books worth reading. There are of course some shelves of the high throughput romance, mystery, etc., but there's lots more of the good stuff. I didn't manage to make it to the fiction section, but I still picked up these gems:
  • Nancy Baron & John Acorn, Birds of Coastal British Columbia ($10)
  • Harold Rhenisch, Tom Thomson's Shack ($9.50)
  • ed. Whitney Smith & Christopher Lowry, Wild Culture: Ecology and Imagination ($9.50, actually a collection of pieces from the journal Wild Culture)
  • Wallace Stegner, Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier ($8.50)
I read the first 40 or so pages of Rhenisch's book while on line (in line? lined up?) at the passport office, and I'm pleased to finally make his acquaintance. As it happens, Tom Thomson's Shack is at least as much about life in BC's Cariboo, but the title isn't all that helpful for those of us just getting around to Rhenisch!

January 2, 2008 - department office

From the department office, the ongoing sale of Margot Louis' books not wanted by the library, for $2 each:
  • Elizabeth Bishop, Geography III
  • Sandra Cisneros, Woman Hollering Creek, and Other Stories
  • Amy Clampitt, Archaic Figure
Mostly from peer pressure, because of conversations overheard but not understood among ASLE folks....