Sunday, February 24, 2008

Feb 24 - Hudson's at Sea-Tac

Yep, picked up a volume in the Sea-Tac airport, after it turned out not a single bookstore was open in Boise except for the Barnes & Noble.

Frankly the selection at Hudson's the Booksellers was excellent, and I'm really looking forward to reading Richard Preston's creative nonfiction novel The Wild Trees ($16), which appears to be about scientists and other fanatics who climb and admire enormous redwoods. If I'd noticed the cover calling it a "New York Times bestseller" I might have left it behind, but I'm a very small man.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Thomas Homer-Dixon, The Upside of Down

Smart fella, Thomas Homer-Dixon. I finished the last page of The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization as our plane was bumping onto the tarmac in Seattle yesterday, so naturally I wasn't entirely comfortable that we'd land successfully, but I was at least heartened by the idea that maybe someone'd find a lesson in our failure that'd move the species forward.

Maybe not, either, but that wouldn't be my problem (or fault, for that matter).

This book blends Roman architectural principles with the ecology of forest succession, the San Francisco earthquake with limestone deposits in aqueducts, to propose this quite radical concept of the "prospective mind," which to my small brain sounds very much like a kind of well-informed optimism.

Which leads naturally to a study I recently saw reported that a UVic environmental psychologist had run, surveying several hundred people. Historically research has shown that people tend to have positive views of themselves and their own abilities (75% of us think we're prettier or smarter or what-have-you than the average person - at least 25% of us are consistently wrong - actually no, I wasn't looking at you, why do you ask?); people think well of their own abilities and qualities, except, as it turns out, in relation to our ability to respond to or influence the environmental crisis. Very, very few of us think positively about our abilities in this respect, and the study's conclusion was to wonder what impact there might be on our responses over the coming decade if we weren't as pessimistic. It's been a truism that we're so persuaded of our doom that we're denying its approach, but what if instead, we weren't suffering from denial, but from a paralysis of will? Would this let us overcome this paralysis?

This isn't what Homer-Dixon asks, mind you, but it's what it reminded me of.

Most of The Upside of Down goes toward cataloguing all the ways in which we're doomed, and to suggest some specific ways in which this doom will come to pass very rapidly through catastrophic collapse. One possibility he suggests is that the US will be weakened by the bursting of the real estate bubble (uh oh) and hence unable to respond to coordinated serious attacks overseas, thus leading to a run against the US dollar that destabilizes related currencies enough that the markets enter a death spiral, thus stripping many countries of their ability to pay for necessary food imports. Cheerful stuff, but he does an excellent job of drawing links between what he calls "foreshocks" of catastrophe, events that may seem minor one by one but that later we'll recognize were the signs of the collapse's beginning.

At the end, though, he moves to this concept of "catagenesis," or renewal through rebirth. The prospective mind will be capable of finding an unexpected and unpredictable way of responding to crisis that will let us recover as a society: not that we'll get back to where we were before the catastrophe, but we'll evade total social meltdown and a new Dark Ages. The end of oil, if things don't change dramatically, could be a Dark Ages scenario, so Homer-Dixon's suggestions about cultivating this habit of mind are really exciting:
[I]f we want to thrive, we need to move from a growth imperative to a resilience imperative. Some form of economic growth is absolutely essential for billions of people, but for the world as a whole, and even for individual societies, it must not be at the expense of the overarching principle of resilience, so needed for any coming transformation of human culture. (p.308)
Damn the man, in other words, to oversimplify just a wee bit.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Jan Zwicky, Songs for Relinquishing the Earth

I was so moved by lines of this book of poems that I found myself writing poetry myself - and that doesn't happen much anymore. In Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, Jan Zwicky stretches her grasp, and stretches my ability to keep up with her, but there are places in the middle of this collection where I can't imagine that she can write much more piercingly about the problem of being.

She comments a couple of times that being occurs in that moment between inhaling and exhaling, that poised moment of nothingness during which we briefly exist purely. The poems attempt to reach into that moment, to bring back the impossible words to reveal or describe or share that experience. When it works, it's gorgeous. When it doesn't, well, at least it doesn't feel as forced as it does when (God forgive me) poets appeal to Buddhism as a kind of transcendent signifier of Great Personal Depth, Man. It just doesn't speak to me, but that failure has less to do with ability and more to do with Zwicky's far greater familiarity with classical music and jazz. Many of these poems speak to or follow the rhythms of particular musical works, and I don't have the ability to distinguish (without research) between specific works by Bill Evans, or between Mozart and Bach pieces.

Gosh, it can be lovely, though:
if we could learn
to let go without leaving then
our real lives could begin. ("Transparence," p.37)

A dream
is a carving knife,
and the scar it opens in the world
is history. ("The Geology of Norway," p.32)

Eden Robinson, Monkey Beach

I choose my books pretty carefully, because I’m painfully aware of just how many books are out there that I’ll never get the chance to read. At least, that's how I explain my rarely flagging good cheer about books I've just finished reading. Admittedly Orhan Pamuk and Chip Kidd both left me dreadfully cold, but those were obligation reads: they got very good reviews from trustworthy sources, so I tried them as well.

Monkey Beach might count as an obligation read, in that it's a critically and commercially successful novel about First Nations life on the BC coast, and hence precisely the sort of book I'm likely to read. I say that it might be an obligation read, except that where my usual tastes are concerned, I'm not all that worried about success. If the book is local and about environmental issues, especially with a First Nations link, then I'm going to read it. Critical success does make me worry that it's been overhyped, though.


Eden Robinson's debut novel Monkey Beach is a sensitive and gripping portrait of an individual, a family, a town, and a people as they collectively and singly navigate the strange new world that BC's First Nations occupy. Alcoholism and oolichan grease, B'gwus and rohypnol: my only worry is that I don't know what the next one can be about. Robinson's done a terrific job mining Kitimat for this story; I'm left wondering whether the next novel will be about the same characters, or whether she's going to discover that she hasn't left herself room to place any more fiction in the same place. I hope she does, because she's too good a writer to deserve to flounder for material, and there's lots left over around the fringes of Monkey Beach.

I wanted more resolution, I have to admit, but I'm sure that's just me. The interwoven narrative works really well, and the characters are rich - well worth spending lots of time with! I'm not going to say much, because it was nominated for both the Giller and the G-G when it came out several years ago, but I'd've nominated it for both awards as well. Seriously impressive.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Tim Bowling, The Lost Coast

Tim Bowling will always, I'm confident, fail to meet my expectations, and I'll be disappointed with everything he writes.

This is because his series of elegiac poems on his father's death, The Witness Ghost, haunts me: it's exactly the kind of poetry I wish I had the energy and commitment and imagination to write, and had he written often thus, it had been vain to blame and useless to praise him. Good stuff, is what I'm saying.

It's not that I didn't enjoy his first novel The Paperboy's Winter, or his other poetry (like Dying Scarlet), because I did, but I missed the clarity and humility of the book through which I found my way to him. With The Lost Coast: Salmon, Memory and the Death of Wild Culture, I thought I'd find my way back to the same experience.

But I didn't. Partly I blame Terry Glavin and his usual insightful curmudgeonliness in his own blogged review of the book (in abbreviated form from his Globe review), but only because I need a target other than myself. Other reviewers have been pleased, but there has been a note of caution as well, not just in Terry's review but also in Cherie Thiesen's in Quill & Quire and Steve Noyes' in the Canwest stable of newspapers.

Bowling is at times a magician with words and images. He tells small stories beautifully, and the small stories add up to a really lovely portrait of a lost time. He does nostalgia like nobody else I know, and it's more poignant for me because it's for a form of life I sympathize so closely with (fishing for him, old-time logging and small-scale farming for me). But ... what's the next step? What do we do after we recognize and indulge the need for nostalgia?

For example, villainy isn't consistently handled here. The founding Ladner brothers and the other robber-baron capitalists get the majority of the blame for destroying the salmon fishery, but there's plenty of blame to go around, and it's not really spread around, except in passing remarks acknowledging that the lost and lamented fisher's life isn't blameless. The balance between lament and blame could have been handled more carefully, I thought, but given the intensity with which Bowling recalls his childhood (and especially the inheritance it promised of living in wild connection with the nonhuman world), I don't know that greater caution would have been believable anyway.

In sum, read it for the recollection of a lost and valuable coastal lifestyle, for the intensity of its nostalgia, for the intensity as well with which Bowling demonstrates connection with salmon, and for the quality of its prose. The world needs more of this sort of thing:
[T]he bee, like the salmon, constructs its brief time on a cycle of leaving and returning, and its returning is a rich sustenance for us. In this way, the hands that reached into the black swarms reach also into the black fathoms. My grandfather's boyhood spent delivering jars of honey to customers connects directly to my childhood of carrying jack springs up Georgia Street to Grandma Atkey. And the faith of my great-grandparents, who routinely kept hives in their basement through Edmonton's long, severely cold winters, is the faith of my parents who awaited the salmon's annual return. (232)