Friday, May 30, 2008

Book clubs and the CBC

At the risk of blowing my cover entirely, I hereby announce to both my readers that I'll be on CBC Radio One tomorrow in BC talking about the men's book club I cofounded last year. Not having been on radio since winning tickets to see Whitney Houston in 1991 by correctly identifying Carl Perkins as the singer of "Blue Suede Shoes," I'm a little anxious, but I'm looking forward to it nonetheless.

Apparently Sheryl MacKay recently ran a book club contest that asked for info about group membership, and of the "hundreds of entries," there wasn't a single men-only club. Naturally we stopped scratching ourselves long enough to send in a wee note, and as a result two of us will appear on NXNW after the (ugh) 7 a.m. PST news on Saturday morning. Listen live to streaming audio! (It's unlikely to get podcasted, I'd guess, since we're hardly big-name individuals....)

The 20-minutes we talked will be edited down to about 12, so I'll be interested to see what gets dropped. I did say that as a club we'd especially enjoyed Rob Wiersema's Before I Wake, and that among my favourite writers are Theresa Kishkan and Terry Glavin, so hopefully those comments make it to air. I'm less keen to hear our insults of Richard B. Wright's Clara Callan, but presumably Sheryl will want to provoke some response from listeners!

UPDATE: Sheryl cut out my praise of Theresa Kishkan and Terry Glavin, probably because those were solo rather than club reads, but she did keep our appreciation of Rob Wiersema. It sounded good, I think, but listen for yourself through RealPlayer, or find it on NXNW's main page. My agent's on the other line, I'll catch you later....

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner is a specimen of a relatively rare bird: it was reviewed moderately well (in camps, to some extent), it has sold extremely well since it first appeared, and it was turned into a fairly respectable movie (though one whose reviews were similarly divided). The Kite Runner yanks hard on the old heart strings, and it does so with great effect. The characters are interesting, many of them complex, and collectively they portray quite believably a world about which I know little. The story's twists are gripping, its politics worthy (if angsty, like the narrator expressing them), its set pieces cinematic in the best sense.

But here's the thing.

There's too much of the cartoon here. Maybe I'm not getting it, and this is what "timeless" looks like - images and characters and scenes that feel like ones I've seen before, in different contexts and with different nationalities. The fiendish Assef, for example, reminded me of Cap'n Hook, of Mexican villains in Western movies old enough not to hide their racism very carefully, of Russians in the Roger Moore series of Bond movies, and especially - but weakly - of Christopher Plummer's delicious General Chang, the scarred and Shakespeare-quoting Klingon in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (whose "Cry havoc! And let slip the dogs of war!" was almost worth the price of admission all on its own). There's the wimpy boy who grows into a wimpy man, who's a writer. (The novel about the novelist, oh no....) The central couple evenly matched in terms of their scarred pasts. The fathers who need to be impressed. The mysterious older person close to the family who Knows An Important Secret.

No, I can't point to books I remember having read with these kinds of details, but that doesn't mean I won't stand by these comments.

I enjoyed the experience of reading this book, but I didn't enjoy the book itself nearly as much as I did Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance, a novel that portrays the nation two countries to the east of Afghanistan. Even with AFB's horrifying conclusion and occasionally retch-inducing violence, I came away from Mistry's version of India feeling like I'd changed. The Kite Runner was a good read, a fast read, a sweaty read, but I came away feeling like I hadn't learned much of anything, hadn't moved outside of standard fiction stereotypes. Khaled Hosseini can craft a ripping yarn, but that's really not what I look for in a novel.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

John Mutford's Canadian Reading Challenge

Over at John Mutford's blog, back in October, he posted a Canadian Reading Challenge, in which he asked people to read 13 Canadian books before Canada Day 2008 (one for each province or territory, though there was no requirement to get one from each region). I don't know how I missed this post, except to make the thoroughly lame excuse that it was a busy teaching time (but what isn't?).

Anyhoo, it turns out that I've finished the challenge just in 2008, so in blogged order here are the eighteen Canadian books I've read since January 1, of which fully 16 are by writers who live in BC now or who lived here while writing them:

1. Douglas Coupland, JPod
2. Sarah de Leeuw, Unmarked
3. Harold Rhenisch, Tom Thomson's Shack
4. Tim Bowling, The Lost Coast
5. Eden Robinson, Monkey Beach
6. Jan Zwicky, Songs for Relinquishing the Earth
7. Thomas Homer-Dixon, The Upside of Down
8. Robert Bringhurst, Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music
9. David R. Boyd, ed., Northern Wild
10. Gillian Wigmore, Soft Geography
11. Theresa Kishkan, Phantom Limb
12. Bruce Braun, The Intemperate Rainforest
13. Bus Griffiths, Now You're Logging
14. Donna Kane, Erratic
15. Donna Kane, Somewhere, A Fire
16. Tim Lilburn, Living In The World As If It Were Home
17. Ron Chudley, Stolen
18. Theresa Kishkan, Red Laredo Boots

Thanks for the chance to dig through the memory banks, and to reflect on everyone else's choices. I'll borrow heavily from your commenters, John, and gentle reader, if you got here from John's site, I hope you choose some of these BC writers!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Theresa Kishkan, Red Laredo Boots

In recent weeks I've been saying loudly and often how much I've come to appreciate Theresa Kishkan's writing. Her essay collection Phantom Limb came along at just the right time, the usual late-semester near-crackup that has to be joked about or else it might come true next time around, and it made for excellent reading while I was in Salmon Arm for the week-long death of my beloved grandmother. While there, I picked up Red Laredo Boots, Kishkan's previous essay collection from Terry Glavin's inestimable Transmontanus imprint from New Star Books, and it may have been the perfect book for this intense, ungraspable week.

It was good enough that my aunts, who stayed on after I left, confiscated the book so they could read and reread "The Road to Bella Coola," separately and together, in which Kishkan recounts a trip through BC after the death of her friend, who from internal evidence I think was Gayle Stelter, and the subsequent memorial service. The details of this essay, as with all of them, are light and true and sharp: "we cleaned out your purse, so your husband wouldn't have to do it, and you sent it home with me because I'd always liked it." If you've been through a death, this is something you recognize, and something you wish you could put so bluntly and poignantly at the same time.

This essay ends with a lovely paragraph:
On the road to Bella Coola, I saw everything twice, once for myself and once for you. The purple vetch, hawkweed, smell of sunlight on river rock, pine sap, and the unbearable sweetness of wild roses crowding the path to the water pump, all garlanded by golden asters, shining arnica, salsify the colour of your ribbons. Sorrow is a keen companion, hunting the roadsides and skies for images to hold the memory of a beloved spirit, light as pollen in warm winds off the river.
Well, maybe it's better for someone who grew up in the BC Interior with these plants and winds, but that's my world she gives back to me in this paragraph, that she gave back to me that week.

I wish I'd been able to read this book in a gulp, but it was interrupted by a three-week return to marking and lecture-planning and so on. It's important that Red Laredo Boots stayed with my mother and aunts, who made good use of it after the death of their mother, my grandmother, but I didn't get to stick with it. If I'd been smarter I'd've picked up another copy, either from a store or from the library, but I wasn't in much condition for smart.

Thanks, Theresa. From all of us. Keep that candle burning bright.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Robert Sullivan, Rats

Fun book, this one. Robert Sullivan is a contributing editor at Vogue and a longtime contributor to The New Yorker, but while both these details lend him cred as a writer, neither one prepares you for the subject of this book - Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants.

Rats? Really? This, I had to read.

But I was disappointed. There's plenty of rat information, lots of rat stories, high-quality natural observation, but the focus isn't on rats, but on Robert Sullivan. It fairly closely mimics nineteenth-century natural history writing, which frankly is what I was hoping for and what I wanted, but it's a simulacrum. A good nineteenth-century writer stayed out of the way, even though his (or her, less frequently) voice was an important part of the aesthetic effect. But Sullivan makes his own gaining of knowledge more important than the knowledge itself, and that doesn't work for me. Come on, it's getting late in the day to be this self-important, no? Admittedly his year of observation is interrupted by 9/11, since the alley in which he spent his time was only a few blocks from the WTC Towers, so it'd be understandable that people are more important than the actual objects of study, but 9/11 remains firmly in the background. Rats just aren't important - which is odd, since the book is supposed to be about them.

But let me backtrack to sum up.

Sullivan does a really nice job of bringing you into the alley with him and the rats, and his uncovering of the layered history of New York City is both evocative and efficiently handled. This is a book worth spending time with, even though it's not quite what I expected and hence not quite my thing. It's light, the way a New Yorker's cartoonist might handle a subject that doesn't seem all that important. Maybe that's unfair, but there was more here than Sullivan gave us, and with this book out there and selling well, publishers would think there's no room in the market for another one on rats.

And that's a damned shame, and it makes me cranky.

Ron Chudley, Stolen

I neglected to remark a few weeks ago about Ron Chudley's suspense novel Stolen. Except that it's set in BC and Alberta, this book is some distance from my preferred reading, but it's got quality suspense. I'm not going to talk about plot details, since I don't want to wreck the suspense or anything, so it's going to be a short review!

The characters recalled all the Western novels I read as a kid, pulled from my dad's shelves. The flawed hero, the hot babe who's tough as nails but soft in aaaalllll the right places, the complex villain with the mysterious past: it felt kind of comfortable, and it made the read even faster than it might have been otherwise. The speed of reading is important, too, because if you slow down, some of the plot details might start to bother you. The plot hangs together well, and the action is tightly focused, so if you like suspense writing, and you're looking for an out-of-the-way setting, this one just might work for you.

Mind you, there were some plot points in the middle that drove me right up the wall ("am I supposed to think this protagonist is an absolute IDIOT?!?"), and I confess that for me the book never recovered. It didn't help that I had a misprint with 45 repeated pages, and I had to go find another copy right after the drove-me-crazy plot points, but to me it damages the novel badly. It's still a good read, if this is your thing, but only if it's your thing.

Monday, May 05, 2008

ed. Mihesuah & Wilson, Indigenizing the Academy

It took me longer than I expected to get through Indigenizing the Academy: Transforming Scholarship and Empowering Communities, a collection of challenging and insightful essays edited by Devon Abbott Mihesuah and Angela Cavender Wilson. This is a good thing, though, because to some extent it replicated for me a small part of one aspect of the manifold difficulties faced by First Nations students in Canadian universities. When I was an undergraduate, most early-year courses felt like I was filling in the gaps of material I'd already been exposed to. At the time, I didn't think about students whose backgrounds were different enough from my own that these subjects were entirely new.

There's no point offering a detailed review of this book here, because I need to read it again to get over some of the vertigo. The university described in most of these essays - not just structurally difficult for First Nations individuals to enter into and remain within, but actively opposed to First Nations engagement - isn't the one I recognize as my own. My own practice isn't like that of those described here as opposed to First Nations engagement and independence, and by reflex I oppose the kinds of gate-keeping tactics the various authors object to, as my colleagues would support after I've gotten heated up at a few department meetings over the last couple of years (not about First Nations matters in these past cases, but about equity matters and general fairness).

And yet clearly, I'm more like these authors' opponents than I am like the authors themselves, even though I have no patience with the opponents and every desire for community with the authors.

The clearest example of what causes vertigo for me comes from Joseph P. Gone's terrific essay "Keeping Culture in Mind." Gone argues, from example and from theory, just how it is that psychology must be understood as purely Western, rather than globally applicable. He recounts an incident involving his grandmother, who in the course of a casual afternoon visit broke down in tears while recounting a story about the death of her favourite sister some decades earlier; after she left, another relative (who'd been through therapy in relation to addiction) commented in frustration that the grandmother needed to "confront her unresolved grief." Gone's perspective is instead that the grandmother is required to weep for her sister, even after the passage of considerable time, because to fail to do so would be (in his words) "a morally inappropriate abdication of her kinship obligations." The relative's perception derives from contemporary Western psychology, what Gone terms "unconscious cultural proselytization" by the psychologist who'd worked with the relative. In a Gros Ventres view, there's nothing "unresolved" about this grief, nothing that needs resolving - in fact, resolving it would represent a failure to sustain tribal identity.

Complex stuff.

The copy-editing of this book was a tiny bit slapdash, in that every article has a couple of very minor typos, but the material is important and interesting. This isn't the world I know, so I need to reflect on the extent to which I've been blind and the extent to which I've seen better practices than the ones described in this book, but every single person involved with university instruction or administration needs to read Indigenizing the Academy: Transforming Scholarship and Empowering Communities. Every single person.