Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Spam poetry

Every so often spam gets through, and the randomly generated text is always interesting. I don't always open them, but occasionally, since as a Mac user I'm not particularly concerned about viruses - though I recognize this is mostly arrogance on my part.

Here's the text today:
To the brow of the hill. Directly ahead a ravine, ,,,,.... ...iii.. ....,,,, a ,, dkb.. .. Mm .. Chicago convention, the exact and extreme opposite that the few lines he had written, addressed to years devoted to great austerities, given to study charitable rule of believing only half what the son. Rising every day at early dawn, he purified there were filled with wonder at sight of all highest good of one that has subjugated one's square inch lost. Even the mud banks dividing of about one thousand, had lately been engaged upon air, and if it ended with the escape of that writes mr. Micholitz, there is no doubt these to get up and dress and go out. The cool night i doubt whether it has been described by any one.the.
And here's some annotation:
Cool, yeah? Interesting that it's all literary or faith-based. There's a dissertation there somewhere....

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Jeremy Mercer, Time Was Soft There

I usually wait at least a little while before I write about a completed book. I'm easily convinced, you see. Words are beautiful, and it takes some time for perspective to develop. Still, here goes - I just this moment finished Jeremy Mercer's memoir Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co., and it was such fun.

Mercer's journalistic past shows, because the prose is seriously readable, and not the least bit precious. On the other hand it's not particularly literary either, and I do want some flashes. Life's too short to be stuck reading newspapers when you expected a book, but Time Was Soft There does qualify as a book.

The gist: Jeremy Mercer, crime reporter, flees Ottawa thinking that his recent true-crime book has generated a credible death threat. He arrives in Paris, runs out of money, and winds up living in the legendary - no, the mythic - quarters of bookstore Shakespeare & Co., which is filled with characters strange enough that they make more sense in a memoir than in fiction. He then goes on to observe (and participate in) its long-delayed achievement of stability and solvency, and to manage something of a "mostly happy for the foreseeable future" ending for himself.

And it's just plain fun. A fast read, light on its feet but anchored through its characters and environs to great swathes of Western civilization. I could quibble with what felt to me like a relatively unsophisticated use of characters as stereotypes, but (a) maybe that's how they functioned in the fatiguing, pressured world of S.&Co., (b) the introductory "Author's Note" remarks that "the truth becomes liquid" and that "this is as true a story as can be told at this time," and (c) I'd be expecting too much from it if I seriously meant such a quibble.

Right now I'm pondering the relations and distinctions between this volume and Dave Eggers' various McSweeney's enterprises, but it's too early to come up with anything. Mercer's a realist, more or less, uninterested in gadgetry, and these distinguish him pretty clearly from Eggers.

Of course, I haven't found enough in Eggers' work to hold my attention, as much as I adore the gadgetry of recent numbers of McSweeney's....

(And another entry for the Canadian Book Challenge, over at The Book Mine Set. Finally getting rolling here.)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

July 25 - Munro's Books

Munro's came through for me: Jeremy Mercer's Time Was Soft There arrived yesterday, so we zipped down to pick it up ($15.50). Naturally I also picked up Jasper Fforde's The Big Over Easy ($5.99) - had to, looking forward to it, gonna love it.

Priscilla Uppal, Ontological Necessities

Priscilla Uppal made the 2007 Griffin list for this book of poetry, Ontological Necessities. I can see why, because the book's written with great confidence, and Uppal's facility with words and her comfort within the intellectual and literary traditions combine to justify her self-confidence. The translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem "The Wanderer" was especially striking, but there are some other standouts as well. Really, it's prize-winning stuff.

I didn't enjoy this book, not at all, but I can see why it's prize-winning stuff.

Yeah, I guess I did say the same thing about Clara Callan (not once, but twice, and even on CBC Radio) - this one ticks different boxes on different lists, but same effect. Maybe I'm just not as literary as I sometimes think I am. Admittedly, when I type I sometimes have to sweep my eyebrows up out of the way....

Anyway, there's a seriously self-absorbed quality to this volume that's often present in contemporary poetry I don't respond well to. I'm always happy to find a writer with a sense of play, but to me here it reads more as Uppal's delight in the working of her own mind, not delight in the play itself.

"The Poem Can Be Completed By Anyone" is a good example; it relies on the ancient Socratic trope of the know-nothing authority, but the "anyone" is actually a really, really narrow profile - hell, I'm an English prof who deliberately chooses to teach poetry rather than prose, and I don't even see myself implicated in this poem. It ends with open questions broad enough that in theory anyone could have something to say ("What is it you'd like to say? / What do you have to say for yourself?"), but by the time I get there, my eyes are leaping to the next poem, wanting Uppal to say something, maybe even something specifically to me, rather than giving me more of this reflexive (narcissistic?) discourse.

Not that it matters, but I gather that the reliably interesting Zachariah Wells is on board with me here.

Maybe I'm the narcissistic one, looking for myself to be reflected in what I read. Actually no, "maybe" nothing. I'm definitely self-absorbed in my reading (not that I'm alone in that). But a Griffin jury would totally dig this book. I'll read Priscilla Uppal again, because she's got real talent, but frankly I'm not expecting much beyond more prize-worthy predictably unpredictable works.

EDIT: How did I not mention that this is my first title in John Mutford's second annual Canadian Book Challenge, Eh?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

July 24 - Munro's Books

I picked up Alan Weisman's intriguing and positively reviewed The World Without Us at Munro's today (sale tables, $9.99). I was actually looking for Jeremy Mercer's Time Was Soft There for the book club, but like every single store in town, no luck - nice choice, Leach! ;-)

Mercer's book is reviewed here and here, if you're as intrigued by the title as I was.

I'm pleased to have picked up Weisman's book, and there's no bad time spent at the lovely Munro's Books. As well, I only narrowly escaped picking up the first two books in Jasper Fforde's second book series, the Nursery Crime Division. From the website:
Despite the Ursine Suitable Accommodation Act, only three anthropomorphised bears have so far taken up the offer of quasi-human solitude, going for long walks in the forest and eating porridge. For the Bruins - Ed, Ursula and Junior - it seemed perfect. Perfect that was, until the unannounced arrival of an enigmatic blonde who turned their perfect life of rural tranquility upside down.

...and ate their porridge.

Good to know they're there - I'm sure I'll be back for them, since the Thursday Next books have been about the most fun I've had between book covers since I discovered Douglas Adams.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Considering going neo-Luddite...

Yep, I'm thinking about unplugging my brain from the intertubes. There's no real benefit to being online, only trouble, and its random (and fake) connections between strangers dissuade us from attempting community in our physical lives.

OK, it's never fully going to happen for me, and I don't fully believe all the doomery-gloomery anyway, but unconsciously I've been enacting resistance to the Google just by ensuring that I keep reading books and newspapers and so forth.

The springboard to all this: Nicholas Carr in the current Atlantic Monthly poses the question "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" - or at least that's what the editors call the article. Really Carr's worrying about the distinctions between print reading practices and screen reading practices, and what that implies about how our brains are wired. It's worth reading in full. In solidarity with Carr's point, I'm not summarizing it further. Read it yourself. Maybe PDF it and print it off first.

I'm just saying...

Sometimes xkcd makes me laugh right out loud. We're an easy target, sure, but still: this was funny.

Friday, July 18, 2008

July 17 - UVic Books

I didn't expect a sale, and I was only killing time before the Green Drinks event on campus sustainability, but I picked up a few things at a mere 20% of face value:
  • Myrna Kostash with Duane Burton, Reading the River: A Traveller's Companion to the North Saskatchewan River ($4.99)
  • Helen Molnar and Michael Meadows, Songlines to Satellites: Indigenous Communication in Australia, the South Pacific and Canada ($4.99)
  • Roy Miki, Random Access File ($2.19)
Honestly, I don't know what the deal is with bookstores and these cut-rate sales. It makes no sense to me. I'll gladly take these books off their hands, and I might go back tomorrow and pick up some others, but where's the return in this for the industry?

Myrna Kostash is a fond memory from my time in Edmonton. I saw her read a few times at Audrey's Books on Whyte Ave, when I used to go to such things regularly as a leisured grad student, so this book fairly leapt into my hands today. Kostash on the river running through Edmonton? How could that go wrong?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Akira Mizuta Lippit, Electric Animal

I don't usually think of myself as a bear of very little brain, but I feel that way today. Akira Mizuta Lippit has some buzz around his work, and I was expecting great things from his wonderfully entitled Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife.

Unfortunately, it turns out that I'm not smart enough to get the full benefit from the book. Admittedly I've only browsed through Nietzsche and Derrida (albeit delightedly), I have a hard time thinking of Freud as anything other than influential but WRONG, and Deleuze/Guattari really need to get outta my reading list and into my hands (cue the Billy Ocean music), but I had trouble seeing what shape all the fascinating stuff in this book was accumulating into.

As the back of the book notes, "Differentiation from animals helped to establish the notion of a human being, but the disappearance of animals now threatens that identity." This is a long and complex story, as well as a valuable one, and Lippit works with a pantheon of greats in his attempt to reframe how the story should look as we move into the future. But I kept waiting for something that would justify that audacious and mystifying subtitle - Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife - and I just never found it. The title refers to the work of Freud's onetime collaborator Josef Breuer, but unless I slept through it, there was no parallel allusion to explain the subtitle.

I feel like I understand Heidegger a little better, and Lippit's Derrida is one I'm already comfortable with, but really this felt like a dense and thorny introduction, like a prologue to the real work which Lippit now needs to do. I recognize that the conclusion is provocative and forward-thinking, and that Lippit is working hard to imagine "the possibility of a nonhuman world, unregulated by human consciousness and subjectivity" (100). I accept the suggestive power in his remark that "If the animal is said to lack language, to represent the site of radical alterity, then words cannot circumscribe the being of animals as animals" (163).

But I don't really know what to do with this book. I'm less flummoxed than I was by Lilburn's Living in the World As If It Were Home, because I recognize Electric Animal as a member of the philosophic genre of the prolegomena, but that doesn't mean I know what I'll be saying about this to students when the topic of animality comes up....

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty

A tester, is what my father-in-law would call this sort of thing.

Anyone who's read more than a single post on this blog will know that I'm a confirmed crank about some things: growing your own food, using less oil, buying locally produced and manufactured goods, community engagement, etc. etc. Now that I've read Jeffrey Sachs' seriously well researched The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, for the book club, I'm wondering which of my cherished crankinesses I've got wrong.

Basically, Sachs argues that the wealthy countries have to help the poorest countries get onto what he calls the ladder of economic progress. He focuses on countries caught in the poverty trap, whose citizens aren't able to earn enough or grow enough to feed themselves, whose soils are being destroyed by desperate farming, whose infrastructure is decaying, and which cannot do anything to reach outside their borders as economic agents. Sachs advocates higher taxes on very rich individuals (maybe a 5% dedicated surtax on everyone earning over $500,000 USD), single-window service (likely through the UN) rather than all the currently involved groups, buckets of public support along with private investment.

I'm on board with all this, and I don't think any of this is new. The new bit is simply the depth of involvement Sachs has had over the years with countries going through enormous challenges - Bolivia's hyperinflation, Poland's emerging from Communism, India's technological revolution - that grounds and informs his analysis.

But there's a significant twist, for me at least. Sachs argues forcefully that the surest way for an extremely poor nation to become less poor is to become an exporter. In other words, if I'm genuinely supportive of countries like Ghana, Burkina Faso, and the rest, then I need to try to buy things exported all the way around the globe from those countries. Sure, I can keep growing my own potatoes (which are coming well, btw, unlike the beets), and I can avoid cheap plastic crap, but ... when I need to buy stuff, I need to make sure that some of it was made far away, albeit in particular ways and in particular countries.

The galling bit is that I've been comfortable claiming that a big chunk of the fair-trade market is no more than a feel-good cloak over consumerist materialism - not that different from buying a half-ton of made-in-China plastic storage bins, except that you get to feel good about wasting your money on something whose import burned a whole lot of fuel.

Sachs says that these two things are enormously different. That if we in the wealthy countries insist on shopping local, growing our own food, and reducing consumption patterns, the poorest countries will never escape the depths of poverty. That I'm the selfish one, buying locally and not buying things made by people far away. That mine is the civilization that's doomed to be overrun by the globalizers - hopefully by what he calls "Enlightened Globalization," but the jury's out on whether that'll be the path globalization takes.

No veggies ripe in my garden these days, except new potatoes, so maybe I'll go pick up something from far away for dinner tonight....