Saturday, August 30, 2008

August 30 - Grafton Books

On a break from schoolwork today, I cycled down to the Moss Street Market with the 6-yr-old on board, stopping at a few garage sales. A lovely morning, really, rounded off with a quick stop at the reliably well-stocked Grafton Books on Oak Bay Avenue:
  • Ralph W. Andrews, Heroes of the Western Woods ($9, a pocket-sized classic from 1960), and
  • Terry Glavin, A Ghost in the Water ($10, the first title in the Transmontanus series Glavin edits for New Star Books - nice review at Dooney's Cafe).
The Andrews book has some amazing photos from early days logging the redwoods in California. They'd weld together two twelve-foot saws, so there's a shot of an improvised 24-foot saw barely long enough to span the downed log. There's another of twenty men holding hands, still not not able to surround the base of a standing tree. Another of a married couple dwarfed against the cut end of a log - with another man on a ladder above them, his feet half a body above their heads, his head not all the way to the top side of the log. Another of a huge axe cut into a redwood, maybe three feet in height, that represented three days of work and yet still wasn't big enough to let the sawing begin. Unimaginable trees - unimaginable. I'll scan and post some images when I get around to reading this one, which I expect will be fun!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Rita Wong, forage

To be blunt, postmodern art makes me tired. Postmodern examples of what used to be called art (paintings, installations, sculpture) spark my imagination, definitely, but I don't know what to do with them once I'm lit, and I lose both focus and interest. Some would say that's an intended effect, a social commentary, and that's fine, but I'm all about the engagement. I have a tough time seeing engagement in the self-consciously postmodern, though I've been assured by reasonably reputable sources that there's some there.

So when I heard that Rita Wong's book forage was a collection of postmodern environmental poems, I didn't know what to expect, or what that meant. Environmental matters are always about communities, either communities affected by an issue or communities who see themselves as bearers of a particular meaning. Without engagement, environmentalism is just tourism. What was Wong going to do in this book, and how was she going to deliver?

Deliver she does, too. For one thing, she uses postmodern conventions not to mark individuality or strangeness but to embed herself and her readers in a larger (but specific) community and discourse. She links herself repeatedly to other writers, for example, both Canadian and international, contemporary and classical, but - importantly - the other voices in her book are as likely to be activists and scientists as they are to be poets and theorists. To the same effect, she asks her reader to connect English words to Chinese symbols, declining to provide translations of the symbols. There are handwritten marginal notes throughout this book, some of them functioning as footnotes, some as glosses, some presumably for the reader's own inspiration. Intertextuality sometimes feels like bragging (to me, anyway), but not here.

Plus the poetry flat out works. Here are the closing lines of the angry "after 'The Stars' by Ping Hsin":
after fire carriages have ripped through
sweetgrass, sage, canyons, crags,
wrecked indigenous homelands
tore coal out of mines
drained water from wells
sacrificed celestials every mile
more disfigurement than development
we summon precautionary principles
in agriculture, manufacture
voluntary simplicity
coyotes bare their sharp teeth
have the last howl
(p.57)

I come away from forage more aware and more desirous of engagement, and that's a rare thing for me. In the last few years I've only read a half-dozen books with that effect on me, and since I spend most of my reading time looking for this effect, I know what I'm talking about.

A very good place for info about Rita Wong is at Rob Mclennan's 12 or 20 Questions blog. I like that she doesn't begin by naming Vancouver as her home, instead referring to it initially as "the unceded Coast Salish lands known as Vancouver." Clearly this isn't just a T-shirt slogan for her! A book and a writer worth getting to know, I'd say, and I'm looking forward to teaching forage this fall.

Tim Bowling, The Witness Ghost

In a February post this year, I looked at Tim Bowling's memoir The Lost Coast: Salmon, Memory, and the Death of Wild Culture. I liked the book, though not completely. In explaining why, in part I blamed my response to the book I just finished rereading yesterday, saying that "[Bowling's] 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."

I'm teaching the book this fall, so I hoped it would stand up, and mostly it did. A lot of my great pleasure in this book has to do with my own biography, with my own relationship with my father and grandfather(s), and with my own self-assessment as a desiring but non-completing poet. I see what Tim Bowling has done with similar material, and I'm kind of relieved that I don't need to finish my own work after all - which is all to my shame, obviously, but I'm a small person, and some days I'm okay with that. My own biographical connection is a shaky foundation on which to base book recommendations, though, not to mention course text selection. Still, I think it'll work.

Mind you, my more environmentally motivated students will be displeased with the persistence of nostalgia, with the lack of questions about Bowling's family's (small but systemic) involvement in the salmon fishery's decline, and with the failure to look more broadly at the world. But I don't think Bowling would mind, or he would have written a different book than this one. Come to think of it, he would have a different oeuvre altogether if such complaints would bother him in the least!

His verse works really well for me, though, especially the calm voice, the line breaks, and the clear language. Here are a few lines from "Anniversary," one of the few poems that excerpts well without a detailed backstory about the book, a poem about gardening at his parents' place:
I smear the mosquito on my palm
to wear your blood, the endless cedar
smutch of the possible. But hope is bad science.
A mosquito lives a few hours
and you've been dead a year.
(p. 53)
The poem marks the first anniversary of Heck Bowling's 2001 death, memorably and openly and conflictedly.

I've given this volume to a few people close to me, and while I'm confident they don't appreciate it like I do, I know what it means to me. If it shows up in your mailbox, you'll know what you mean to me as well.

A few purchases

A couple of book stops this weekend, plus some data entry into the tracking docs - I'm behind each of the last two years on total number of books bought, but I'm spending more this year. Which is good, frankly, because authors deserve it. As I've said before, I buy way too many used books, and not enough new ones. I'm still not buying enough new books, but I'm getting there....

August 22, Salvation Army (while looking for shoes to suit my polyester outfit for the party we hosted):
  • Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies ($3.99)
  • Walter Needham and Barrows Mussey, A Book of Country Things ($1.50)
August 24, Bolen's (to pick up an ordered book that I've been keen to pick up for an awfully long time):

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Eden Robinson, Monkey Beach

I enjoyed my first read of Eden Robinson's Monkey Beach, enough that I decided to teach it this fall in my BC literature and environment course without taking the trouble to read it a second time first. After my positive experience of rereading Harold Rhenisch's Tom Thomson's Shack, I was worried that I'd be jinxed for the other books that I chose for this course without going through them again.

There's a Robinson story in The Vancouver Stories: West Coast Fiction from Canada's Best Writers, a volume I picked up recently and flipped through. The story focuses on one of the important minor characters in Monkey Beach, a girl I don't particularly get (or like much), and while I'm still somewhat puzzled by her, it makes more sense now.

Tom Thomson's Shack was a better experience this time, but probably because I was worried about how it'd go. I'm comfortable with teaching this one, and I'll probably open the course with it because it should be a fun opening for the students. We'll see! Like I said last time, go and read this book. At some points it almost feels like a young-adult novel, but if you don't like that sort of thing, maybe pretend I just called it accessible and open hearted. Monkey Beach is well worth spending time with, and I'd encourage you to do that.

(But there are a couple of continuity errors in this book - or maybe Canadian swimmers were medalling at the Moscow Olympics because it's fiction, like an alternate reality?)

(Oh, and John, I'm not putting this one in for the Second Canadian Book Challenge. I'm making the executive decision that for me, I'm not going to count as legit a second read with less than a 12-month interval! This means I'm retracting my reread of Rhenisch from the count.)

Monday, August 18, 2008

Jeannette Armstrong, Slash

Another one down for the Second Canadian Book Challenge - good fun over there, if you haven't visited.

I hadn't gotten around to Jeannette Armstrong's Slash, though I've heard for years of its importance for those of us interested in how Canada can either include or relate to First Nations in such a way as to make the arrangement work for the First Nations, rather than for Canada (exclusive of First Nations). For those keeping score at home, yes, I do indeed feel compelled to write in this elliptical, recursive phrasing when I write about First Nations peoples, individuals, and matters.

But to the book.

In a lot of ways, and for a lot of reasons, it doesn't make sense to evaluate Slash against the standard criteria for fiction, or for nonfiction for that matter, though one can certainly do that. It's a standard, quite predictable bildungsroman; there's a huge amount of exposition and markedly little drama related to the characters themselves; dialogue generally takes the form of debates between Distinct And Opposing Theoretical Positions, expressed in lengthy chunks of text while one character - sometimes angry - manages to listen patiently to another character's rejection of the first character's entire worldview. Not wildly satisfying, you'd think.

But you'd be wrong, at least for this reader.

I really did get wound up about the life and plight of Tommy Kelsaket / Kelasket (the last name is spelled both ways in the book, but there's no comment to clarify which is right, if either), who at one point after being stabbed grabs his attacker's knife and fights back - hence earning the nickname "Slash" among certain circles. I was excited by the subject of the debates/dialogue, which is expressed with a freshness and clarity that for me made the book irresistible. I was pleased to learn the history, even though I've got to go digging for details now on dates and places, so I can place events against the various historical timelines in my own head. I enjoyed the flashes of delicate natural description, including of Tommy's desire to see his place in the world.

A professor's blurb on the back cover of Slash concludes with the words, "Canada should read this." Yes, Renate Eigenbrod, Canada should read this. And I'm a-gonna see how many excuses I can find to include this text in my courses over the coming years....

Saturday, August 16, 2008

August 16 - Old Towne Videos, Mags, & Books (+ Munro's!)

I've already called Old Towne Videos, Magazines and Books a creepy place - it's certainly the only bookstore I've been to in some time with an Adult Only Room, and I ain't going there often. Still, both times I've been there in the last several months, they've had some good volumes. Today:
  • Sharon Butala, Wild Stone Heart: An Apprentice in the Fields ($10)
  • ed. Derek Fairbridge, The Vancouver Stories: West Coast Fiction from Canada's Best Writers ($5)
  • ed. Sheila Harrington & Judi Stevenson, Islands in the Salish Sea: A Community Atlas ($10)
And then I stopped by at Munro's to pick up Jasper Fforde's The Fourth Bear from the sale table ($5.99). I bet it's a good'un!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Harold Rhenisch, Tom Thomson's Shack (2)

Does a book count toward the Second Canadian Book Challenge, I wonder, when it's my second time through in less than a year? (Here's the first review, from January 2008. I expect John'll make a ruling....)

I'll be teaching Harold Rhenisch's Tom Thomson's Shack this fall, so it was definitely time to get through it again. As it turns out, my first review said I'd have to read it at least a few times before I knew what I thought - which one would think'd be advice I'd follow before choosing this book as a required text for my BC literature course, but no. Working without a net this time around! Heck, I hadn't even seen Rita Wong's Livesay-winning forage before I selected that book, so it could be an adventure of a course....

(Plus I've only just now noticed that I haven't reviewed Wong's excellent forage here yet! Quel oversight [quelle?].)

Where was I?

Tom Thomson's Shack is a memoir, I suppose, but it might be travel writing instead, or cultural criticism. BC history? It participates in all these modes and genres, effectively in all of them; the prose is crisp, and the approach questioning. I'm comfortable with teaching it now, and I think it'll work well. I just have to decide whether to lead with Rhenisch or with Eden Robinson's Monkey Beach.

Since I only dimly recalled my own notes on the book, but didn't look at them before reading it again, my worries about the role of Buddhism dominated my thinking. I'm glad to say they didn't need to. Wayne Still, the voice of Buddhism in this book, is a complicated figure, and I don't think we're meant to regard him as the voice of knowledge (Voice of Knowledge? - "capital letters [are] always the best way of dealing with things you didn't have a good answer to" [bonus points for identifying the source, without using Google!]). The terrific thing about Rhenisch's accomplishment here is that he's done his best to invent his way through: without relying on the standard Eastern critique of Westernness (Buddhism) or on standard Western modes (economics, art history, that sort of thing), he's come a long way toward imagining how to think about the world and our place within it.

"There is a kind of glow within the physical objects of this world," he remarks, "which is the legacy of the colonial world" (p.154). The first half of the sentence sounds lovely, arty, poetical - and I didn't expect the second half. It perfectly expresses what Rhenisch means, once you already know what he means; our ways of seeing have been trained by the social and aesthetic structures that were only possible in a world shaped by colonialism, a shaping influence that still colours how one lives in rural BC, in all kinds of ways. It makes sense, and it makes an increasing amount of sense the longer you spend with this book (or with Brian Fawcett, which is perhaps a story for another time). Anyway, this sort of experience characterizes my second reading of Tom Thomson's Shack. I knew what was coming, and yet it still struck me with force. I look forward to my third reading!

(No, John, I won't be asking to have a third reading count for the Challenge!)

Robert Hass, Human Wishes

A very good student of mine loaned me Robert Hass's poetry collection Human Wishes a while ago, after she'd written a paper offering an ecocritical reading of "On Squaw Peak." A good paper, though I didn't know Hass well enough - and still don't - to say how well her paper would fit into the scholarship, were it to be polished, lengthened, focused, and published. Still, it tempted me to read some Hass, and bless her for the subsequent purchase and loan of the volume "On Squaw Peak" was from!

I think of myself as a poetry fan, but there's a lot I don't get about contemporary poetry. (By which term, of course, I mean anything written since roughly 1797.) That's true about Hass, to some extent - the poems in this book tend to start one place, with or without an obvious link to the title, and wander off somewhere very different indeed. The end point is meant to reflect back on the starting point, and I assume that we're meant to see in the poem's development (a) a mirror of our own developing understanding of the poem and (b) a map of Hass's coming to terms with the kernel that prompted the poem. Sometimes it works really well, as it does in "On Squaw Peak," but sometimes it's less successful, to my eyes.

I enjoyed "Paschal Lamb" very much, and "Spring Rain," but "Spring Drawing 2" and "The Apple Trees at Olema" - not so much. How on earth do we get from a textured, dense evocation of aged apple trees, to a young boy walking hotel hallways, clutching his room key and hence feeling safe? I know, I know, there's a solid reason for it (we don't know as much as we think we do, maybe, or we're not as safe as we think we are, or something), I don't think it's random, but ... for me, it only works some of the time. Great stuff when it works, though.

It needs to be said, as well, that Robert Hass teaches a seriously interesting environmental studies course that addresses literature. Oh to be in Berkeley, now that fall is (almost) here....

Friday, August 08, 2008

August 8 - UVic

Two stops here at the university today. I went into the main bookstore to find someone to talk to about selling books at a conference on-campus, and I found Steve Jones' Coral: A Pessimist in Paradise for $2.99 on the Hurt Penguins table ("an inspired, eclectic book that links science with history, literature, politics and myth").

After a chat I crossed the road to subTEXT, where I found three good'uns:
  • Thomas R. Berger's Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland: The Report of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry ($5, but an immensely important book)
  • N Scott Momaday's Pulitzer-winning House Made of Dawn ($5), which should long have been on my shelves, and
  • Charles GD Roberts' Kindred of the Wild ($4), nature stories first published in 1902

Jasper Fforde, The Big Over Easy

What fun, what fun Jasper Fforde novels are! The Big Over Easy was less engaging for me than The Eyre Affair or The Well of Lost Plots, which were part of the series featuring lit.crit detective Tuesday Next, but then this is a new series, so I need to get over the loss of those great characters.

Mind you, DI Jack Spratt appeared briefly in one of the other books, I think The Well of Lost Plots, but I don't recall clearly enough. Not relevant anyway, except that the schtick of the first series carries over into this one as well. Whereas Tuesday Next lived and fought crime in an England where the worlds portrayed in books interpenetrated the so-called real world, where people tried to kill characters in books, where characters could kill people, where people read - read happily, wildly, proudly - Jack Spratt lives in a slightly more complicated England. Fairytale characters live among people, but many of them don't actually know they're fairytale characters; the town of Reading (of course) has been made a sort of sanctuary for them, so they can live fairly normal lives. Time keeps shifting by a few years, too, with no explanation for it, and I'm confident that it's not a continuity error.

Spratt is a detective with the NCD, the Nursery Crime Division, responsible for investigating the special sorts of crimes that happen to nursery tale characters living in the world. Before the book opens he's just failed to convict the murderous three pigs of killing Theophilus Bartholomew Wolff, aka "Big Bad" (p.296), the latest in a long string of unsuccessful prosecutions. This case was hampered by the broad public sympathy for the pigs, and by the fact that the jury consisted of the pigs' peers - namely, twelve talking pigs who'd felt threatened by TB Wolff. As he explains to his new partner, DS Mary Mary, who's just transferred in from Basingstoke (nothing to be ashamed of in that, she's told repeatedly in what's clearly an inside joke for Fforde), nursery crimes have a way of working themselves out in the end, no matter what the investigators do. Spratt, though, feels that he needs to speak for the fairytale characters, and is a good man. This novel begins with the apparent murder of Humpty Stuyvesant Van Dumpty III ("Businessman, philanthropist, large egg," according to the 2002 edition of Who's What?), and gets progressively more complicated and delightful as it goes on.

Rest assured that the plot has plenty of twists but isn't unfair; the writing is sparkling and funny; and the characters are worth your time. I snorted a number of times while reading this book, and I think you'll agree that British humour is best judged by the snort factor.

Heck, I'd read this book just for the chapter epigraphs, most of which are drawn from various newspaper stories about events related to NCD crimes, but all of which paint a clearer picture of the book's represented world, thus removing from the book itself some of the need to explain how the world is the way it is. A sample epigraph:
Aliens Boring, Report Shows
An official report confirms what most of us have already suspected: that the alien visitors who arrived unexpectedly on the planet thirteen years ago are not particularly bright, nor interesting. The thirteen-page government document describes our interstellar chums as being 'dull' and 'unable to plan long-term'. The report, which has been compiled from citizenship application forms and interview transcripts, paints a picture of a race who are 'prone to put high importance on inconsequential minutiae' and are 'easily distracted from important issues'. On an entirely separate note, the aliens were reported to be merging into human society far better than has been expected - the reason for this is unclear.
extract from The Owl, 4 June 2001 (p.143)
Fun, like I said!

Things are made more complicated by the fact that Prometheus becomes Spratt's lodger (yes, that Prometheus). After escaping the chains binding him to a large rock that permit an eagle to rip out his liver nightly, Prometheus is looking for British asylum and resisting through the courts Zeus' claim that his punishment on the Caucusus was justified, indeed legally mandated. Significantly, Spratt's eldest daughter is named Pandora, and she's an evolutionist while Prometheus is a creationist (see here for some mythological background). I hear that Marie Phillips' Gods Behaving Badly is a splendid read, though I haven't picked it up yet; still, here's Jasper Fforde using some of the same tricks, before Phillips' novel appeared.