Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Oct 22 - UVic Bookstore

The Hurt Penguin sale is back (though my spellcheck for a casual misspelling suggested "hurt pension," appropriately enough given the news) at the UVic bookstore, and probably at your local university bookstore as well. It was, I must say, a serious disappointment this time - really, how many books does one need about how to make money about online poker? Still, a couple of choices:
  • Ken Follett, World Without End ($8.99, apparently the long-awaited, eagerly anticipated follow-up to his must-read 1989 blockbuster Pillars of the Earth - but for me, only a book club pick, and let me just say: if I have to read a thousand-page book, it better be good competition for the brilliant Neal Stephenson, or I'm calling it a giant waste of my time!)
  • William Bryant Logan, Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth ($3.99 - a troubling title, frankly, but I've enjoyed flipping through his Oak: The Frame of Civilization, though I haven't actually read the whole book yet).

Friday, October 17, 2008

Granta 102 - The new nature writing

The literary journal Granta is one of those glossy, handsomely done volumes I don't ever feel adequate to hold in my hands for long. If nothing else, Granta 102's take on "The new nature writing" has meant I've spent enough time with an issue that I'll have a go in future at reading Granta's contemporary fiction and feeling - maybe - that I'm not the butt of the joke. We'll see how it goes.

Worth the price of admission, absolutely: $16 is a tremendous bargain. Richard Mabey's piece on the Fortingall Yew is excellent, Matthew Power's on communal squatting in Giuliani's Bronx illuminating, Edward Platt's on bird-watching in Israel seriously eye-opening, etc.

My favourite piece is Jonathan Raban's "Second Nature: The de-landscaping of the American West," which tells the post-Contact history of much of the Northwestern plains (east of the Coast Range, where things are significantly drier), ending with an imagination of the same area after the irrigation and electrical infrastructure gives out. I imagine I'll inflict it regularly on students - look out, future students of English 478!

The best lines, though, are to be found in the entries taken from Roger Deakin's journal in the years before his death. Here's a special gem, on recalling hearing at age 17 of his father's death by heart attack on the London Tube:
That might actually have been the moment that made me a conservationist. When I was writing poems like 'Gentian' and later on fighting for Cowpasture Lane, I was wanting back what I had lost. I wanted my father back. I didn't want to lose anything more. I had lost such a big part of my life, I needed to compensate by holding on tightly to everything else. (p.242)
Honestly, you should read this issue.

N. Scott Momaday, House Made of Dawn

The late 1960s kind of make me cranky. I can't help imagining self-satisfied boomers thinking fondly back on the revolution, sipping their Pinot Grigio and (still) listening to the Rolling Stones - or something similar, anyway, not something as straightforwardly stereotypical as that. But in the same way that the younger me deliberately avoided immersion in Americana (literature, movies, politics) because I naively thought I could avoid colonization, I've maintained some distance from that celebrated time.

Usually that's fine, but tonight I'm acutely aware that my past bloody-mindedness limits my ability to recognize - or assess, I suppose, but "recognize" is the verb I want - the achievement of N. Scott Momaday in his 1968 novel House Made of Dawn. I know the standard praise and objections, that it either (a) links the diction of classic English literature with oral First Nations literature of this continent, or (b) subjugates First Nations stories and traditions in an attempt to gain favour within the dominant culture that developed from - among other things - classic English literature. I'm not able to take a firm stance on the arguments, though, because frankly the late 1960s are too remote for me, and these particular forms of these arguments are deeply rooted in the late-1960s cultural moment. I can't tell whether I'm getting it wrong in the really important ways, the ways that I try to keep from coming up when I'm teaching introductory literature classes and my grip on a text isn't sure.

All I know is that there's a distinct beauty to this novel. There are elements of horror, too, in the small details so precisely evocative of physical pain suffered by Abel (the main character), in Milly's pain at her accumulated family losses, and in the post-lapsarian decadence for Native Americans living in Los Angeles at that time, but many of the characters - no matter their circumstance - remain open to beauty. Maybe it's the landscape, maybe it's a sense of community, maybe it's seawater beading on a young woman's bare legs, but the key is that this is a world of meaning, of possibility. This is a world where hope lives. Amid justified despair, certainly, but at least hope lives.

But what seduced me, really, was the phrasing. It just sounds good, you know? And I'm a sucker for a well-turned sentence, especially when one's followed by whole pages of them. Politics be damned, for tonight.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

October 16 - Russell Books

Gosh, but Russell Books has come a long way. I've always enjoyed the upstairs, even though it was kind of dominated by the hardcover books people donate surreptitiously to charities after being given them at Christmas, but the downstairs seemed uneven. The upstairs is in the midst of doubling in size, which is good news for everyone except Shepherd Books just up the street - a terrific store to which I'll be making a long-delayed shopping trip before long.

Anyway, a couple of pickups:
  • Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West ($9.99 - several copies there, in a variety of editions), and
  • John Vaillant, The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed ($9.99 - another copy of this month's book club book, as I seem to have given away the first two copies I'd bought)
I was particularly impressed by the store's First Nations section (just past the cash desk) and environment section (far back left). If you know I'm on the loose downtown, start looking for me there.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Patrick Suskind, Perfume

A few years ago, a good friend raved to me, more than once, about Patrick Suskind's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. One especially memorable rave was delivered at a 40th birthday party we both attended for a mutual friend, and to my good fortune, I found a copy not long afterward on the shelves of the Hornby Island Free Store (link only tangentially relevant). It's taken me over a year to get to it, but I needed a break from marking, and Perfume was one of the few unread volumes on my compressed home bookshelf, so I was happy finally to make the chance.

I have to say, first, that I enjoy Law & Order: SVU, Criminal Minds (recently called "execrable" in the illustrious Victoria Times-Colonist), and many of the other "investigate the perv" TV shows. It's not that I don't mind them; I actively enjoy them. I dislike similar movies, because the shots of the perv's actions are too often troublingly lingering, as if the camera's delighting in the actions, but I'm OK with TV's slightly greater distance. I say this to insist that my lack of warmth for the book isn't due to the nature of the murders themselves, or of the murderer. In fact, I thought that the murderer's psyche was deeply believable, and that the rationale for the murders (and the particular methods he used) was immaculately justified within the fiction. My response isn't a moral problem, in other words, as it is for some other reviewers.

Mind you, I'm perfectly comfortable with the fact that other people like the book a lot, like Raven over at Carmina Corvae (who I found through Google's Blogsearch function) or Marky C at Frock You (ditto).

I'm OK with their pleasure because for me, the novel starts off staggeringly well. The descriptions of 18th-century cities, which would have smelt vile beyond imagining, are excellent, and the characters are graphically realized and genuinely interesting. Suskind uses the standard machinery of magical realism to excellent effect (unexplained appearances and disappearances, catalogues of diverse objects, sensuality, etc), and I was impressed by his achievement in applying that stereotypically Latin American mode to a European setting.

The thing is, though, Perfume is a plot-driven story. And in my opinion, the plot goes off the rails badly. The scene of the hanging was ... beyond absurd, and for me, the book dragged itself brokenly from that point on to what felt like a failed conclusion. I know, I know, there's enough magical realism in the book that presumably I should read the closing twenty pages as a slanted allegory: maybe as a lesson in how magical realism is inadequate for a world of violence, I don't know (and notwithstanding Gabriel Garcia Marquez's achievement in precisely this use of magical realism in The Autumn of the Patriarch).

You should take your friend's advice to read this book, because s/he's absolutely right that it's a riveting novel. But don't blame me when, thirty pages from the end, you start snorting, "What the hell...?!?" or "Oh, come on!"

Monday, October 06, 2008

October 6 - Bolen's Books

I went to John Schreiber's book launch tonight for Stranger Wycott's Place, the newest volume in the Transmontanus series by New Star that Terry Glavin edits. I finally got to meet Terry, which was a treat, as well as the impressively named Sage Birchwater, and I greatly enjoyed listening to John talk about the book and the experiences that went into it. Plus I used up a birthday gift certificate, and (predictably) spent a little extra as well:
  • ed. W.F. Garrett-Petts, The Small Cities Book: On the Cultural Future of Small Cities ($18.99 - a New Star Book that uses Kamloops as their example to "[localize] questions of globalization and cultural identity at the municipal level... [and to] explore notions of social capital" - exactly my thing, in other words)
  • John Schreiber, Stranger Wycott's Place: Stories from the Cariboo-Chilcotin ($19)
As Schreiber says in the first chapter of his book, "Through learning where we are, we may learn who we are" (p.11); this is an awfully brief way of explaining why I study what I do.

I'm not sure yet if Schreiber's motto justifies my birthday gift of Granta 102 (on "The New Nature Writing," about which Keith Talent alerted me some time ago), but it definitely authorizes the other gift: a limited edition, boxed, signed hardcover of Roderick Haig-Brown's 1960 The Living Land, which - needless to say - I'm greatly enjoying already.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress

"Now is our last chance to get the future right," reads the final sentence of Ronald Wright's powerful, chilling, and succinct A Short History of Progress, the volume derived from the 2004 Massey Lectures on CBC Radio (p.132). The Massey Lectures, which I've written about before in relation to Thomas King's The Truth About Stories, just have to rank among the very best gifts to the world from public broadcasting, and I can't think of a more important subject than the one Wright takes on here.

Basically, Wright lays out the history of progress as it occurred in several distinct and now fallen civilizations, namely Sumer, Easter Island, Rome, and the Inca, as well as China and Egypt as long-standing civilizations that have had extended runs. (In the case of Egypt, mind you, with annual increases in soil salination because of the Aswan Dam's moderating effect on the Nile's annual cleansing floods, this particular ancient civilization may be approaching collapse.) Wright argues that progress happens because we keep intensifying our application of the original solutions to the original problems, as well as applying these solutions to new problems caused specifically by the original solutions themselves. Things get better for a comparatively long time, and then things get very bad indeed, much more quickly, often catastrophically so.

The most total example is Easter Island, a story that makes for horrifying reading no matter how many times you see it. At some point, there was a final standing tree, that at some point in the previous year had yielded viable seeds, and yet no one saved a seed and someone cut the tree down, almost certainly to participate in the raising of yet another pointless moai. After this last tree was gone, islanders were forever unable to build fires, shelter, or boats, either to leave or to catch enough fish. They walked willingly into their doom, which was almost total, and unbelievable given the complexity of their society before its collapse.

(It should be said that there are objections out there to the story Wright tells; for example, at least some of the islanders' boats may have been built from reeds rather than wood. Still, all of the fewer than 5000 Rapanui alive today, of whom fewer than 2500 live on Easter Island, are descended from 36 of the 111 Rapanui alive in 1877. There had been roughly 10,000 in the 14th century, living in a complex society with relatively advanced housing and social structures; in the early 18th century at first contact with Europeans, there were only around 1000 left, and not only were they apparently practicing cannibalism [admittedly a common lie by European explorers, but likely true in this instance, based on the archaeological discovery of human bones in cooking sites], they were living mostly in caves and "stone henhouses where they guarded this last non-human protein from one another day and night" [Wright, p.61]. With the predictably helpful ministrations of colonial powers, the Rapanui were very nearly extinguished by 1877, after many of them had been enslaved for the mining of guano on various islands in Polynesia and off South America.)

After all the bleakness, which is leavened only by his straightforward and highly readable prose style, Wright begins to suggest a few principles for shifting our own progress, mostly having to do with reducing the ecological load (halting population expansion, shifting toward lower-input farming methods and food varieties, that sort of thing). These feel not unlike ideas recommended by political activists of various forms, like the Green Party in Canada, so he ends with an important assertion meant to distinguish his approach from a political one:
The case for reform that I have tried to make is not based on altruism, nor on saving nature for its own sake. I happen to believe that these are moral imperatives, but such arguments cut against the grain of human desire. The most compelling reason for reforming our system is that the system is in no one's interest. It is a suicide machine. (p.131, emphasis mine)
Behind much of Wright's work, of course, is the shadow of global warming, which has darkened in the four years since he delivered his lectures. It's certainly the case that the world has been much colder in the past than it is now, and that for much of the planet's geological history, humans would have found vast expanses incapable of supporting life; from this limited perspective, a little warming might not be a bad thing, but the kind of perspective that sees pollution as salvation will doom us as a species.

I'm left wondering how many more Massey Lectures we'll produce, brilliant as they so often are, before the radios fall silent forever. I'm not sure whether this makes Wright's book successful or not.

Hug your loved ones tight.

Friday, October 03, 2008

October 2 - Salvation Army

A quick pickup, killing time - for $1.50 Ronald Wright's volume of Massey lectures, A Short History of Progress. I was tempted by the badly outdated leather jackets as well, but I managed to leave with only this (and a few VHS tapes for my wee one!).