Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Best of 2008

This was a good year for reading - I enjoyed an awful lot of the 60 books I read carefully enough to get around to take notes on. This has something to do with that the fact that I've deliberately narrowed my reading over the years to things that I expect to find rewarding, inspiring, and flat out beautiful, but man, there are a lot of terrific books out there!

Without further ado, these are my choices for favourite reads this year, in order of preference:

Best nonfiction
  1. Harold Rhenisch, Tom Thomson's Shack
  2. John Vaillant, The Golden Spruce
  3. Theresa Kishkan, Red Laredo Boots
  4. ed. Devon Mihesuah & Angela Cavender Wilson (now simply Waziyatawin), Indigenizing the Academy
  5. John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me
Best poetry
  1. Roy Kiyooka, Pear Tree Pomes
  2. Rita Wong, forage
  3. Ken Belford, lan(d)guage
  4. Jan Zwicky, Songs for Relinquishing the Earth
  5. Gillian Wigmore, Soft Geography
Best fiction
  1. Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories
  2. Jeannette Armstrong, Slash
  3. Bus Griffiths, Now You're Logging
  4. Jasper Fforde, The Fourth Bear
  5. Eden Robinson, Monkey Beach
I waffled about whether to hand out a best book award this year. These books are incredibly different from each other, but that's the same for every list, so I sucked it up. Best In Show, 2008: Roy Kiyooka's Pear Tree Pomes edges out Harold Rhenisch's Tom Thomson's Shack.

Of course, few of these books were published in 2008, so this is no "best of 2008" list - it documents my own picks from among those I bumped into this year that I'd like to read again. Some of them, I've already reread or browsed through again. As always, I can hardly wait to get into the next year's worth of books!

December 30 - Grafton Books

A cool one from Grafton Books today - Major Douglas H. Tobler's Desecration of “An Enchanted Kingdom” ($15). I'd heard of this 1979 self-published objection to clearcut logging in the Bridge River area of BC, but I'd never seen a copy before today! Most pleasing.

December 30 - Wells Books

A nice haul at Wells Books today, heavy on BC content:
  • Ken Belford, ecologue ($6.99)
  • Ken Belford, Pathways Into the Mountains ($6.99)
  • ed. Thomas R. Dunlap, DDT, Silent Spring, and the Rise of Environmentalism ($7.99)
  • Ecotrust Canada, Seeing the Ocean Through the Trees: A Conservation Based Development Strategy for Clayoquot Sound ($9.99)
  • Theresa Kishkan, Red Laredo Boots ($7.50)
  • Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Other Writings ($7.99)
  • Judith Williams, High Slack: Waddington’s Gold Road and the Bute Inlet Massacre of 1864 ($6.99)

December 29 - Bolen's

Two good choices yesterday at Bolen's, kind of like Christmas gifts to myself:
  • Don Gayton's Interwoven Wild: An Ecologist Loose in the Garden ($15.95 from Thistledown Press), and
  • Philip Kevin Paul's Little Hunger ($16.95 from Harbour - a great little book of poetry from a member of the WSA'NEC Nation).

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Ken Follett, World Without End

Stupid book club - what am I doing reading a thousand-page blockbuster romance that's NOT by Neal Stephenson? Yep, Ken Follett's World Without End, the sequel to his 1989 classic doorstop Pillars of the Earth (another book I haven't read), is our January pick, and it's eaten up a lot of time recently. But I'm teasing: I got into this club to read what other people want to read, and I'm delighted to keep doing that.

Capsule review: four children see a terrifying thing happen, and we spend roughly four years (separated by a decade each time) in the children's company as we see them live out over the next 30-plus years the characters they showed at this initial moment. They don't change, at all. No one does in the whole book. There's buckets of action and passion and romance and violence and all that, lots to draw you in and get excited about, but there's zero psychological development. My own hobbyhorses (sense of place, environmental concern, nuanced depiction of social and family relations) aren't fulfilled in the least, but I had a mostly good time with this book.

You do have to lose yourself in it a bit to get much out of it, though, and that wasn't always easy given the large volume of cardboard and predictability here. Doug, I'm worried you might fall asleep with this one....

On the positive side, it reminded me of my brief but passionate obsession with historical novelist Thomas B. Costain, back in my early teens. I only read one of his histories and about half of his novels, but I found it terrifically exciting stuff, especially The Silver Chalice (a novel of the Grail myth, heavy on the role played by Joseph of Arimathea, if memory serves), The Tontine (a novel of French society: a tontine is a group insurance policy, with the survivor taking it all - yes, there was indeed a Simpsons episode about one among Grandpa's army unit), and Below the Salt (a contemporary man trying to figure out family history uncovers the true story of the Magna Carta - I think is how it went....). I loved those books - I loved how it felt to get caught up in reading, just in the act itself of reading, and part of that excitement's behind what I'm getting at when I teach and research.

And somewhere I've got a copy of Agnes Laut's 1902 Heralds of Empire, which follows Groseillers and Radisson in their peregrinations. A fun book as well, when I was a kid, but I have a feeling the politics of it won't stand up too well!

So thanks, Ken Follett, for reminding me of that particular pre-teen fascination. It's been a long time since I thought of Thomas B. Costain - or Wanda Wright, for that matter, the girl I was crushing on when I was 12, but maybe that's a story best kept for another time....

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Flight of the Hummingbird

I got only the one book for Christmas this year, since we had to buy a new/used car and are going to Europe in February: Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas' Flight of the Hummingbird. I imagine there's a more internationally postcolonial book, but I haven't seen it - a foreword by Kenyan Nobel laureate and environmental activist Wangari Maathai, plus a commentary by His Ubiquitous Holiness the Dalai Lama, for a Quechan myth retold by a Haida artist in what he calls a "Haida Manga" style. Impressive cred, and it's an impressive little book.

Impressive because of the beauty of the images, and because of the memorability of the story. The Flight of the Hummingbird is concisely told and evocatively illustrated, and it makes me excited to see what Yahgulanaas will be bringing out in longer form in 2009.

But yeah, little: the tale itself is only eighteen illustrated pages long, but that's OK. Much more importantly, what's supposed to be an activist story leaves me tired rather than inspired. Good on the hummingbird for doing what it can in the face of crisis, and I know we're meant to understand that its example prodded the other animals toward making their own contributions, but we don't see them making any moves to help out. The hummingbird isn't building a coalition, either, so where's the hope supposed to come from?

It's a variation on the classic test, I guess, on the fullness of the glass. If you assume that people are good, then you assume that the hummingbird's example will motivate the animals. If you don't, well, you worry that the world's doomed.

Well, crap. I worry. And here I am, thinking of myself as sunshine and light....

(Nope, I'm not telling you what the story's about. Google it yourself, or buy the damn book!)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

James Glave, Almost Green

I'm not sure how many times I've picked up James Glave's book Almost Green and put it back on the shelf - though in my defense, I did buy one as a gift. (Unaccountably I didn't read it before I gave it away, which is hardly the way I prefer to operate.)

And then a few weeks ago, at a recent UVic luncheon to discuss the university's draft sustainability policy and action plan, I turned up to discover that I'd been seated next to James Glave. He was in town to speak at the AGM for the Victoria Car-Share Co-op, and he'd been convinced to come along for a quiet lunch. Unfortunately for him, a few of us used the time to lament that the university appears comfortable giving up its pretensions to environmental leadership, if these documents don't get heavily revised. But James seemed a thoroughly decent chap with some thoroughly wise things to say. It was a room of talkers, too, many of us with entrenched positions, and he held his own just fine. Now that I've read the book, I can see why, and I can see why I was comfortable listening.

The subtitle to the Canadian edition, from Greystone Books, is How I Built an Eco-Shed, Ditched My SUV, Alienated the In-Laws, and Changed My Life Forever. The American version is from Skyhorse Books, who gave it the subtitle How I Saved 1/6th of a Billionth of the Planet. The American one does a better job of communicating the book's self-deprecating humour, but it also undersells the elements of genuine revolution that the book plays with.

Basically, the book follows Glave's efforts to build the greenest possible writing studio in his yard, at around 280 square feet. He lives with his family in a new subdivision on Bowen Island, so he's going through some guilt at living a suburban lifestyle, and the Eco-Shed is key to his new mission. I've stumbled across a few of his articles recently (including a terrific one from March in The Tyee, for example), so I know the mission is far beyond the one building, and I'm both tickled and impressed by the effort he's putting in.

Mind you, I'm also feeling crazy guilty, since I just bought a 4wd Mazda MPV - from 1994, at least, rather than new, following the untimely demise of our 1991 2wd MPV (which was the planet's most unreliable vehicle in snowy conditions). Plus today I burned out the motor in my garage-sale Braun hand-mixer, barely three years in my possession, trying to make peanut butter from nothing but peanuts - honest to God sparks and smoke, unrecoverably damaged. Excellent peanut butter, at least.

Guilt is part of the effect of books like Almost Green, but I hasten to say that Glave doesn't carry the guilt stick himself, unlike some other writers in this mode. I generate my own feelings of guilt: a little something I've honed to the level of a self-crippling superpower. No, James Glave is a fan of an essay called "The Death of Environmentalism" (pdf download) by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, who have since founded The Breakthrough Institute. In brief, if I can avoid getting bogged down in nuance and my own self-righteousness and -flagellation, their position is that as long as environmentalism is about self-denial and public shaming, it's doomed as a movement; it'll only gain steam if it gains at least a hint of fun.

And this book was a lot of fun, even if at the end I found myself wondering just how far he'd really managed to go. I recognized myself and a lot of my friends in its pages, our desires as well as our sometimes half-assed actions, and it's a heartening read as well as an educational one. I snorted audibly more than once, in a good way, and I can just tell I'm going to be working Almost Green into conversations for months to come. My loins are girded slightly more effectively than they were a few days ago, and I just might not go Christmas shopping tomorrow after all. So there.

I'd highly recommend that you read an excerpt from November's Salon.com, or visit James Glave's website. And if you've got 4:03 to spare, treat yourself to his earnest clip "Have an Almost Green Christmas", for the gift ideas if nothing else!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

December 16 - UVic Bookstore

A couple of gems from the sale tables at the University of Victoria Bookstore:
  • Kristjana Gunnars, Silence of the Country ($5.18)
  • Ronald W. Hawker, Tales of Ghosts: First Nations Art in British Columbia, 1922-1961 ($11.18)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me

John Howard Griffin's book Black Like Me has been on my radar for a long time, an embarrassingly long time, really, and I'd almost been guilted into seeking it out late this semester by a student in my second-year writing class who said it was just the thing for our course. Imagine, therefore, my delight at finding an elderly paperback copy at the recent United Way book sale - and my greater delight at finding a hardcover on the very next table so I could get that instead!

And then I devoured the book, reading almost all of it during the two hours that my first-year lit students were writing their exam. It's written in journal form, so it's a seriously easy read, but frankly that enhances its impact, and impact it had a-plenty in 1960 and 1961 when Black Like Me appeared. Once he began doing interviews and writing articles after the experience, Griffin was hung in effigy on Main Street in his hometown, and a cross was burned at night on the grounds of the town's African-American school. On the other hand, he was interviewed by anyone who was anyone, the book instantly became an touchstone for the civil rights movement, and a movie documenting Griffin's experience appeared just three years later.

But why?

Basically, Griffin underwent medical treatment, including ingesting the drug Oxsoralen, exposing himself to intense UV rays, and applying stain, to look black (shaving his head, too). He did this in New Orleans, and then spent most of the next five weeks - November into December of 1959 - travelling the South as a black man. His intent was to document precisely what it felt like to be black, as he had decided that no white person could truly understand the life of a black person. He had read the studies and books, written articles, performed countless interviews, but he had come to the realization that he couldn't possibly understand.

So he became black. And he was appalled by how he had to live. It makes for horrifying reading, truly. Nothing bad happens to him - at least, there's no crisis - but he's overtly threatened with great frequency, and he's subjected openly to a deep and incomprehensible hatred. The accessibility of his writing gives the book incredible impact, and I'm not the least bit surprised that it generated such intense emotions

After having such a difficult time with Norah Vincent's Self-Made Man recently, I'm trying to be skeptical about Black Like Me. After all, I felt that in her brief period living as a man, Vincent - presumably for unconscious reasons - went out of her way to find atypical circumstances, ones where she would have been at serious risk of physical harm if she was found out, rather than finding more typical circumstances where she wasn't physically endangered. To me this weakened the book significantly, making it about Vincent's psychology rather than about the phenomenon she was trying to study.

But I can't be skeptical. The concerns I have about Vincent's project are irrelevant to Griffin's project. Admittedly I can't know what life was like for an African-American man in 1959, and I do know something about life as a white man in the early years of the 21st century, but it lines up so well with statistical and economic data, and with African-American memoirs, and there's such tremendous potency in the book's images. The book was never credibly undercut, either, and that means something to me as well.

In short, wow.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Rodney Rothman, Early Bird

For some time I'd been picking up and putting down at Munro's Books a yellow paperback with a robin in ostrich pose, namely Rodney Rothman's Early Bird: A Memoir of Premature Retirement. In the end I finally decided to pick it up once and for all, and I'm glad I did. Just the tonic of humour I needed in these dark days of grading.

The story is easily laid out: the LA-based TV show on which 28-year-old Rodney is a writer shuts down, and he realizes he's worked 70-hour weeks for an incredibly long time: "I've spent more time in my office chair than I have in my bed" (p.3). When he thinks about happy times in his life, he fixes on childhood visits to Florida, specifically to visit his retired (and now deceased) grandmother. Against the doubts of his friends and the urging of his agent, Rodney signs up with a roommate-finding service and moves into a retirement community.

Trouble and hilarity ensue: he sucks at shuffleboard, it's really hard to get people to talk to him, and one of his friends is a 93-year-old woman who ends every complaint with some variation of "What the hell, at least my legs still spread" (former comedian, a gig she started in her 80s). Best line, repeated on the back cover: "I don't think Tuesdays With Morrie would have been quite so uplifting if that guy had to spend more than one day a week with Morrie."

This book made me chuckle and smile repeatedly, forcefully enough that I'd forget for whole minutes at a time that I had so much marking to do. I'm perfectly capable of ignoring my workload, but there's a cost in guilt to ignoring it: actual forgetting is much rarer, and I thank Rodney Rothman for these past moments of peace.

December 5 - subTEXT

At the end of a busy week, a few additional pickups today:
  • John Gray, Al Qaeda and What It Means to be Modern ($5)
  • Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto ($12)
  • Pietra Rivoli, The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade ($12 - the unreasonable length of the title made me think of Gloria Sawai's similarly titled short story "The Day I Sat With Jesus On The Sun Deck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts")

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

December 3 - United Way booksale, UVic

Another round today, by donation this time. Picked up a few kids' books, plus some of the usual:
  • Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (because I think it's time for me to do some concentrated DG reading)
  • Joe Garner, Never Fly Over an Eagle's Nest ("A true story of courage and survival during British Columbia's early years" - a self-published classic, and the first one I've ever seen NOT autographed by Garner)
  • Joe Garner, Never Under the Table ("A story of British Columbia's forests and government mismanagement")
  • Richard Jefferies (ed. Colin McKelvie), Beloved Land: A Richard Jefferies Anthology
  • Des Kennedy, The Garden Club and the Kumquat Campaign (a novel about a thinly veiled Hornby Island and Clayoquot Sound, here "Upshot Island" and "Kumquat Sound")
  • Society & Natural Resources, vol. 19, #s 1-10, 2006 (eco-policy geek alert!)
  • Judith Williamson, Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising
Seriously, how can one not get excited about articles in Society & Natural Resources like "US National Security Discourse and the Political Construction of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge"? Or maybe you prefer "Structural and Narrative Reconstruction of Representations of 'Environment,' 'Nature,' and 'Ecotourism'"? OK, OK, what about "The Values and Vulnerabilities of Metaphors within the Environmental Sciences"?

What, nobody else gets excited about these titles? Really?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

December 1, 2008 - United Way, UVic

Extravaganza - a charity book sale on behalf of the United Way, mostly comprising books formerly owned by members of the university community, at $2 each!

A couple of books, for example, were from the library of David Turpin, the current university prez, who seems not to need any longer the epochal 1990 and 1992 statements of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I'll refrain from linking this action symbolically to my feelings about the current draft of the university's sustainability action plan, except to say that a university whose action plan fails to account for education, research, or partnerships (with public or private bodies or individuals) is failing to understand itself as a university.

Here's the list:
  • ed. Duncan & Ley, Place/Culture/Representation
  • Clarence Frankton and Gerald A. Mulligan, Weeds of Canada
  • John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me
  • ed. Houghton, Jenkins and Ephraums, Climate Change: The IPCC Scientific Assessment (1990)
  • ed. Houghton, Callender & Varney, Climate Change 1992: The Supplementary Report to The IPCC Scientific Assessment
  • Christopher Hussey, English Country Houses Open to the Public
  • Peter Jackson, Maps of Meaning: An Introduction to Cultural Geography
  • ed. Warren David Jacobs and Karen I. Shragg, Tree Stories: A Collection of Extraordinary Encounters
  • ed. K. Linda Kivi, The Purcell Suite: Upholding the Wild
  • Andrea Lebowitz and Gillian Milton, Gilean Douglas: Writing Nature, Finding Home
  • The Magnificent Distances; Early Aviation in British Columbia, 1910-1940, Sound Heritage Series 28, 1980
  • Daphne Marlatt, Ana Historic
  • Alan Morley, Vancouver: From Milltown to Metropolis
  • Margot Northey and David B. Knight, Making Sense in Geography and Environmental Studies
  • Denise Oleksijczuk, curator, Lost Illusions: Recent Landscape Art (exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery)
  • Philip Oyler, Sons of the Generous Earth
  • Hector Allan Richmond, Forever Green: The Story of One of Canada’s Foremost Foresters
  • Michael Y. Seelig and Alan F.J. Artibise, From Desolation to Hope: The Pacific Fraser Region in 2010 (1991)