Thursday, January 29, 2009

Jan. 29 - UVic Bookstore

I picked up a new classic, compiled from a few different sources including one ten-hour (!!) lecture, out of the UVic Bookstore's wonderful philosophy section - Jacques Derrida's The Animal That Therefore I Am ($22.45).

Interested? Read an excerpt in a 2001 number of the journal Critical Inquiry, from the confusingly titled essay "The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)." Excellent and wildly problematic stuff!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Jasper Fforde, Lost in a Good Book

I finally got around to the middle volume in the thus-far Thursday Next trilogy written by Jasper Fforde, Lost in a Good Book, after having read both The Eyre Affair and The Well of Lost Plots some time ago. I was using it purely for relief, I have to say, so I got out of it an approximation of what I put into it - which is to say, not much, but it was very pleasant.

This parallel version of Earth is one where books dominate culture, where the Crimean conflict is into roughly its 150th year, and where the work of jet airplanes is performed by airships and "gravity wells" through the planet's core. In this outing, our heroine Thursday has her husband eradicated by the Goliath Corporation and runs afoul of another branch of SpecOps (special operations). Drama (in the book) and hilarity (for the reader) ensue, some of it featuring her pet dodo and much of it examining the aftermath of her changing the ending of Jane Eyre after pursuing into it criminal mastermind Acheron Hades. Not everything goes well, but where would the excitement come from if it did? Quite suspenseful, I found this one, even if I only had about a third of a mind to devote to it.

Honestly, I think this series is about the most inventive piece of pure fun I've read since the still-lamented passing of Douglas Adams. The first volume really is terrific, and the next two hold up their end admirably. I wasn't sold on The Big Over Easy (the first volume in Fforde's detective series featuring Jack Spratt), but The Fourth Bear was excellent.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Jan. 17 - author's sale & Grafton Books

An eventful book day yesterday.

In the morning, I managed briefly to nip into Grafton Books to pick up Charles Lillard's phenomenal and irreplaceable A Voice Great Within Us ($11, credited as "with Terry Glavin" and with the truly Augustan cover subtitle of The Story of Chinook, B.C.'s Lost Language, with a Chinook Lexicon, Examples of Its Use, a Map and Gazetteer of Chinook Place Names, Chinook Poetry, and a Discussion of Its Origin and Legacy) and Jasper Fforde's Lost in a Good Book ($7.50, the volume between the two I'd already enjoyed in this series, The Eyre Affair and The Well of Lost Plots).

In the afternoon, noted author, journalist, professor, and sharp-dressed man David Leach stopped by - complete with his titanium thighs, soon to be pictured on his blog, no doubt - to sell me a copy of his seriously cool book Fatal Tide (autographed at $30, a discount of $2 from the cover price).

Friday, January 16, 2009

Ken Belford, Pathways into the Mountains

Pathways into the Mountains is my third Ken Belford book in the last few months, after he surprised me with an email to ask if I might be interested in reading his newest book, the wonderful and very impressive lan(d)guage. (Answer: "of course! Who wouldn't want to read it?!?") I understand that the rough editing of this 2000 volume may have to do with the ill health of Caitlin Press's editor at that time, Cynthia Wilson, who passed away just five years later. So there's not much to be gained by objecting to the editing of the volume, but there are numerous errors here; I hope that a clean version appears somewhere down the road, when it's time for a Collected Works to appear (and that's maybe not such a strange idea).

Of the three recent Belfords I've read, lan(d)guage stands out as by far the best and most complete volume, but some individual poems here stand up for themselves very well indeed. What I characterized in ecologue as almost a slam poetry feel here comes across as a cranky conversational tone - I prefer that, though you might not. In "The Consumption of the Nass," for example, after demonstrating some credentials to live in that wild perceptively and without making much impact, there's a powerfully clear vision of times to come:
In my lifetime I will
see this valley go
from spirited wildland
to a devegitized slope.

This is the valley where
no one cares. It is the other place,
the place white men don't live,
the valley where the burglars go.

When I'm gone
the next guy
will be selling tires, gasoline,
roadside coffee and live bait.
(pp. 44-45)
The "landpo" approach Belford is working now (linked to the "vispo" approach of visual poetry, I assume) is still in development in Pathways, as many of these poems are clearly beholden to quite traditional perspectives and forms. That's not a bad thing, though, as it makes the book very readable, even if there are some pieces that are quite uneven.

For a book that's not edited at all well, there are some nice links between poems, such as the lines from "Poem for Beginners" reworked and reimagined in "Pathways to the Mountains," much further on in the book. Some of these poems are wonderful, especially the quoted-from "Consumption of the Nass" and "An Appetite for Bread," but as a volume it seems to me to lack focus. It's a collection, not a book, though for other readers this might mean it's got an appealing variety to it. I feel more strongly than I did with ecologue that this book is essential for making sense of lan(d)guage, and in many ways I enjoyed this flawed book more, and found it more personally rewarding for me as a reader, than I did ecologue. Ken Belford is essential BC reading, in my opinion, and of the three volumes since 2000, this one comes second.

And serendipitously, I noticed while a-Googling tonight that the current issue of the online journal It's Still Winter is "The Ken Belford Issue" (vol 7.1). An ironic title to this journal, given my favourite small patch of lines in this volume (from "Waiting for You to Call"):
Spring is within me
and I am pain free
for the moment.
(p.89)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Jan. 15 - Value Village

I wasn't intending to buy any books, honest, just updating (!?) my wardrobe a little, but I couldn't help myself:
  • Jamaica Kincaid, My Garden (Book): ($2.99 - punctuation in original)
  • Des Kennedy, An Ecology of Enchantment: A Year in a Country Garden ($3.99 - about his life on lovely Denman Island, which rests just off Vancouver Island in the Strait of Georgia)
  • Ann Lovejoy, The Ann Lovejoy Handbook of Northwest Gardening: Natural, Sustainable, Organic ($3.99)
  • ed. Penny Petrone, First People, First Voices ($3.99 - a 1983 collection of First Nations writings and speeches, mostly in snippet form but still interesting)
  • ed. Ted Stone, Riding the Northern Range: Poems from the Last Best-West (the fifth book was apparently free today - cowboy poetry)
My goal this year is to boost my purchases of new books above the 50% proportion by total number of books. It was already there last year by total dollars spent, but not close by number of books. Could be a challenge!

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Don Gayton, Interwoven Wild

I don't have a clear recollection of Don Gayton's 1990 The Wheatgrass Mechanism, which I came across and read while living in Edmonton, writing a dissertation about environmentalism and eighteenth-century English poetry. (Oh, now, don't make that face.) I remember liking how the prose sounded, but at the time I was more taken with Mark Hume's Run of the River and Terry Glavin's This Ragged Place, and The Wheatgrass Mechanism has had something of a question mark in my mind ever since.

At the end of December I bought Gayton's new book, Interwoven Wild: An Ecologist Loose in the Garden. It's been teasing me for a while from the gardening shelves at Bolen's Books, as I saw it facing out every time I wandered by either the BC books section or the First Nations section. With my poor haul at Christmas, I felt entitled to pick up something on my own. In some respects it's not a surprise that Thistledown Press would have put out both Interwoven Wild and Theresa Kishkan's Phantom Limb (which I praised in the summer), but what's a Saskatchewan publisher doing with these gems of BC nature writing?

Kishkan's essays aren't quite traditional nature writing, and Gayton's linked texts aren't exactly essays, but there's good reason for placing these volumes near each other on the shelf. The presence here of Spud, Gayton's longhaired dachshund, was unexpected at first, but it works well with what he's trying to accomplish here. These are chatty, thoughtful pieces about what it's like to be a keen but amateur gardener, though a top-notch ecologist - the knowledge doesn't transfer precisely, and neither do the skills, so in the end the ecologist turns out to be only a slightly more able companion than I am myself. (Or at least, than I could be if I had a decent memory and some free time....)

It's a light book, in the end, but that's not meant as a slight. It joins the quite short list of books I've forced myself to read slowly the first time through, so I could longer enjoy the experience of coming to know it. This was a good'un, most definitely, and like Phantom Limb, Don Gayton's Interwoven Wild was fully deserving of its nomination for the 2008 Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize. This book would be a terrific companion for anyone to listens to Brian Minter on CBC radio talk about gardens, if that helps you decide whether to pick it up!

Ultimately, this book made me think I should go back to The Wheatgrass Mechanism, because I suspect that an older me would be more interested than I was the first time around, when I was more taken by the drama of Hume's rivers and the grit of Glavin's characters and communities. Yeah, I'm wondering if maybe I was a tad callow in my youth....

Philip Kevin Paul, Little Hunger

I've delayed getting to this review, because I've been busy enough and unsettled enough that I haven't been able to focus on how I've felt and thought about Philip Kevin Paul's delayed but eventually released second book of verse, Little Hunger. Paul is a member of the WSA,NEC (Saanich) First Nation, and he says he writes for them - not to them, not about them, though this book does both those things as well, but for them. I'm not sure whether he's speaking on their behalf (as a kind of voice of the people), or writing with them in mind as his audience.

It might seem unnecessary to dwell on this instability, but in fact it mirrors my reaction to the book. Having read not that long ago the essay collections edited by the incredibly prolific Devon Mihesuah (Natives and Academics and Indigenizing the Academy, the second co-edited with Waziyatawin) about academia and Indigenous peoples, I had a hard time getting comfortable with this book, as if I hadn't earned the right to read and appreciate these poems. Attending the job-talks in December of the candidates our department is choosing from for its position in Indigenous literatures brought these issues forward in my mind as well.

To be clear, there's plenty to appreciate about these poems. At his best, Paul is able to communicate a precise, intimate vision of his world. Central to this book are his family members. I was overwhelmed by the poem about bathing in Saanich Inlet with his uncle ("Waiting for the Sun"), the ritual unexplained but the love between them clear - including how he teases his uncle about his age. I particularly enjoyed "Released from an Ordinary Night," which ends with a man freshly out of jail ("he's trying to remember / how to stand at a bus stop, where to look / when a stranger comes near"), "Prayer to End Silences," "Making the Forgotten," and "A Whale Can Bring You to Where It Starts."

My favourite lines are from the close of "Building My Home in Your Mind," which comes among a series of poems in which his father doesn't come off all that well:
The best time to listen intently to a wind-blown rain is when
you are completely apathetic or too heart-tender, yet exhume visions
of your half-naked father in threadbare gumboots and thin underwear,
rattling blindly in the late and early-morning hours
to upturn a garbage can under your bedroom window,
knowing how much you love the sound of rain--
this is the best time to accept the apologies he never spoke.
(p.35)
In these lines the father, who is clearly beloved and has been greatly missed after his death but was a figure of some chaos in Paul's life, is more than rehabilitated. There's more than a hint of myth-making here, but reasonably so, it seems.

As much as I enjoyed the book, though, I kept thinking I was missing part of the beauty. It's funny, I'm not sure why I'm so bothered by this. After all, I've been comfortably reading Latin-American fiction in translation since my teens, cheerfully disconnected from the cultural references and specific colonial history of that region. Paul's writing in English, so we've got that in common, and I've spent time in the places he's writing about, so we've shared space. He's only a year younger than I am, and in his acknowledgements he thanks someone I played sports against in high school. And yet I feel more strongly what I think I don't understand about Paul's poems than what I think I do understand. I don't have that same feeling with Garcia Marquez, Asturias, Vargas Llosa, and the rest of the South American novelists.

In sum, this is but an inconclusive review about Little Hunger. Philip kevin Paul's lyric poems are lovely, pensive and lyrical in the best senses of both words, but I can only partially inhabit them. At this point, I can only partially inhabit them - I'm satisfied with that, but over time I hope to do better.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

January 3, 2009 - Salvation Army

The first purchase of the new year, from the Salvation Army store at the corner of Shelbourne and Cedar Hill Cross: John Gould's Kilter: 55 Fictions, for the bargain price of $2.99. And so it begins....