Sunday, March 22, 2009

Malahat Review 165 (Winter 2008)

The current number of The Malahat Review, which if you don't know the journal is among Canada's strongest and most storied literary periodicals, is on a subject near to my heart: "The Green Imagination" is its issue title. It contains works from a number of writers nominated for Governor-General's Awards over the years, including a few winners. At the number's core, in spirit if not by page number, are separate interviews by Jay Ruzesky with Jan Zwicky and Tim Lilburn, who to some extent stand as progenitors and muses for a specific thread of Canadian poetry about the environment.

(Poetry about the environment? Environmental poetry? Environmentally engaged poetry? Ecological poetry? Nature poetry? Nature writing? Etc.)

And this is both a strength and a limitation of this volume. There are few poems here that stick out as not belonging to a common set of formal allegiances, and it was striking to me that fully a dozen of this issue's poets could share a stage unproblematically for its launch. There are differences in approach between, say, Patricia Young and Philip Kevin Paul, and it's not that I get mixed up when I try to figure out which poet wrote which poem. But there's a kind of "school" feel to much of this issue, and this means two things: that there's a consistency and cumulativeness that together generate a positive reading experience for those who feel somewhat inside the school, and that there's a sameness and repetitiveness that together fatigue a reader who doesn't feel connected.

And yes, I know that this isn't a school in the traditional form, and some of these people I'd lump together wouldn't accept the link themselves. (I also don't think every work in this volume fits in the school, but more about that below.) Me, I feel deeply connected to the concerns (both the environmental ones raised in the poems and the intellectual ones raised by Jan Zwicky in her essay "Lyric Realism: Nature Poetry, Silence, and Ontology"), but I need to say that I don't feel particularly connected to the poetry and poetics.

Individual poems within the school do work well for me (Don McKay's "Song for the Song of the Sandhill Crane" and Melanie Siebert's "Because they are good at lying low"), but not all of them have that effect (Arleen Pare, John Steffler, Tim Bowling). Some of them, really, leave me at best cold and at worst cringing.

For me, by far the most memorable poems are two that don't fit within what I'm tempted to think of as a school: Sina Queyras's "Her Dreams of the Expressway" and (even better, to my ears/eyes) Sonnet L'Abbe's "L'abitat." I'm a sucker for Georgic poetry anyway, since I worked on it in grad school, but L'Abbe has managed a rare feat here: a respectful but self-ironizing version of a poetic form that I really thought was past use. It doesn't quote well, but trust me, it more than deserves its place in the Malahat, even though I think it fits somewhat awkwardly in this particular issue.

I enjoyed the volume quite a bit on my first time through, but I've been less excited on subsequent reads. Not just because of who and what isn't in the volume, though that's part of it: with the verse, I get the content but want something different formally, and with the prose, I don't see my view of the world being represented. I don't have the energy right now to say much more than that, but I'll keep working on it.

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma

He's a very good writer, Michael Pollan - it's not that I didn't expect it, since he's got the credentials to suggest he knows which end of a pen to use, but that's what stood out for me in The Omnivore's Dilemma. I mean, I learned a fair bit about the roots of organic farming in the United States, and about state-specific American food movements and harvest seasons, but really I enjoyed how the book was put together, and that's the important takeaway for me.

Mind you, I HAVE been driving batty anyone within earshot, because there are nuggets here that everyone needs to know:
  • that when someone on the East Coast eats prepackaged organic salad grown in California, each food calorie consumed has been produced through the expenditure of fully 57 calories of fossil fuel. If the salad's not organic, then it jumps to about 60 calories
  • that laying hens in industrial operations live six to a four-square-foot cage and generally turn either to cannibalism or to self-mutilation
  • that in the old days, E.coli lived in the pH-neutral rumen of a cow, so infected people rarely died because our stomach acid would kill it. Corn-fed feedlot cows have acidic rumens, though, because corn isn't appropriate to a cow's diet, and an E.coli mutation that can live in these newly acidic rumens can't be killed by our stomach acid. It's not just that unsanitary practices in the large-scale meat industry spreads the mutated bacteria. This mutation only happened because of industrial meat practices
  • and so on.
Mostly, though, I enjoyed this book. The data I already knew, in general, and I remain after reading this book in the same unstably guilty relation to food that I've occupied since my late teens. What was new for me was the voice of Michael Pollan, and that I liked a great deal.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

March 14 - two stops

Goldstream Nature House is an odd place for a book, perhaps, but there was a sale, and I'm a sucker: Robert Finch's Death of a Hornet, and Other Cape Cod Essays ($4.19, inexplicably), which looks terrific.

More to the point, I also hit a booksale at Oak Bay United Church in the morning, which went rather well:
  • ed. Irving Abella & David Millar, The Canadian Worker in the Twentieth Century ($1)
  • Ralph Allen, Peace River Country ($2)
  • Harold Cardinal, The Unjust Society: The Tragedy of Canada's Indians ($1 - a classic form 1969)
  • Anthony B. Chan, Gold Mountain: The Chinese in the New World ($1 - essential reading, I've heard many times)
  • Islands Trust/San Juan Preservation Trust, A Place in the Islands: How Private Land Owners Shape the Future of the San Juan and Gulf Islands ($0.50)
  • Michael Kluckner, The Pullet Surprise: A Year on an Urban Farm ($2)
  • Howard Newby, Country Life: A Social History of Rural England ($1)
  • Charles G.D. Roberts, The Heart of the Ancient Wood ($1)

  • Sound Heritage 3.2, 3.4, and 4.1 ($0.50 each)
  • Joanna Streetly, Paddling Through Time: A Kayaking Journey Through Clayoquot Sound ($1)
  • This ... is British Columbia: Our Natural Heritage ($0.50 - provincial gov't publication)
  • Timothy Taylor, Story House ($2)
Come on, two bucks a hardcover, a buck for a softcover, and fifty cents for what the cashier insisted were "basically magazines"? A steal, and that's not even including the free throw-in ("nobody else would want that") of Space Family Robinson #59, the final issue of the series!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

March 12 - UVic bookstore

A special order finally came in that I'd been waiting for, Dan Philippon's really interesting Conserving Words: How American Nature Writers Shaped the Environmental Movement ($34.95). Basically he's arguing that the words around which environmentalism is organized derive from the writings of a limited number of writers who also happened to establish environmental advocacy organizations, but I'll say more when I've found time to dig in deeply....

Thursday, March 05, 2009

March 5 - Books on View

Today was my first visit to Books on View, which is basically the overflow space for the very large Russell Books a block over on Fort Street. I didn't know what it was going to be like (all calendars? romance novels?), but I was seriously pleased. Basically it's where non-sellers from Russell go to languish, I gather, but since I don't buy fashionable books, I'll do just fine over there. Today, for example:
  • ed. Walter Levy and Christopher Hallowell, Green Perspectives: Thinking and Writing about Nature and the Environment ($4.99 - a terrific reader in the field of nature writing, with selections from 1850 to 1993)
  • Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals ($9.99 - brand new, from a huge pile, and it's this month's book club selection)
  • Frank Stewart, A Natural History of Nature Writing ($9.99 - a pioneering text on nature writing's evolution, from 1995 but with an uncracked spine)
I escaped with only these three because I was trying to keep my volume down. The university bookstore called yesterday to say that Dan Philippon's (eagerly anticipated) Conserving Words has arrived, so I'm already on the hook there....

Monday, March 02, 2009

Anik See, Saudade

Anik See’s Saudade: The Possibilities of Place jumped off the shelf at Watermark, the bookstore in the Toronto airport. Mind you, the clerk wound up taking every copy off the shelf in an attempt to get one to scan automatically. “Um, the price,” I kept saying, “is $18.95, like it says beside the ISBN. Can I just pay that?” Short answer: no. The good people at Watermark don’t trust price tags, and silver print on purple paper just doesn’t scan well.

If I was Anik See, I’d come up with a philosophic, emotionally nuanced essay about what this meant, one that makes your more sensitive reader’s eyes prickle and your more word-hungry reader shake the head impressedly. There might be some predictability to these essays, in the sense that she inhabits so fully the thoughts and emotions that her topics raise for her, but she goes after her subjects wish such wonderful intensity.

The essays in Saudade are set in Cuba, Australia, Georgia (the European kind), even various spots in Canada, and every one of them feels tonight like a place I know, intimately even if not fully. I haven’t gone to these places, I’ll go to very few of them in my life, and I don’t feel the least bit wistful about that. She’s done it for me, and I’m good with that.

The concept of “saudade,” incidentally, is Portuguese: “the feeling of yearning for something impossible to regain because it never quite existed” (p.171). See’s travels are mostly in pursuit of this feeling, or at least she thinks of her travels this way retrospectively. She wants to find this sensation in a particular place, somewhere, but in the end she recognizes that it’ll have to come in Canada, where she has roots and connections and obligations, since it feels wrong to have it where one has “no innate rights” (p.188). I’m kind of wondering about her ideas on Aboriginal land claims, treaty rights, that sort of thing, because my own rights are conditional on there being efforts toward justice in that area.

But perhaps that’s an unnecessary digression.

I’m always so happy when I find a new writer I can add to my permanent wishlist. This book isn’t just full of potential – though it is – but also full of essays jammed with beauty and thoughtfulness. Apparently Anik See’s collection of short fiction is due out in 2009, and I’m totally buying that book. Saudade was fantastic - just fantastic.

Douglas Coupland, The Gum Thief

Chris Ayres, you have a lot to answer for. When I bought the most recent Douglas Coupland novel, The Gum Thief, in the Frankfurt airport, I did in part because of your blurb: a line from your review in the Times Magazine, which reads in part "Genuinely, embarrass-yourself-on-a-plane funny." It is not, and I did not. My credentials are simply that I've embarrassed myself on a plane before, occasionally by laughing, and I've read great swathes of what Coupland has written. (I've even taught his novels, not that means I understand anything special in or by them as a result.)

Chris, I would have bought the novel anyway eventually. I'd been planning to, and I expected to like it. (I did, too. In spite of you, Chris.) But flying back from Europe, I read The Gum Thief in the lens of this misdirecting, sounds-good-but-means-nothing throwaway line from an interview with Coupland, and the book suffered. As did I.

So let me be clear. The Ayres line comes from his article on Coupland in the Times (UK, not NY), and it's one of those articles that's really about the author rather than the subject. Ayres does his best to make it seem like he thinks of himself as a bit of a nebbish, but that doesn't obscure the fact that this piece ostensibly about Coupland turns out in the end to be about Chris Ayres. It adds precious little to the world's data storehouse on our man Doug.

On the other hand, I can't entirely blame Ayres for the blurb, because in his penultimate paragraph, Ayres remarks much more appropriately,
"All [Coupland's] books have had a kind of sadness to them: a sense of utter bafflement at the onslaught of technology and mass culture, coupled with a suspicion that our parents had it much better. And with The Gum Thief the sadness is more palpable than ever."
Except for the parent bit, which is IRRELEVANT for this book, that's the right blurb for this novel, and I would have bought this book with that one boldly slapped on the cover, but I suppose others might not. It actually lines up pretty well with a comment made by one of the book's own characters, at a time of openness rather than irony:
"While it kills me to come to grips with the fact that I'm like everyone else, that pain is outweighed by the comfort I get from being a member of the human race."
So let me say only this. Where Generation X, Microserfs and JPod portrayed the young on a path toward possibility, however ill-defined that might be; and Girlfriend in a Coma, Miss Wyoming and Hey Nostradamus! portrayed a sort of confusion and warning; The Gum Thief offers portraits of pained existence at a few different points in people's lives, without there being an overt warning except perhaps "Try harder and keep trying," which if you think about it kind of the message from all his books. Here, though, there's more pain, of more kinds, suffered by people in more types of circumstances. They're insightful people, or at least Coupland lets us find insight with them (beautifully, in fact), but there's little light in this book - little that's light in terms of weight, and little in terms of hope. It ends in chaos, and a hopeful reader will find reasons there to hope, but not everyone will.

And it's that, in the end, that I like most about this book. It leads to an individualized reading experience, in spite of its setting in a big-box store, its depiction of postmillenial angst at consumerist sameness, and its own huge sales numbers. The ending is much more satisfying than the end of almost all Coupland's other books, and I think it's a good sign for future novels.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Turner, The Significance of the Frontier in American History

Not long ago, Penguin decided to release a "Great Ideas" series, with sharply done and iconic-seeming covers, that offered selected pieces from volumes on its backlist of important books. When I heard of it I thought it a terrific idea, and now that I've seen big displays of these books (in airport bookstores, as it happens), I think the same.

At the Frankfurt airport I picked up Frederick Jackson Turner's The Significance of the Frontier in American History, selections from his 1920 The Frontier in American History. The cover really looks fantastic, I have to say, and the text is presented well (albeit without footnotes). Penguin manages simply to stay out of the way, letting Turner's words hold their own, and they do, brilliantly for the most part. The best lines are perhaps those quoted on the cover:
The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin.
And what's not quoted on the cover, too:
In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails. (p.4)
Yes, naturally there are the badly dated remarks about "savages" and that sort of thing, but there are also some ringing lines that reminds a Canadian of how different our founding myths are from the American:
This new democracy that captured the country and destroyed the ideals of statesmanship came from no theorist's dreams of the German forest. It came, stark and strong and full of life, from the American forest. (p.52)

ed. Eidse et al, Vancouver Matters

I had such very high hopes for Vancouver Matters. This little volume was co-edited by five people connected to the UBC School of Architecture + Landscape Architecture (James Eidse, Mari Fujita, Joey Giaimo, Lori Kiessling, and Christa Min, to give them their due), and it promised to look materially at Vancouver through a number of lenses. It sounds like a cool way to organize some ways of seeing (Blackberry, Freeway, Hedge, Stucco, and so on), and I was excited.

The first essay/element - Andesite, a type of BC stone used for building some of Vancouver's more iconic buildings - was excellent, as were a few others (notably Grass and Sugar). Others were very good, well worth reading more than once (Blackberry, Heritage and Trees). Some of them, though, were irritating in their pretentiousness (yeah, I'm looking at you, Hedge), others were so brief as to be little more than space fillers (View), and still others numbing in their detail (Stucco).

On the whole, I came away from this book tired and disappointed. I recognize that I'm not the target audience for an urban/urbane book like this, but frankly I'm in the next audience over. I'm not sure why I'm so unexcited by Vancouver Matters, but the thing is, I don't really care enough tonight to spend time figuring it out. It's a well-intentioned book, certainly, but it feels more like a secret handshake than it does an introduction of the UBC school to a wider group. And that's a damned shame, because it's clear that there's a lot of talent here, and I for one was ready to learn. I just don't see the readership for the book that could have reached out from them to the rest of us.

March 1 - Value Village

I didn't mean to - but honestly, they were ALREADY sitting in a stack in the books area, on a table. How could I leave them there? It's as if I'd been there ahead of myself to save myself some browsing time:
  • Terry Glavin, Dead Reckoning: Confronting the Crisis in Pacific Fisheries ($3.99 - he's been mentioned here on occasion)
  • Eric Higgs, Nature by Design: People, Natural Process, and Ecological Restoration ($3.99 - a UVic prof, and a darned good chap)
  • Francois Leydet, Time and the River Flowing: Grand Canyon (buy four, get one free - one of the classic 1960s Sierra Club text-heavy coffeetable books)
  • Peter Lovenheim, Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf: The Story of One Man, Two Cows, and the Feeding of a Nation ($3.99)
  • Hugh W. McKervill, The Salmon People ($2.99 for the 25th Anniversary Edition)
Bizarre that someone else was going to buy exactly these books....