Monday, July 27, 2009


A wee note to explain why I've added word verification back in again: a very persistent spammer writing in Mandarin characters has been hitting me with an awful lot of comments. Comment verification works to keep it from the airwaves, but it's very frustrating to slog through so many spam notes at once. Sorry, all.

Friday, July 24, 2009

July 21-23, Vancouver

A road trip getaway led to a few purchases this week, and a whole bunch of greatly needed relaxation. Much of that will be burnt away by this evening, I'm guessing, but it was the right idea anyway.

Macleod's Books - July 21 (where you get 20% off if you buy 5 or more)
  • Don Gayton, Kokanee: The Redfish and the Kootenay Bioregion ($10 - Transmontanus)
  • Celia Haig-Brown, Resistance and Renewal: Surviving the Indian Residential School ($9)
  • Roderick Haig-Brown, Timber ($10 - the 1946 Collins White Circle paperback edition, promising "rousing, roaring, untamed adventure" and with a hottie's face dominating the cover in front of three sketched male figures using pikes on floating timber logs)
  • Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild ($8 - wonder if I have this one already...)
  • Scott Russell Sanders, A Conservationist Manifesto ($10 - new in 2009, never been cracked)
  • Scott Slovic, Seeking Awareness in American Nature Writing: Henry Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez ($10)
  • Wallace Stegner, Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier ($7 - wonder if I have this one already...)
  • JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings trilogy ($15 - hard to believe I didn't own copies of these)

Albion Books - July 21
  • Don Gayton, Landscapes of the Interior: Re-Explorations of Nature and the Human Spirit ($9)
  • Roderick Haig-Brown, Measure of the Year ($25 - hardcover with dust jacket)

Paper-Ya - July 22
  • ed. Ellen Lupton, Indie Publishing: How to Design and Produce Your Own Book ($28.50 - from the Center for Design Thinking at the Maryland Institute College of Art)

Hager Books - July 22
  • Taras Grescoe, Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood ($19.95)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Antonia Ridge, For Love of a Rose

I was recently loaned Antonia Ridge's 1965 book For Love of a Rose by a family member, after a trip to Butchart Gardens. You read such loaned books because it's the thing to do, even if they don't line up very well with your areas of interest, but Ridge's book reminded me how much fun popular history books used to be.

It's the story of the creation of the Peace rose, which was the twentieth century's most successful and most popular rose, in 1935 by a young French hybridist named Francis Meilland. Ridge gives the full back story of the Meilland family's connections to roses, so it spans several generations of a few different French and Italian families, illustrating the hybridization of rose-loving humans as well as their roses. You certainly don't need to understand rose hybridization to read the book; I was entirely ignorant going in, and although I have a pretty clear sense now of how it works, there's no way you can consider this book a teaching manual.

For Love of a Rose is one of those chatty, conversational historical books that's more interested in setting a scene and telling a story than in rehearsing the facts. It's quite factual, I think, since Ridge spent time with everyone still alive at the time of her writing, but the readerly experience is that it's really not about that. This book is a classic pop history work, from the time when people read history for the pleasure of knowledge rather than to be informed. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy Jared Diamond and Thomas Homer-Dixon and the rest of them, but their books represent a different sort of worldview. Antonia Ridge's book simply wouldn't do any longer, because her approach has associations with a certain kind of well-meaning dilettantism rather than with academic rigour ("rigour, damn it, rigour, that's the thing!"), but when I was a kid, the history shelves in my small-town library were full of books like hers. I learned a lot from them, and I miss them.

Even when I'm not all that interested in the subject.

Friday, July 17, 2009

July 17 - UVic Bookstore

Two books today, basically for free courtesy of a gift certificate received from some researchers who wanted to look at the experience of ESL students in university composition classrooms:
  • Lawrence Buell, Writing for an Endangered World: Literature, Culture, and Environment in the U.S. and Beyond ($30.75 -- looks amazing, though I wonder if it'll feel dated already, since its 2001 publication...)
  • John Phillips, Cyder: A Poem. In Two Books ($19.50 -- a special order that arrived today, and it's a dud. BiblioLife does photo reprints of out-of-print works, but the online blurb I saw suggested there was an intro and some useful material wrapped around it. Nope. It's exactly the same as the photocopy I already had from microfilm, except in smaller form with a binding).

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Oliver Sacks, Island of the Colorblind

I've had Oliver Sacks' The Island of the Colorblind on the shelf for a while, and for most of that time I've meant to get to it. To my eyes, Sacks' books are light reading about complex and important subjects, so they're both appealing and off-putting at the same time. I was reminded during this one of Gabor Mate's habit of inserting himself into his stories about other people (see my cautious review of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts), but Sacks has been writing for far longer and has a far larger audience, so -- Sacks isn't borrowing from Mate, is what I'm saying.

Fascinating stuff in this book, which is really two linked stories. The first one is about Pingelap, an island in Micronesia, and the Pingelapese: a large proportion of them are achromats, with a specific form of colorblindness, and Sacks goes to visit them as well as to encounter the place. Not long afterward, he has a chance to visit Guam to see both cycads (kind of like palms), plus other crazy flora/fauna on Guam and Rota, as well as people with lytico-botig, which is either one or two progressive sclerosis-type illnesses with a completely unknown etiology and mechanism.*

Both places are shockingly beautiful, as I gather tropical places are, though I wouldn't know about that -- sigh -- and the people are warm/deep, in line with the standard expectations for such a place. My favourite part of the book were the detailed footnotes, because clearly Sacks had a different book in mind that his editor and publisher talked him out of. His footnotes show the marks of numerous obsessions, something I'm always happy to see in someone else, and I'm not sure how he was talked out of following them.

Kind of a fun book, though not particularly relevant. Both halves of the volume are about unusual concentrations of rare medical conditions in specific places completely unlike my own, so it's not really my thing, but I had a good time reading it anyway.

* - Since his visit, and after completing the book, Sacks has now argued very convincingly that lytico-bodig was caused by the consumption of now-extinct flying foxes (did I mention crazy fauna?) which would have accumulated in their bodies toxic concentrations of a cycad's amino acid found in high levels ONLY in Guam's endemic cycad species.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Oliver Rackham, Trees & Woodlands in the British Landscape

If this is the first time you've stopped by, yes, I am indeed way nerdy. I wish I was able to call myself a "Riot Nrrd," the sobriquet claimed by some of the characters in Douglas Coupland's fine/fun novel Microserfs, but alas I don't have the commitment for that. (Plus I'm not Conrad Sichler.)

Of course, those who've been here more than once will already figured this out. I try to play things a bit cool, imply that any instances of self-deprecating humour are signs of a well-justified self-confidence, but honestly I just read an unhealthy amount and follow my nerdy interests wherever they take me. This time, they've taken me across the Atlantic, and what fun it's been.

Yesterday saw the completion of Oliver Rackham's surprisingly brief (barely 200 pages) masterwork Trees and Woodlands in the British Landscape: The Complete History of Britains's Trees, Woods and Hedgerows. He's written quite a lot of stuff, Rackham, and I've dabbled in his work before, but this book came along at just the right time. I've been working on some proposals for academic work on 18th-century trees, agriculture, and declarations of "public virtue," and this book clarified some of my thinking really nicely. I've seen it referenced often enough that I've absorbed quite a bit of his principles indirectly, but what a joy it can be to read -- especially belatedly -- an originary source.

Two key points are starkly put quite late in the book: "Tree-planting has come to usurp the place of conservation," and "Tidy-mindedness can perhaps be overcome by education" (p.201). Others have written sensibly and sensitively about ecological restoration, and really that's what Rackham's talking about (rather than conservation as such), but no one has done a better job of cautiously drawing on vast amounts of data on specific places, in the service of generating transportably site-specific principles and practices.

But there are some details I need, too. Far from crediting John Evelyn with increasing interest in forestry, for example, Rackham straightforwardly declares that "much of the misinformation about trees that is still current today can be tracked back to it" (p.92), meaning Evelyn's enormous book Silva, which itself was meant to be a history of and exhortation toward forestry. The nerds among you still reading will know why this is such a relief. I mean, come on: a dilettante in a dozen fields of "study" gets it completely right on one of the popular/esoteric ones that can't be verified by short-term experimentation?

Nerd factor from finding real pleasure in this book: high.
Amount that this troubles me: none whatsoever.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Gabor Mate, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts

[EDIT: Hi. Welcome to my blog -- but why this post? Why is this the one that generates more traffic than any other post around here? Leave a comment, as I'd love to make sure the traffic isn't mostly automated! And frankly, some of my own favourites would be this one, or maybe this one.]

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Jasper Fforde, Something Rotten

It only makes sense, I suppose, that Jasper Fforde's time-travelling, alternative history novels should be shelved in the science fiction section -- but really, how often do you associate Jane Eyre, Shakespeare, and croquet with sci-fi? These are densely bookish novels, metafictional in a popular though not an entirely scholarly sense, inextricably entangled in a recognizable canon of Classic Literature, so I barely register the presence of the time-travelling ChronoGuard, cloned Napoleons, and so on.

Which is really just a way of suggesting that you dodge furtively into the science fiction section of your favourite bookshop, if you're not already comfortable walking proudly into it. Even if you're the kind of reader who wouldn't ever engage with science fiction, there are some rewards available in these novels, I promise you.

Something Rotten takes its title, of course, from the line in Hamlet about the state of Denmark. There are dozens of books out there with some version of this phrase in the title, Amazon tells me, but not many of them ask whether Nelson's death at Trafalgar was in fact an elaborate suicide plot; discuss the genetics of resequenced Neanderthals (or their contempt for Sapiens social protocols); or explore the byzantine rules of four-ball, ten-player croquet played in an international league, mostly in stadiums seating 30,000 or more people.

If my other reviews of Fforde books haven't convinced you to give him a try (here, here, here for the Thursday Next books, and here and here for the Nursery Crimes series), well, I give up. They're great fun. Start with The Eyre Affair, and spend your summer with them.