Thursday, November 26, 2009

Gail Anderson-Dargatz, Turtle Valley

Now, I did a fair bit of my growing up in Turtle Valley. I swam in Skimikin and Phillips Lakes, hiked Squilax Mountain, picked agates in the creeks, worked on neighbours' farms at haying time, that sort of thing. And as a literature instructor, I should be OK with how fiction bends elements of place in support of story -- but the fictionalizing of place in Gail Anderson-Dargatz's novel Turtle Valley was so distracting to me that I had an extremely difficult time getting into this novel.

Anderson-Dargatz has a reputation for being attentive to place. As a Globe and Mail reviewer remarked (in a comment picked up on Amazon), "She is hopelessly in love with and attentive to her subject, the physical world and all its gifts." (I think this is an appositional structure, meaning that "her subject" is in fact "the physical world and all its gifts," but I suppose it could be a list of three things she's attentive to....)

But this isn't the Turtle Valley I grew up in, in terms of its orientation or population or even some of its vegetation. Maybe what she calls golden tansy, for example, is something I knew as something else, or maybe it's moved in since I last spent much time there (15 years ago, admittedly), but it's new to my sense of the place. The odd thing is that she doesn't seem to think her handling of this place is inaccurate. Her Book Club Guide to the novel remarks, for example, that "British Columbia’s Shuswap-Thompson landscape and ecosystem are integral to this novel." Her novel might be true to the spirit of the place, I guess, but not to the letter of it, and that distinction matters.

But I'm a complainer, as my students well know, so I'll try to ignore that reaction for now.

Once I set aside my squabbles with how Anderson-Dargatz handles this particular place, and did my best to relax into the star-crossed tale of the love between Jude and Kat, this novel tells a pretty good story, and one I'm disposed to go along with. Their past affair ended badly, as it had to, and it doesn't resume, because it just can't, but there's both delicacy and power in the way it's rendered. I'm not much for romance generally, but this flawed relationship had me interested. There are plenty of other characters, some of which I appreciated more than others, but Kat is at the book's centre, and Jude is at the core of her view and experience of the world.

Not everyone loved this book when it came out, with Alexander Varty in the Georgia Straight likely the harshest in objecting that "Anderson-Dargatz's creeping plot gets bogged down in so much exposition that, halfway through, you're thoroughly tired of Kat and Jude and Ezra and the whole damned crew, no matter what dark surprises spill out of Grandma's carpetbag." Varty's often a cranky reviewer, and I don't always agree with him, but there's a germ of truth to most of his comments. This novel brings together a number of stories as a way of letting us into Kat's mind, but in the end they're stories rather than true access points; we don't get into her head and heart, but I think that's part of what Anderson-Dargatz is doing, saying that Kat doesn't have full access to her own thoughts and feelings either. There's an awful lot of plot in this book, but the two lead female characters are obsessive writers -- there couldn't be a thin plot, because it wouldn't be true to the way they experience the world.

And maybe that, in the end, is why the book doesn't work for me. As keen as I am to know more about Kat and Jude's future (together? apart? happy? not?), Turtle Valley exists in Kat's mind, not in the world. Turtle Valley is one of my home places -- primal landscapes, I think Don Gayton calls them -- and Turtle Valley gets it wrong.

I'll read A Cure for Death by Lightning before long, I imagine, and I'll read Anderson-Dargatz's next novel as well -- apparently to be titled Spawning Grounds -- but I'm probably going to grumble about it....

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

November 24 - UVic Bookstore

A theoretical book on visual rhetoric -- not my standard reading, but since that's the likely core of an environmental literature course I'll be team-teaching next year, it seemed like a good time to pick up Ecosee: Image, Rhetoric, Nature ($37.25), edited by Sidney Dobrin and Sean Morey. And honestly, I was just there to order a comic book -- um, graphic novel -- by Derrick Jensen and Stephanie McMillan, As The World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do To Stay In Denial.

Friday, November 20, 2009

November 20 - UVic Bookstore

The softcover version of a book I've been weighing for some time now, Timothy Morton's Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics ($26.50), was on the shelf at the UVic bookstore today when I wandered through to check if a book I'd ordered had arrived yet. (Nope.) Ecology Without Nature will have to hold me, I guess, until the April 2010 publication of Morton's next book, The Ecological Thought!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

November 19 - Malahat Review booksale

I'm always happy to hand over some money to the Malahat Review, and it's especially important to support small Canadian magazines and journals now that the federal government will be cutting their subsidies if their subscription list is too short. Appalling but predictable behaviour from the federal Conservatives, I think. I bought a handful of books ($1 each unless otherwise noted), donated some extra cash, got cranky:
  • 4 Poets: Daniela Elza, Peter Morin, Al Rempel, Onjana Yawnghwe
  • Colin Browne, The Shovel
  • Joan Crate, Suburban Legends
  • Lorne Dufour, Jacob's Prayer: Loss and Resilience at Alkali Lake
  • Donald A. Fraser, My Nugget Poke ($2)
  • Tom Henry, Westcoasters: Boats That Built BC ($2)
  • Don LePan, Animals (a novel launched just a couple of weeks ago)
  • Charles Lillard, Circling North
  • Garry Thomas Morse, Death in Vancouver
  • Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography
  • Lloyd Ratzlaff, The Crow Who Tampered with Time

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

November 17 - Russell Books

They've done such a nice job with the renovation, Russell Books: they've gotten out of the way, and there's just a vast amount of room for books. After a great lunch at the Pink Bicycle yesterday (chanterelles and swiss on Vancouver Island beef), there was a detour to Russell Books -- new unless otherwise noted:
  • Pamela Banting, ed., Fresh Tracks: Writing the Western Landscape ($9.99)
  • Bruce Barcott, ed., Northwest Passages: A Literary Anthology of the Pacific Northwest, from Coyote Tales to Roadside Attractions ($9.99)
  • Mark Hume, The Run of the River: Portraits of Eleven British Columbia Rivers ($7.99)
  • CS Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader ($3.99 used, the right edition to fill out the boxed set I picked up some time ago)
  • Bill McKibben, The Age of Missing Information ($9.99: McKibben watched all 24 hours of programming from all 93 cable channels available in Fairfax, Virginia, on May 3, 1990, and in this book sets what he learned in that "day" against what he learned from a day of camping about a week later)
  • Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution ($9.99 -- "how the scientific revolution sanctioned the exploitation of nature, commercial expansion, and the subjugation of women," as the blurb puts it)
  • Harry Robinson (with Wendy Wickwire), Nature Power: In the Spirit of an Okanagan Storyteller ($7.99)
  • Sound Heritage IV.2 (1975), special issue on Aural History, Regional Studies and Literature in British Columbia ($1.00 used, price inexplicable)
  • Sound Heritage 33 (1981), issue written and edited by Bob Bossin, Settling Clayoquot ($6.99 used)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

John Lent, Monet's Garden

The Okanagan: I grew up (sort of, for part of it) in the Shuswap, which is just beyond the northernmost point in the North Okanagan drainage. This year I've got a student who's reading literature from/about the Okanagan, and I'm enjoying the visits to places I knew fairly well but were just outside the range of my familiarity.

John Lent's linked short story collection Monet's Garden is this week's read. Vernon figures in several of the stories, as setting for some and as subtext for others. The book reminded me strongly of John Harris' Small Rain, which came out seven years earlier and is physically similar in size. Both of them use linked stories and flirt with autobiography in their approach, and both are anchored in a particular Canadian location.

But whereas Small Rain is fifteen stories marked as fiction and yet using the names of real people Harris knows (including a first-person narrator named "John Harris"), only two of Lent's stories here are openly nonfictional, and those are "Roofs" and "Roofs in the Heart." At least, I think they're nonfictional! The first is about a writer at a Banff retreat who goes home to Vernon for the weekends to plant flowers, and who on the drive back comes up with the idea of an Edmonton family consisting of parents plus three children, and all the stories are about this family. The second, the book's final story, includes the remark that "The voices that began in the car three months ago have stopped" (p.117). There are enough overlaps between the fictional and biographical families that it's clear Lent has been mining his past for material, but what writer doesn't do that, at least a little? Harris might be writing nonfiction and calling it fiction; Lent's writing fiction, though he might be using it to reflect on his own life.

It's a typically dysfunctional family, the one whose life Lent chronicles here via fragment, and it has the standard appeal and lack thereof common to all such approaches. Every family is dysfunctional in its own way, of course, and every story needs some conflict, but I didn't find much unexpected here. It's a small-press book (from Thistledown in 1996, which continues to publish excellent work today), and it felt like some other small-press books I've read. More people need to read them, but I'm not sure how to get there!

And I'm not sure whether to recommend this book, either. It sounds like Lent's 2005 follow-up So It Won't Go Away continues the same exploration of the terrain between fiction and non-, so I might need to read that one before I can make a real judgement about this book. It's certainly neither forgettable nor a throw-away; Monet's Garden has some fine writing, and some of the character studies are especially good. Settings felt too often like catalogues of details to me, especially of commercial enterprises, though presumably that's part of the point. It belongs on my "good BC literature" shelves, definitely, but there's no ranking system within the domain of the shelves....

Monday, November 09, 2009

November 8 - Haunted Bookshop

Whenever I get out to Sidney BC, I make a point of zipping into the Haunted Bookshop. I say "zipping" because I usually have my seven-year-old in tow, and she's not all that patient when it's not her kind of bookstore! (Her kind of bookstore, we're there for hours. Something in the genes.)

Anyway, it's a great shop, but to my credit I managed not to buy the four-volume set of Nature Display'd (1736-1740), since it was after all priced at $1450.00 ("firm, no movement on price," said the fellow working the store yesterday). I'd call it overpriced, but I'm no antiquarian -- as keen as I am on the book.

Not overpriced, though, were a couple of books from the shop's seriously impressive collection of BC writing and BC history:
  • Gilean Douglas, River for My Sidewalk ($8 -- she published it first under a male pseudonym in 1953, thinking no one would believe that a woman could survive in the wild like this)
  • Howard White, The Men There Were Then ($10 -- 1st edition, near perfect condition, with a copy of the original 1983 press release from the publisher)

Douglas is a really great writer, in poetry as well as prose, and it's criminal that none of her own work is in print. (There's a selection of it in Lebowitz & Milton's Gilean Douglas: Writing Nature, Finding Home, but she deserves to be read in bulk rather than in essence.)

As for White, I've had a casual eye out for this book ever since I was first amazed by a short selection in the Tom Wayman-edited anthology Going for Coffee: Poetry on the Job. You have to know that old-time loggers kept their axes incredibly sharp, and that they hung them from their belts with the blades uncovered:
...one time one man when he
turned to reach for his saw,
he brushed that razor sharp axe
and it slit his middle
right along the belt line for about eight inches.
It didn't bleed so much but
his intestines came looping down like bunting.
When we came with the stretcher this man
was under the cut crouched on his knees
delicately holding up these gut loops
one by one splashing sawdust off 'em
with water from his waterbag.
There are no men like that
around today.
(Wayman p.67; White pp.32-33)
No, no there aren't men like that today. At least not in my house.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

October 31 - Value Village

Killing time, as usual, and for some reason Value Village continues to be a reliable source of older BC writing:
  • Ken Cathers, Images on Water (ninety-nine cents, for a 1976 poetry collection from Lantzville's wonderful Oolichan Books)
  • Roderick Haig-Brown, Fisherman's Winter ($1.99, the one set about fishing the rivers of Chile and Argentina)
  • John Hay, Nature's Year: The Seasons of Cape Cod ($1.99 for a 1961 nature-writing classic)
  • Eric Nicol, Vancouver ($1.99 -- serious rather than humorous, but still the Nicol touch)
  • Tom Parkin, Wet Coast Words (ninety-nine cents, for a BC "dictionary")