Monday, August 23, 2010

Lawrence Hill, The Book of Negroes

Lawrence Hill and his The Book of Negroes got me through today's Air Canada marathon (not the expected Sydney-Toronto-Victoria, oh no, but with the spontaneous addition of Vancouver, plus eleven miles of intergate promenade). A very late night and a deucedly early morning combined to make sleep the only option for the first leg of travel, but somehow I swept through this fat novel in the six hours between Toronto and Vancouver, reading the closing acknowledgements section just before the wheels bumped down. At the moment, I remain in the YVR airport, so not, perhaps, in the fittest condition for reviewing books, and yet unlikely to recover rapidly or to retain present familarity, I nevertheless etc.:

In The Book of Negroes, Hill has written a remarkable work of historical fiction. Impeccably researched, I gather, though stretched for fictional purposes, as Hill notes in the afterword, this novel just has to be one of the most powerfully reimagined slave narratives yet written. It's not a genre I'm overly familiar with, and given the pace of reading I'm perhaps more open than usual to persuasion otherwise, but to me it seems that it's highly deserving of much of the praise that's been heaped upon it.

Having said that, I would simply note that much of the said praise singles out Hill's historical research and the vibrancy of his narrator, Aminata Diallo, but is generally silent on other elements of the novel. The Calgary Herald, for example, gets blurbed comparing Diallo to both the titular Anna Karenina and Hagar Shipley (from, of course, the Canadian classic Two Solitudes*), and I think I'm okay with that as far as the three characters go -- very high praise indeed, certainly, but note that the Herald doesn't compare The Book of Negroes to either Anna Karenina or The Stone Angel. Just to their main characters, and that's a different thing altogether, though still worth a blurb.

I will admit that more of my time and energy ought to have been lavished upon this impressively researched and seamlessly written novel, so I'm confident that I've missed plenty of elements that'd make it more valuable than it currently appears to my sleep-starved brain. The challenge for me in reading historical first-person fiction is in figuring out where the boundary lies between accomplished ventriloquism, and great novel-writing. My prediction is that The Book of Negroes will become and remain a frequent Christmas gift, but that as time goes on, we'll develop a secret regret that we didn't get a somewhat more novelistic treatment of a character as gripping as Aminata Diallo from a writer as talented as Lawrence Hill. Which isn't to day that it shouldn't be put in the hands of as many readers as might possibly want to read it.

Summation: a hell of a story about enormously important things, exceedingly well told through the vehicle of a terrific narrator and main character, though not necessarily the novel some of its fans think it is.

* Ha ha. Ha?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

August - Cape Breton

It's been a treat and a joy to spend a few days in Cape Breton with the good people of ALECC. We've been writing about the conference over at the ALECC blog, in between times, but also in between times there's been the occasional book pickup. Wilfrid Laurier University Press has been a friend to the literature/environment field for years, so it's been pleasant to talk with their Lisa Quinn here, and I even bought a few things from her.

I first note, though, that the most important acquisition is Shirley Bear's collection of art, poetry, and politics Virgin Bones / Belayak Kcikug'nas'ikn'ug. As organizer I gave myself the task of moderating the session in which she and Peter Clair spoke about Mi'kmaq worldviews, and with great kindness she gave me the copy of Virgin Bones she read from. Thank you, Shirley, not just for the book but for your words.

The purchases:
  • Shirley Bear, Nekt wikuhpon ehpit / Once there lived a woman / Il etait une fois une femme ($20)
  • Joy Parr, Sensing Changes: Technologies, Environments, and the Everyday, 1953-2003 ($13)
  • Harry Thurston, A Place between the Tides: A Naturalist's Reflections on the Salt Marsh ($20)
  • ed. J.A. Wainwright, Every Grain of Sand: Canadian Perspectives on Ecology and Environment ($15)
  • eds. Damian F. White & Chris Wilbert, Technonatures: Environment, Technologies, Spaces, and Places in the Twenty-First Century ($19.50)

Friday, August 13, 2010

Jeff Foss, Beyond Environmentalism

The opening lines of my eventually upcoming review in Ecozon@ of Beyond Environmentalism:
When I finished reading Jeffrey E. Foss’ Beyond Environmentalism: A Philosophy of Nature, one recent evening, I walked out of my house, across the street into the local golf course. It was late, so there was little natural light as I padded through the grass and over the rocky outcroppings into the very centre of the course, working my way around the swashing sprinklers that keep the course’s fairways lush and greens receptive. On arriving at the course’s dark centre, not far from the pond to which my dog occasionally vanishes and from which he’s subsequently flushed by cranky golfers, I stopped to stare upward for as long as my neck could manage it.

The Perseid meteor shower. With more than eighty large fragments per hour, it’s truly a magnificent spectacle, offering little material significance for the planet but great pleasure to humans observing it. This year, however, in spite of my admittedly feeble efforts, I was not one of its observers. Although the skies were clear, the bowl of suffused light rising from the streets around the golf course meant that I couldn’t locate a single one of the meteors. The stars, and the world, weren’t the way they’d been last August.

The traditional environmentalist reading of this experience would involve a critique of the simulated nature in which I tried to experience unmodified nature; a lament or attack on the sources of light pollution; and possibly a dismissal of my naivety in looking skyward for unmodified nature, rather than taking action against the wanton modification of nature all around me. What, though, would Jeff Foss’ reading be, given the confrontational tenor and oppositional title of his book?
Wonder how it'll turn out....