Theresa Kishkan, Mnemonic

It's been a long time, too long really, since I've had the chance to review a new book by Theresa Kishkan. One of the first writers who talked to me in blog comments, she's a wickedly accomplished writer of environmentally inflected memoir, and her books Red Laredo Boots and Phantom Limb are among my very favourite books of and from British Columbia. It was therefore with delight that, out of my packed end of term schedule, I carved out enough time to work gradually through the essays in Mnemonic: A Book of Trees.

I've remarked before in other reviews that a really great book makes me slow down, makes me keep closing the covers so I don't have to finish it as quickly as I might, and Mnemonic I dragged out for more than a week. I hesitate to give you samples, because I want you to go and read it yourself, I'm that excited by this book, but here's a passage anyway that encapsulates some of the book's hold over me but doesn't actually give anything away:
And yet. And yet. I never expected to feel such physical loss as when I stand in the centre of my own still world and remember the past, which is almost always a landscape. Which is almost always what happened in a landscape. (p. 214)
"There never was an is without a where," as Lawrence Buell memorably put it in his book Writing for an Endangered World, and Kishkan puts is'es and where's aplenty into these pages, from all over the world, emphasizing moments of BC and her BC sensibility.

Some tips:
  • For those who don't read environmental or environmentalist writing, that's not what this is. It's a memoir, with trees of different species as signposts and emblems and evocations.
  • For those who don't read thoughtful memoirish essays, that's not what these are, either. It's a collection of environmental writing, cataloguing the ways that we relate to the world in which our lives occur and with which our lives intersect.
  • For those who.... Never mind. It's environmental writing. It's also memoir. And damn it, you should drop your pretensions and read Mnemonic. You'll love it, I swear, or if you don't, you know someone who will love it, and you can pass it along at the next gift-giving opportunity!

Not that aren't detractors: Brian Fawcett's a very good writer as well, but he does draw on his Curmudegeonly Critic routine in commenting on her book. In his review, if that's the right word for his article, he opens with the line, "Theresa Kishkan is the sort of human being I’ve spent my life avoiding," remarking in the second paragraph on her husband, poet John Pass, "I’ve long found his admittedly-skilled work incomprehensible –no, wait, the right word is inconsequential...." These are review-ready remarks how, exactly?

But Fawcett comes around, more or less, though retaining his traditional posture. While he remains prickly about what he sees as the book's faults (most of which are that Kishkan's not herself Brian Fawcett), he gives what counts for almost extravagant praise: "her sensory array is both complicated and profoundly educated, and if you can get over the rhetorical pomp and the sometimes insight-arresting sensitivity, there is an expressive richness to this book that’s quite a lot more than simply charming." Back-handed, sure, but sometimes that's the best you can hope for.

Her recent novel, Age of Water Lilies, I wasn't as happy with as I wished I had been. (In unrelated news: that was two years ago? Good God, but I'm old.) It was well written, and the characters were interesting, but I never really got hooked. This new one, though, Mnemonic, is good enough that I'm buying copies and giving them away - honestly, I sent my first one out the end of last week, and I've got a few other people in mind for presentation copies! With Christmas around the corner, you could do no better than to read an essay or two, compare your impressions against your buying obligations, and distribute it widely.

For all his codgerly grumpiness, Brian Fawcett sums up, far better than this fan has been able to, what's so appealing about this book: "a rare glimpse into a complicated and intelligent woman’s mind travelling at very high velocities, and in pursuit of startling verities." Wonderful, wonderful stuff - congratulations, Theresa!


jo(e) said…
Every time I come over to your blog, I end up ordering another book.
richard said…
I'm a little sorry about that, but mostly I'm glad to hear it! Nature writers from the US have a larger audience and market, so anything I can do for my locals makes me happy.

You won't be disappointed, I promise. I'll buy it back from you, cheerfully, if you are!
Fraze said…
As a "grumpy codger" myself I think I've got a genuine objection to the use of the terms. They're a little bit passive-aggressive, if I understand that psychological jargon correctly.

Here's my thinking: "codgerly grumpiness" purports, on the surface, to be cheerful ribbing, and the kind of ribbing that codgers can't even object to without charges of hypocrisy ("you can dish it out, eh?").

But despite that surface appearance, it's actually quite a powerful attack on the person's opinions: a "codger" is an elderly, old-fashioned, eccentric old man. And "grumpy" needs no definition. In the end, both of these words suggest that the person's opinions are a result of personality, not intellect.

Which as you know is not a fair argument, unless you are a bleeding-hearted mushy thinker with girly underpants on.
richard said…
Personality and intellect are separate?

Go read Fawcett's review, then come back to tell me whether he counts as codgerly, grumpy, and/or eccentric. I've never met him, though I've read an awful lot of his books and essays, but I'd have a hard time supporting a description of his critical stance that doesn't include these terms, or terms like them.

In the review, for example, he explains that he ran two litmus tests he applies to the book, with the descriptor "both of which you might find strange, but which are fairly characteristic of the way I see the world."

And I don't have his book Unusual Circumstances, Interesting Times at home, but at one point he remarks (if I may paraphrase) that Jorge Luis Borges did the world of literature incalculable damage, and that he is glad the horrid bug-eyed little toad is dead. Barely a paraphrase: I remember it pretty clearly.

Right, off to put my girly underpants back on.
George said…
Just discovered your blog thanks to Kishkan, whom I've known and admired (in all ways) for decades. I had Googled this title of hers to remind myself of the subtitle. (My copy of the book is not with me as I write.) What a lovely blog. From the look of this page, even a lovely war.

Fawcett is an old friend and sometimes enemy who, as you note, has revelled in the curmudgeonly since he was but a young tad. Fraser's take on your comments seem profoundly ignorant of what a Brian Fawcett is, and are otherwise objectionable on grounds of a Political Correctness I'm sure Fraser will be horrified to be accused of. C'mon, Fraze, we're all getting old enough to be our own grandfathers. Do allow Fawcett to be seen as clearly as Richard does. Probably best review of Brian I've ever seen in (virtual) print. And using that to create an almost entirely virtual glowing review of Theresa's sublime book is an act of near genius.

Brian, pay attention. You've got fans out here.

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