Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Ellen Ruppel Shell, Cheap

It's a valuable book, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. Ellen Ruppel Shell is a science journalist by training and inclination, so this book illustrates her background effectively. She includes numerous interviews with professors of one kind or another, for example, and the book is stuffed full of useful and interesting background information. I will say, though, that some of the book's value has to be found in spite of Shell's accomplishments here, because she falls short of living up to the quality of the material she brings together.

For one thing, Cheap opens and closes with Shell's comments that she'll always be a bargain shopper. At book's opening, it makes sense that Shell would want to ingratiate herself with her audience, which she can safely assume would be at least a little resistant to the idea of deliberately spending more for everything while buying much less in total. At book's end, the motivation behind this remark is less clear, unless Shell more clearly understands than I do the depth to which a uniquely American devotion to low prices runs in the collective, national unconscious. (Just to be clear: of course she understands it more clearly. I just don't know if that's enough of a reason, because it isn't to my eyes.)

For another, I can't fathom how she can bring together all this data and history, and all these ideas, and not find herself calling specifically for revolution, with targeted actions and with high-profile villains richly deserving comeuppance. (Wal-Mart, I'm looking at you, and especially at former CEO Lee Scott.) Sure, she concludes Cheap by describing the "bloodless" consumer revolution to come (p.231), but a revolution without bullets or bullhorns? It'd be an oddly Canadian revolution, taking advantage of the nuclear option otherwise known as the cold shoulder, or possibly the disapproving sniff, and I don't see how her data leads her to think that the inescapably mild behaviour of the goodhearted consumer has a chance against media and retail behemoths.

Hey Americans: individual responsibility gets trumped by determined collective coercion, about every time. Discount culture will not be overthrown by my buying clothes only at recycle stores or at bespoke tailors.

But like I said, it's an enormously valuable book, and I'd strongly encourage everyone to read it so you understand what you're up against every time you suggest maybe it'd be nice if we respected each other a little more. Ellen Ruppel Shell has done a wonderful job of bringing together the tools you'll need to defend this mild position -- and its much more radical consequences.

Daniel Defoe, Roxana

Well, we'll see how this works out. I chose Daniel Defoe's Roxana as the earliest of three novels in this fall's 1660-1900 survey course in British literature that I'm teaching, not having actually read the novel in ... let's just call it "several years" and be done with it.

And of course on reading it, I remembered all those things that annoyed me when I was reading it the last few times, rather than the things I enjoyed so much that have always stayed relatively fresh in my mind.

In brief, Roxana is a first-person narration about the life of a woman pushed early into trading sexual favours for money: she becomes her landlord's mistress to avoid eviction, nearly two years after her foolish husband has disappeared. Over the next few decades, Roxana sees an awful lot of the flesh of some very powerful men, becomes seriously wealthy, and explores a few different positions in European class structure. It's a fascinating case study in psychological development, under the influence of Christian morality, poverty, and the silence of God. Defoe's personal interest in debt and mercantilism makes it also a detailed account of eighteenth-century economics, and the role of Roxana's servant Amy is fascinating in terms both of narrative/psychological structure and of servant-master relations in the period.

All of this is to the good.

It's written as a single chapter, though. And eighteenth-century publishing practices being what they are, the book's been heavily leavened with capital letters, italics, very long paragraphs. Too, there are next to no quotation marks, and several sequential speeches by different characters may appear in a single paragraph, unflagged except with "she said" and the like. Defoe's obsession with finances means there are several points where you're left trying to figure out the conversion rates between currency from several European countries, as well as the process for transferring funds between countries when there where no rapid communication methods or overly stable currencies.

Can I get the students to appreciate this novel? I hope so, and I've already posted some reading tips even though the term's a week away from beginning. But it'll be a challenge, I think, so I hope it doesn't push people away from the course. There were a lot of great novels written in the eighteenth century, and I've accidentally chosen one of the less accessible ones. Ah well. Though also, yikes. It's a great book to look back on, but it can be unpleasant to read at the time.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Kristeva Dowling, Chicken Poop for the Soul

I wish Kristeva Dowling luck with the inevitable lawsuit, if it wasn't already resolved before the publication of her new book Chicken Poop for the Soul: In Search of Food Sovereignty. Or maybe the good folks at Chicken Soup have a sense of humour about this sort of thing. In any event, Dowling's book is good-hearted enough that it's certainly not a drag on the brand (with which, I hasten to say, her book is completely NOT affiliated). If you're a locavore or wannabe, or if you've wondered about moving to somewhere wild, and you want to spend some time with someone witty and open and usefully provocative, this just might be the book for you.

Dowling writes openly and directly here about her social and philosophic concerns, her material planning, and her many disagreements with the regulatory bodies governing small farms in British Columbia. Rare for a book with a food-driven audience, Chicken Poop raises all sorts of issues that might seem a long way from growing your own veg. Marketing boards, abattoir regulations, eating wild animals, killing wild predators: the great advantage of this book, to me, has to be the breadth of Dowling's careful thinking about her multifaceted subject. I'm not sure I'd've sampled everything she did at the local Rod and Gun Club potluck dinner (cougar? beaver? really?), but I'm genuinely impressed by the effort she's gone to in this attempt to think through the implications of cold-weather and wet-climate food sovereignty.

She does a great job, in particular, of unpacking the assorted challenges posed by BC's legislative and administrative restrictions on local food production. I'm busily trying to figure out some ways around them now, just because someone should, even though I've got some family connections that mean I'm automatically in a circumvention loop; I've always known enough about the restrictions to be annoyed by them, but Dowling's cranked the mechanism a little tighter by providing both information and commentary.

Plus the recipes look excellent, I laughed several times about one story or another, and some of the events approach the moving. Some of her neighbours are real characters, and I felt for her struggles: you laugh with her, and you worry with her.

On the downside, Chicken Poop feels something like an older self-published volume: glossy paper, longer than it might need to be, each chapter more scattered than you'd think an editor would support. She doesn't have the prose of Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, or Wendell Berry, but who does? Really, I kind of liked what felt like a DIY aesthetic, even in the unlikely event that the generally wonderful Caitlin Press was behind some sort of cunningly faux-DIY packaging.

Don't let appearances put you off, if you happen to see Chicken Poop in a bookstore and waffle about buying it: give it a try, because there's a lot more to this book than there is in your typical volume of "I am (new) gardener, hear me roar!" Maybe some of the DIY comes from its origins on her blog, which by the way is worth a read in its own right - though you should consider kicking some money Dowling's way anyway....

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sherryl Vint, Animal Alterity

Nothing detailed here, because a longer review will be turning up in The Goose in the fall, but I just finished Sherryl Vint's Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal, and I really enjoyed it.

In brief, I'm still unclear on why she chose to talk about the books and stories she did, and as a result I'm not convinced she's not something of an advanced dabbler in science fiction. (But then I'm even more of a dabbler than she is, so maybe it's just that I'm ignorant enough that the pattern's invisible to me!) Still, her comments are clear and focused, especially on the early days of Amazing Stories, and she does a great job of demonstrating how human-animal studies can be used to shed light on literature and culture: and vice versa. Thoughtful, prickly, and careful, Animal Alterity generated a lengthy reading list for me, damn Sherryl Vint anyway. This book is a really good read for academics with an interest in the literature/environment intersection, important for those interested in literature's handling of animals, and I suspect it'd be a good read even for a lot of sf readers without much interest in literary theory.

Maybe it's not worth the $109.50 CDN that Amazon's charging for it, but then what is? Obviously Robert Wiersema's latest would be, Walk Like A Man, but I haven't laid hands on that one yet, and it's priced much more competitively anyway.

Check out the current issue of The Goose, though: lots of commentary on writing from and/or about Canada, with a tight focus on connections between culture and environment, including more than twenty book reviews!

Don Gutteridge, Turncoat

Well, that was unexpected. I didn't think I'd find the book club's next Random House book to be the next dud, but there you go.

And if I was to be polite, I probably shouldn't call Don Gutteridge's Turncoat a dud. It's a heart-in-the-right-place detective novel with a reasonable toehold on Canadian history, and that's not a bad thing in itself. Maybe it'll Get The Kids Reading, and it'd be nice if people learned a little more about WIlliam Lyon Mackenzie (rather than just WLM King), and it's nice to get some perspective on life in 1830s Canada. Other than the griping of those meanies Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill, of course.

Gutteridge seems genuinely like a good guy. But most of the women are sexualized caricatures, the prose is pedestrian, the violence cartoonish, the hero's exposition of his solving the mystery painfully long (and inexplicably NOT met with violence from the unbelievably patiently listening villain). Honestly, I'm not recommending Turncoat to anyone.

Apparently Gutteridge has written a dozen of these Marc Edwards novels now, though I can only find about four of them online, so maybe the other eight remain in the pipeline. Maybe mystery readers like this sort of thing; I'm definitely not a mystery reader, so I'm no judge, but mystery readers, I'm not going to love you if you tell me how impressed you were by this one.

(Oddly, one of the blurbers blogged about how pleased he was that his comment made it onto the book's cover. Maybe I'm the only one who finds it odd. Odd, if that's true.)

Eden Robinson, Traplines

One of my fave lines from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is from former president and perpetual man-about-galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox, on his own stylishness: "I'm so hip I have trouble seeing over my pelvis." Me, on the other hand, I'm a long way from hip. Always have been, always will be. I eat beets happily, enjoy bluegrass as well as jazz, delight in books about things that my blog stats tell me no one else on the planet appears to be interested in.

I've gone back to Eden Robinson's short story collection Traplines in advance of a grad student's defense in two weeks (great paper, well done, etc), reading the whole collection again rather than just the stories she's thinking about in relation to Robinson's novel Monkey Beach. Students love Robinson, with three grad students in my department defending Robinson projects this month, and no question she's an accomplished and polished writer.

But wow, I'm a long way from hip, and the positive critical attention to Traplines, and students' appreciation for it, really clarified that for me this weekend during my re-reading. Or maybe it's okay that it was a New York Times Book Review notable book. The NYT may not be as hip as I fear....

Anyway, I recognize that violence and drug use and abuse are markers of, and metaphors for, lives lived without white privilege, and I recognize that I've lived a life of white privilege. (Not that I've been wildly privileged as whites go, but social privileges accrue to the white. I'm not getting into it here, so don't tempt me to go on.) The thing is, I have a visceral dislike of stories emphasizing said violence, drug use, and abuse. I'm assuming that this is part of my blah response to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, too, but I'm not digging up that one again just to figure it out.

And these stories have a seriously impressive level of violence; abuse in some cases approaches total domination; and drugs are normal, if also made to seem at times horrifying. Robinson's characters aren't all First Nations (though many of them are or appear to be Haisla), but their lives are the products of the social conditions in which they find themselves, and there's a lot of darkness with precious little light in any of them. The violence, in other words, is justifiable both on narrative grounds and on social-commentary grounds. I just don't like it.

And yeah, maybe it's because I don't want to look at the ugly parts of my society. But I'd rather think it's because I don't want my society to have ugly parts. Not that I know how to do that, and not that I'm the least bit active (outside my classroom) in doing much about it, but I'm getting closer to taking steps. I want to live in a better society than I do. Robinson's harrowing, violating, remarkable portrait of a society that I don't want to have to recognize as my own is (a) an aesthetic achievement and (b) an unnecessarily precise image of the effects of that version of our society I'd like to see overthrown.

Up to you to decide whether this counts as a recommendation of Traplines!

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Wayson Choy, All That Matters

Good heavens, what a book: I'd been expecting to admire and enjoy All That Matters, Wayson Choy's 2004 followup to his smash 1995 novel The Jade Peony, but I really fell for it. I've always had a habit of being persuaded by whatever I've been reading most recently (best novel ever! smartest theoretician ever! sexiest issue of People ever!), so in some ways I should recognize that response behind some of my appreciation for Choy's novel - but it's also just that good.

The novel follows the classic coming-of-age plot, with a young boy (Kiam-Kim) arriving in a new home (Canada, from China) with assorted family challenges; the historic period covered is 1926-1947, with some details about the '29 economic crisis as well as post-WW2 social reconstruction. The Chen family is a complicated one, genetically as well as emotionally, and Choy does a wonderful job of illuminating the many ways in which these complications feed into each other: silence and volubility, adherence to tradition, yearning for the new, siblings whose parentages are variously step-, and so on.

Set in Vancouver's Chinatown, mostly in the 1930s, All That Matters emphasizes racial segregation and mingling, both formally sanctioned and personally pursued. Chinese kids playing with Irish kids; Italian teenagers fighting with Chinese teenagers; Chinese women working in "white" offices or warehouses; Chinese and Japanese people impossible for "white" Canadians to distinguish from each other: Choy makes these things real, if a little bit cartoonish at times, but even then the cartoonishness is itself true to a situation where you don't know the first thing about people not like you.

I found the characters difficult to see through at times, especially the quieter female characters, but I'm assuming that's part of Choy's aesthetic. This was especially the case for the three young women linked around Kiam-Kim (Jenny Chung, Meiyung Lim, and Stepmother); maybe Choy's emphasizing the wilful inscrutability of these characters as their strengths and/or weaknesses, maybe I'm not attuned enough to his writing, maybe he's not as good with female characters as with male. Hard to say, and I'll leave the speculation to others. I recognize that some reviewers felt let down by Choy's prose and his linear narrative (unlike that of The Jade Peony), but honestly, the aesthetic worked really well for me.

So in sum, I was utterly absorbed by All That Matters. It was a mandatory read so I could support a student project, but I quickly found myself choosing to bury myself in this novel. Great stuff, even if I'm coming to it fashionably late, seven years after its initial publication....

Monday, August 01, 2011

Anny Scoones, Home and Away

It's pretty much adorable, Anny Scoones' second book about her life on a small farm on southern Vancouver Island, and I'm guessing that Home and Away: More Tales of a Heritage Farm has been given to a lot of people on a lot of different occasions since it first appeared five years ago. I'm late to the party, apologizing mildly once again to TouchWood Editions for ever doubting them, but these things happen.

And just in time, too, because it appears that Scoones has recently sold Glamorgan Farm! Scoones seems lovely, too, so she deserves the break, and I'm kind of excited by what Sue Wilson has planned for the place.

To the book, though, because it's all about the book around here: adorable. Her occasional drunkenness is always funny, with a ring of truth; her variously aged rescue dogs are alternately heartbreaking and inspiring; and her farming experience is appealing enough to almost make you consider taking it up.

Home and Away is best taken in small doses, mind, because it'll come across disjointed otherwise (since it's a true sampler of stories from across Scoones' entire life), and because it can get cuter than anyone could possibly need. You need some breaks, but if you take them, you just might really enjoy this book. Lots of small stories about the intersections between small-town farming, Canadian literati (mostly Lorna Crozier, to be honest), and politicking.

It's not for everyone, and it's for NO one in my book club, but if you like this book a little, you'll probably like it a whole lot.

bell hooks, Belonging

The first time I read bell hooks’ Belonging: A Culture of Place, I decided not to review it here. hooks is a well-known and well-respected writer, so it’s not like she needs (or would particularly benefit from) my approval.

That’s not something that’s stopped me before, though. Besides, she’s dealing with enormously important issues and questions that no one else on the planet thinks about in the same way, and more people really should get the benefit of her thinking. These ideas are collected together nowhere else, so the question is how well Belonging represents the best of hooks’ ideas.

Mostly, I just wasn’t sure how to characterize the book’s atrocious level of finishing: and it really is atrocious. Routledge should be ashamed of letting this book depart its offices looking like this, and that’s why I couldn’t bear to review it last time. Details on that at the end of the post, though, because we’ve got some great stuff to talk about first.

It’s an eddying, circular book, this one, and hooks goes over the same ground numerous times in Belonging. The same touchstone writers and volumes are cited more than once (Ernest Gaines, Toni Morrison, Carol Lee Flinders, M. Scott Peck, Wendell Berry, and others), and sometimes the same quotations are offered in more than one chapter. The same insights, too, come up again and again, and the same crucial moments from her childhood are re-recounted.

But I’m more than okay with that, because bell hooks is dramatizing here the cumulative process of discovery and self-discovery, illustrating how hard it is to hang onto what we’ve learned. When you leave the country young for the city, as she did, and when it takes years for you to figure out how to remain country the way you need to, while making the most anyone can possibly can from what the city has to offer, and when you manage somehow to return nonetheless to the country, well, lessons sometimes have to be learned more than once, and they get learned each time in a slightly different context. Sometimes it’s a grandfather’s habits with a plough that prompt her; sometimes it’s a postmodern cultural critic. It’s a treat to watch her keep approaching the same lessons these different ways.

Among the key lessons are these: black American culture was still 90% agrarian less than a century ago, and the overwhelming emphasis on black urban experience now is itself a highly successful product of white supremacist oppression. Black Americans have been led (and in some ways forced) to forfeit and to deny their historically very intimate links to nature, so they’ve had to fake their way into developing a wholly urban culture without any tradition or history of urban existence. An awareness of black American culture’s historic roots in nature must be developed before that culture can become fully mature and hence overcome (while retaining, as it must in order to remain mature) the scars of slavery, segregation, and racisms both official and unofficial. Without some sense of and for nature, black American culture can never really generate a sense of permanence, of place, of belonging.

These, as I say, are among the many lessons of this book. hooks’ comments on porches and quiltmaking are inspired, and some of her pieces on family are impressively moving. Mind you, I wish she spent more time commenting on, rather than praising, the texts and writers she cites, and I rather selfishly wish she’d offered some more overt clues for how to apply her book to places other than Kentucky (rural British Columbia, for example...), but there’s a lot here to grab onto. The book deserves readers, lots of them.

Routledge, though, has badly screwed up the chances of that. If I was bell hooks, I’d sue them.

By my casual, though slightly obsessive, count, more than 150 errors survived the editing process: extra letters (the name “Chollly”), transposed letters (like “form” rather than “from,” more than once), missing quotation marks and apostrophes (even spots where a single word had a double quotation mark at the beginning, a single at the end), spellcheck errors (Gerard "Manly" Hopkins, not "Manley"), you name it. Some sentences don't end with a period; some end with two; some have a period in the middle somewhere.

hooks uses several quotations twice in this book, and not a single one of them - NOT A SINGLE ONE - is quoted the same way twice. How do you misquote Psalm 121, for example, especially when you get it right the other time the line appears?!? “I will lift up mine eyes UNTIL the hills, from whence cometh my help” - I mean, honestly. How is it possible that not a single repeated quotation appears the same way twice?

But MOST egregiously, there’s more than one case where there’s a missing “not,” so hooks appears to be saying precisely the opposite of what she’s been arguing all along. Appalling. If I wasn't worried I'd come off sounding like Gordon Ramsay, I'd have more to say than that.

Routledge, you should be ashamed. I’m tempted to write and demand that you send my entire purchase price directly to bell hooks, because you’ve done her ZERO favours with this volume! I've complained mildly in the past about small-time presses not helping their authors, and I stand by that, but this butchery is thorough enough that it looks like sabotage.