Monday, September 26, 2011

Kim Stanley Robinson, Pacific Edge

Now, I've talked about Kim Stanley Robinson before on this blog (twice, actually), and I wasn't crazy about what I took to be his normal approach to constructing a novel. After reading Pacific Edge, the third novel in his California trilogy, I'm still not crazy about KSR's approach to narrative structure, but there's more going on in this novel, so I responded more positively to the determinedly unresolved ending.

Plus I'm looking forward with great nerdish excitement to the essay collection he's co-editing with Gerry Canavan, provisionally entitled Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction. I'm kicking myself for not getting a proposal in, but what were the odds I'd find time to actually write something? Sigh, and argh, but that's another story.

The year is 2065, and the world's gone post-corporate. There are small companies still, but corporations as such - especially international ones - are illegal, and there are minimum and maximum thresholds for individual earnings. Earn too little, and you get more; earn too much, and you get to choose which public works your dollars will support. Everything, almost, is calculated against questions of ecological sustainability; the dams in Hetch Hetchy are due to come down soon, for example, and in a fit of social justice, the criminally pillaged Owens Valley runs the California water supply.

Basically the novel follows the attempt to build a commercial development where our protagonist, Kevin Claiborne, would hate to see such a development built, but Robinson's genius here is to have a relatively light touch for all the various elements going into it. Municipal politics; the complex intimate relationships of a small town; the altered friend/family dynamics in a post-corporate world; massive technological change, such as the reliance on bicycles and sailing ships for large-scale cargo transport: each of these things gets its time in Pacific Edge, but somehow Robinson manages to prevent them from getting heavy and from going on for too long in sequence.

Really, it's an ideas novel - environmentalism's the new mainstream, anti-corporate struggle (hello, #OccupyWallStreet! though also, holy crap at items #10-15!) is the new normal - but an ideas novel that trusts you to figure out most of the ideas part on your own, and I really liked that part of the reading experience.

Characters live complicated lives in this novel - carpentry labourer plus Unitarian minister, materials scientist plus sculptor - and there's a welcome richness to the lived experience that's portrayed here. Some readers really don't like the novel at all, and that's fine, but mostly it's a question of politics. If you're not on board, then the small things will grate disproportionately, and if you're on board, then you'll give Robinson something of a pass. I gave him enough of a pass that I'm not as critical of Pacific Edge as I should be. And I'm perfectly comfortable with that move.

(For the record, I could totally see myself living in Robinson's 2065. And also, I fell a little bit in love with Ramona myself. These things happen.)

Jim Lynch, Border Songs

I've been hearing since it came out that Jim Lynch's Border Songs was a special novel, so I moved it up in the queue after grabbing a copy in Tofino last month (salesgirl: "Oh, I'm SO glad someone bought that! It's my favourite novel right now!" Me: "Um... paying by debit, please"). And yep, it's a special novel, special enough that I'm teaching it in January.

Basically, it focuses on a brief period in the life of Branden Vanderkool, a 6'8" young man with assorted intellectual challenges (with only dyslexia being named) who has become a Border Patrol agent for the American government. He's stationed in his hometown, in the semi-rural area just across the border from Abbotsford (or "Greater Vancouver" if that's a distinction you don't care about), dealing with a flood of illegal immigration and pot smuggling. There's a girl, of course, as there always should be, but there are also birds, in ways there almost never are in fiction, and also cows the way James Herriot might know them. (Wonderful moment where a visitor surprises a a farmer, for example, finding him arm-deep in a cow's rectum!)

Did Border Songs remind anyone else of Napoleon Dynamite, I wonder?

Random House calls it a "magnificent novel of birding, smuggling, farming, and extraordinary love," and while that's neither wrong nor entirely misleading, it also leaves out some genuinely fascinating threads. There's the question of mind and intellect, for one thing, which I appreciated but (to be honest) thought could have been handled more sensitively; there's also the question of form, in that Lynch deploys numerous stereotypes as well as draws on a few different literary traditions, notably the picaresque novel and the bildungsroman. It fits neither of these formal models all that well, to be clear, but it's a novel that resonates with other texts and models. Because it's so unusual, to my eyes Border Songs draws some of its strength from its allegiances to the usual, and that's something that strikes me as really valuable here.

And there's art, too, lots of it, even though we have to imagine Brandon's productions. It's another way of seeing, what Brandon represents, and as the reader you get to - have to - choose whether to focus on his intellectual oddities, or on the richness of his life. Very cool novel, seriously, even though this is a shorter review than I might normally do for a novel I liked so very much.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Purchases, Aug-Nov 2011

OK, OK, I let things side around Book Addiction HQ, and I didn't log some months of purchases. Sue me.

Going forward, though, I'll be combining purchases into monthly reports - they're not great reading on their own, but I do feel a need to keep track somehow. And since it's my blog, and since I've proven myself incapable of note-taking about purchases any other way, I'll post monthly.

  • Renaissance Books - John McPhee, The Control of Nature; McPhee, In Suspect Terrain
  • Wildside Booksellers (Tofino) - Jim Lynch, Border Songs
  • Coles (ugh) - Andrew Nikiforuk, Empire of the Beetle: How Human Folly and a Tiny Bug Are Killing North America's Great Forests

  • Book Marc - Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game; Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?; Kim Stanley Robinson, The Wild Coast; KSR, The Gold Coast; KSR, Pacific Edge
  • Munro's - AJ Jacobs, My Life as an Experiment: One Man's Humble Quest to Improve Himself; Rowan Jacobsen, The Living Shore: Rediscovering a Lost World
  • Russell - Octavia Butler, Wild Seed; Jean Hegland, Into the Forest; Ursula Le Guin, The Word for World Is Forest

  • subTEXT - The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon; Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities
  • UVic Bookstore - Rob Budde, Finding Ft. George; Brian Kiteley, Still Life with Insects; Elizabeth Royte, Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It

  • UVic Bookstore - Margaret Atwood, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination; S.K. Robisch, Wolves and the Wolf Myth in American Literature
  • Bolen's - Margaret Atwood, Oryx & Crake; Theresa Kishkan, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees
  • Munro's - Sherman Alexie, Indian Killer
  • Value Village - Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Jean Hegland, Into the Forest

It's not that I didn't enjoy Jean Hegland's Into the Forest. After all, it's a post-apocalypse novel where the teenage protagonists work hard at learning to live off the land to support themselves, with buckets of ecology lessons and not-entirely-inaccurate information about local First Nations, so what's not to like?

Well, as it happens, not much, I guess, but "like" isn't enough for me as a reader anymore. With my recent reading having been so good (Ozeki and Le Guin), my tolerance has dropped for books that might maybe be good enough.

Plot summary: No absolute explanations are provided, but gradually the power goes out across America (around the world?), pandemics sweep the nation (globe?), and society (or humanity?) collapses. Our story is solely focused on two teenage girls, Eva (18, a ballerina) and Nell (17, an erstwhile Harvard student), who grew up with their parents in northern California, about 30 miles from the nearest town. When the apocalypse comes, their mother has recently died of cancer, and their father doesn't live long once it really gets underway. The book follows their attempts to assume adult roles in the very short amount of time before they'd starve to death as children, emphasizing how they handle their vegetable garden and how they come to understand the bounty available in the forest (food, medicines, and supplies). Assorted crises continue to hit, and the conclusion - while apparently meant to seem comparatively happy - can't help but be unresolved.

(Spoiler alert in the following discussion.)

Setting the plot aside for now, I was fascinated by the slippage between metaphor and represented reality in Into the Forest. For example, the one notorious event in the novel is an incestuous lesbian sex scene between the sisters, some days after the elder one is raped by a passing stranger. Less anxious-making is the fact that later on, the younger sister is able to breastfeed her sister's child, presumably out of sympathy, but it's still a little different. Yikes, right? Except that the whole novel is about the two girls becoming a couple to parallel their parents, taking on adult roles with a division of labour sometimes traditionally gendered, and moving from being children themselves to becoming parents of each other and of the child from Eva's rape. The never-repeated incestuous/lesbian moment stands out from the rest of the novel, so it's problematic for the narrative's represented reality, but it has what might be an essential role in the development of the novel's metaphoric frame.

I had a similar reaction to their book-ending move out of the house and into the stump, too: it was their childhood playhouse, so are they reinhabiting the forest with newly adult sensibilities, or are they reverting to childhood? And did they bring the preserved garden produce with them? (Not clear from the book.) And haven't they rather abruptly turned their backs on a year's worth of learning about how to work in a garden, which is how they learned to sustain themselves?

While reading Hegland's book, I kept thinking of Robert Wiersema's truly excellent novella World More Full of Weeping, which is very different but which also features a child heading into the woods - Wiersema's is a wonderful book, far superior in effect to Into the Forest, even if I've inexplicably failed to comment about it here in spite of having read it fully two years ago now. (I'll be remedying that in the coming days, once I get some actual work out of the way first.)

It sounds really good on the page, this book, but ultimately I was dissatisfied with its outcome and its effects. Worth reading, but basically meh. The label "young adult fiction" shouldn't mark something as incomplete or unhelpfully unresolved, but as Into the Forest shows, sometimes that's what it means, and it's a shame for this book not to deliver on its promise.

Even if so many of its readers appear to adore it regardless.

And finally, a pox on Bantam's blurb-writer for this book! What crap: "Once in a generation we open a new book to discover a voice and a vision that have the power to change the way we look at ourselves and the world." Yeah, it's a cool idea for a plot, but is Bantam unaware of the dozens of other post-apocalyptic novels out there? Few of them focus on the perspectives of women, and young women in particular, but that's no excuse for this blurb. And clearly, the book's early reviewers (1998) were way too seduced by millennial thinking to pay close enough attention to the book's construction.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ruth Ozeki, My Year of Meats

It's crazy, how many wonderful books there are out there. This post makes 48 books blogged about so far this year for me, though we're not through September yet, and more than two dozen unread volumes loiter in my office that I'm fully expecting to enjoy almost beyond measure. And too, there's a way in which the experience of a book fades once finished, returning at odd moments but still dissipating faster than you thought possible while you were caught up in the reading.

All of which means, among other things, that I should have blogged immediately about Ruth Ozeki's wonderful novel My Year of Meats, without waiting a few days for my thoughts to sort themselves out. I might feel easier if I had even the faintest idea of why it took me so long to get to this book, now 13 years in print, but nothing. No idea, and it was fantastic.

Jane Takagi-Little, a financially struggling documentary filmmaker, finds herself working on the pitch for a new Saturday-morning show for Japanese television, and subsequently working on the production of the show itself. Called My American Wife!, it's a barely veiled advertorial for American meat-packing interests, the Beef Export and Trade Syndicate (or BEEF-EX). Over the course of a year, the program is intended to film an American wife in each of the 50 states, rhapsodizing about meat's place in her family and then cooking something that the watching Japanese wives would then serve to their husbands and families.

As the novel goes on, Jane learns more and more about the meat industry (toxic residue! slaughterhouses! collateral human illness!), and her role in the production - already difficult from her ugly relationship with its sponsor's minder, Joichi "John" Ueno - becomes increasingly untenable.

Paired with Jane's story is that of Ueno's Japanese wife, Akiko, who's suffering intensely through her willing pursuit of what she understands as the ideal wifely ways for a Japanese woman. Her illness and injuries and anxieties are horribly, wonderfully portrayed by Ozeki, so even though we spend less time with Akiko, she comes across nonetheless as a rich, complicated character. I worried about her fate from quite early in my reading, and I was gratified to see that Ozeki makes room for character change, even if that's complicated as well (and I'm not going to tell you what happens there!).

It's a Causes Novel, certainly, even though Ozeki said in my Book Club edition's post-novel interview that she didn't think of it that way until a marketing meeting after it was almost on the market. Gender oppression in Japan (and the US, though differently); unethical food production practices driven by malicious managers and ignorant workers; the disgusting treatment of animals; sexual violence of various kinds (at least three): any summary of the book's content is liable to make it seem preachy or idea-driven, unless you emphasize the characters the way I did above, and yet the causes appear organically in what feels to me like a plot-driven novel that's heavy on characterization.

In a lot of ways, this is maybe what environmentalist literature needs to look like if it's going to generate much of an audience: funny, smart, not overtly educational but full of information. Definitely using this one in my January course on hybridity in environment and literature!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Ursula Le Guin, The Word for World Is Forest

It's a slim and seemingly light volume, Ursula K. Le Guin's early-70s novel The Word for World Is Forest, but it's shocking how much she's jammed into it. At 180 pages of text, in many ways it's like a haiku, an aphorism, an epigraph: you know what's there without her having to tell you about it.

And it's all good stuff. All of it.

Sure, as other reviewers will tell you, the novel's setup and conceptual framework were deeply mined for Avatar. And sure, it's been respected for long enough that maybe it's time to push back against this novel. I mean, come on - Kubrick accepts anachronism in Full Metal Jacket just so a copy of the novel can be on a bedside table five years before its actual publication date?

But no way am I pushing back. I was grabbed immediately by this novel, firmly, and I finished it the evening of the day I bought it. And for a teacher as hopeless as I am at keeping up with my reading, even when I'm at leisure, the first weeks of September are NOT the time that I tend to read compulsively for fun. For Le Guin and The Word for World Is Forest, though, it seems I've made an exception, and my students are just going to have to be okay with that. (Sorry, gang!)

Basic plot: It's the future, humans are one humanoid race among several, and humans have colonial rights on Athshe, or World 41, which is about 27 years travel from Earth. Technologically advanced humans from Earth have begun enslaving the Athsheans in order to consume and change, entirely, the planet's natural resources. The absolute disrespect shown by humans for Athshe's ecosystems, animals and humanoids leads to warfare, sparked by an individual conflict between a single human and a single Athshean. Previously, the Athsheans had been understood as systemically incapable of violence against another person. Now that they've consciously breached their absolute nonviolence, what then for the Athsheans? And what then for the humans, both those in the novel and those reading it?

If you think of Avatar, then the movie's Colonel Quaritch (played so well by Stephen Lang) isn't a bad fit for the novel's antagonist, Capt. Don Davidson. Both are ruthless in their dealings with the locals and the new world, and both believe that it's suicide not to treat the new world ruthlessly. The difference comes in how Le Guin lets you watch Davidson's disintegration from the inside, from what seems like a stereotypical jarhead into a paranoid psychotic, so that even the hateful (and hateable!) Davidson is fully human after all. No matter how good Lang was as Quaritch, the script meant that the colonel was part of the system, and hence in the movie, the Pandorans had to reject the entire system.

In The Word for World Is Forest, Davidson's pivotal role in shocking the Athshean protagonist Sam/Selver out of his nonviolence makes Davidson a kind of inoculant, or maybe a persistent toxin. It's personal, not just systems-based, and it's far richer as a result. We get to watch two humanoid species at war on the home planet of the lesser species, watch multiple humanoid species try to understand each other, and - most importantly of all - imagine what comes next after this kind of cataclysm, for the winner who cannot but be changed by the experience. And on both sides of the conflict, it's about the individuals, not just the species.

The story parallels the Vietnam war in some ways, but it would have resonated at the time with all sorts of social justice movements. The humans' response to the Athsheans' radical nonviolence, for example, reminded me of the 1965 marches in Selma, Alabama. The dehumanizing language applied to the Athsheans - noted primarily for their long hair - would have made sense to the hippies, even if the Athsheans' hair is usually green and grows all over the body.

So anyway, there's just so very much to say about this fast read of a novel, I enjoyed it enormously, and I'd totally recommend it. But you know what? It's not even the book I enjoyed most this weekend. More about that tomorrow!

Monday, September 12, 2011

David Brin, Sundiver

David Brin's Sundiver comes squarely from the west coast tradition of ecological science fiction. Its publication in 1980 means that it's missing some of the more egregious sexism that marks such 1970s classics as Ecotopia (1975) or Poul Anderson's Winter of the World (also 1975). On the other hand, it's also missing some of the energy you can find in 1960s and earlier science fiction, when novels seemed to me a little more randomly speculative. (Does it still count as "speculative" when you're just describing the logical outcome of contemporary discoveries?)

But it's an intelligent and thoughtful book, even if the psychologizing is sketchy, the detective-ish procedural a little clunky, and the ending a little ex machina for my tastes. Most important, at heart Sundiver is a fundamentally environmentalist text.

The background's a bit complicated, but basically humans have just been discovered by all the other known oxygen-breathing races across the universe. Every known intelligent species has been "uplifted" by someone else, with the possible exception of the now-vanished "Progenitors" who are believed or assumed to have started the Uplift. All species have honour based on the ancestral line of their patrons, and the line of those they've uplifted themselves. Humans, though, have no patron species, but (though living in ignorance of the otherwise pan-galactic mandate to uplift others) have uplifted two Earth species into fully communicative sentience, namely dolphins and chimps. This puts humans into a thoroughly awkward category for all the other species: cue a wildly complicated sequence of largely invisible but easily imagined scheming to control the implications of human sentience for the pan-galactic project.

The thing is, Earth is living this pretty tenuously. As protagonist Jacob Alvarez Demwa notes, it was fortunate that the first starship bringing extraterrestrials back to Earth was able to alert Earth's leaders to the importance assigned across the entire galaxy to caring for other species, thus allowing humans
... to bury the evidence of some of their crimes! Jacob was one of less than a hundred thousand human beings who knew that there had ever been such a thing as a Manatee, or a giant ground sloth, or an orangutang.
That Man's victims might have someday become thinking species was something that he, more than most most, was in a position to appreciate, and regret. (pp.90-91)
There's even a mention (albeit by the unreliable journalist Pierre/Peter LaRoque) of how important John Muir was to the history of this future Earth (p.249), along with the late 19th-century emergence of environmentalism. A few cataclysmic turns of human society had to happen before the pre-Contact stability occurred which meant the visiting galactics wouldn't condemn humanity for their treatment of other species, but somehow it's Muir who sets the table for what sustainability means for and in this future.

Anyway, I'm not going to get any further into the plot that occurs on top of all this background (basic question: are there any species living inside the Sun itself, and how might we check that out?), but it's a pretty nice example of post-70s West Coast ecological science fiction: recommended, and enjoyed!

Thursday, September 08, 2011

A.J. Jacobs, The Guinea Pig Diaries

When the book club read A.J. Jacobs last summer, I was in a busy patch, and I didn't get around to The Year of Living Biblically. I figured it'd be a lot of fun, but even though I wasn't teaching at the time, somehow I still failed to make any time for it. I've always regretted that missed book more than the others (though I regret there've been any missed books at all).

So anyway, when I was at Munro's recently and saw on their sale table Jacobs' more recent The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment, well, it was an easy choice to pick it up. And that's in spite of the ways I'm trying to change my life after having read Ellen Ruppel Shell's wise and chiding Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, which by the way I encourage you to read and think about carefully.

The Guinea Pig Diaries was just as much fun as I'd hoped it would be. I laughed several times while reading this book, loudly enough and often enough that my daughter looked up from her infinitely prolonged self-enacted Playmobil stories to glare meaningfully at me, and that's not something that happens much around here. Jacobs has figured out how to tell a story effectively while doing little more than telling us one MORE time that he's got some personality quirks and that his wife is a saint who's nevertheless awfully good at pushing buttons (his and others'), and it's a very pleasant book as a result.

Anyone who watches the usually funny but too often cringeworthy How I Met Your Mother will be familiar with the regular line "Challenge accepted! I, Barney Stinson, will [insert task here]": Neil Patrick Harris' character keeps interpreting comments like "that'll never work" as challenges, with predictably humiliating and/or dazzling effect. Well, Jacobs does the same thing, usually for a month at a time.

He outsources as much of his daily life as he can to a company in India: the weekly sweaty-eared call to his parents, passive-aggressive apologies to his wife, pushing deadlines with his editor, and so on. He does exactly what his wife tells him to do, for a whole month. He tries to be as rational as possible, catching his brain taking shortcuts whenever possible. (His description of the hell of 80 minutes spent taste-testing 40 kinds of toothpaste, for example, made me laugh for what seems now like inexplicable reasons, but laugh I did: "I never realized how much I hate mint. What a tongue-stinging, foul taste. It brings back memories of the green goo that goes with lamb chops. What kind of stranglehold to mint growers have on toothpaste makers? Bite me, mint lobby" [p.88]).

But that's it, mostly.

Sure, he contextualizes it all in a frame narrative of "what have I learned over the years?" and "has my life really changed as a result of the experiments?", but mostly it's a series of cute stories about a guy clever enough to realize that his wife is a gem, that he's a schmuck, and that the world's a really cool playground, even for adults. Words to live by for most of us, I guess, but it's a pleasant rather than a meaningful book.

Which is okay, I sometimes try to tell myself....

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone

Is this old-school fiction, or is it obsolete? Is it wilfully over the top, or is it genuinely thrilling for its readers? I'm not sure what you'll think of it, but this is a longish review. If the length troubles you, good luck finishing this monster of a book.

Noted fiction reviewer
Plenty of love has been lavished on this book since its initial publication, enough that the softcover edition comes complete with four pages of quoted praise (and five back-cover blurbs as well). Particularly egregious among them is the LA Times, whose reviewer absurdly compares Verghese's unending 650-page beast to something Cormac McCarthy might write. (And suggests that somehow, the book's so good you might read all 650 pages in a single sitting. With a catheter, one assumes, and a team of support staff.)

The clear winner of the bad review, though, is Richard Eyre in the Sunday Telegraph, who compares Verghese favourably not just to Chekhov but to Shakespeare: it's too much to hope for, I think, that he means Pavel Chekhov and Nicholas Shakespeare, but honestly, and I hate to belabour the length issue, but how can you possibly say that a novel this size compares to the tautness of a five-act, three-hour play? Or its writer to a playwright capable of writing so many tightly packed masterpieces of comedy as well as tragedy?

Mind you, I've been unable to track down Eyre's actual review, so maybe it's a one-liner or a "buy this book to give away at Christmas" remark, so who knows.

And reviewers without the stamp of professionalism have loved them some Verghese as well, to the point that I had trouble finding objections to it online. Erica Wagner in the Times, bless her, called for an actual editor to work with Verghese on his next novel, and Aida Edemariam wrote in the Guardian in partial opposition to Eyre's laudatory review, but Verghese's got some disciples out there otherwise.

It took me only a few pages before I got cranky with the prose style, with the descriptions, with what felt to me like predictable trappings of fiction about postcolonial countries (especially ones where colonialism remains part of the picture). I was annoyed by the wildly erratic personifications of technology (the autoclave, for example), the catalogues of trust-me-i-know-this-place details (plants, for example, or surgical tools). I was irritated by the first-person narrator aiming so utterly, so consumingly, at self-knowledge and self-exposure, clearly delighting so much in the prose through which he was building his first-person world and yet allegedly unaware of himself as Artist.

And it's a small point, but battered and small old buildings, no matter their construction material, do not look like they appeared as a function of the same geologic change that created the imposing range of mountains behind them. Judge me harshly, if you loved this image on the very first page.

I kept reading, though, and it's a moving novel, no doubt about it. I wept not, neither did I laugh, but I could imagine other readers weeping at it. It's old-school fiction, and there's something admirable about that. There's nothing new about it in formal terms, nothing whatsoever, and I kept imagining echoes of Salman Rushdie's dizzyingly inventive Midnight's Children, beside which Cutting for Stone is a formulaic, predictable slog.

This novel is a great example of popular historical fiction, but it's also just a wordy and over-long sequence of "and then after that, I..." passages. Enough people like that sort of thing that it's done really well in terms of its sales, and too few reviewers have the time, energy, and expertise to parse through the great from the apparently great.

Cutting for Stone looks not un-great. But lord, it's not great.

Andrew Nikiforuk, Empire of the Beetle

Now, you have to remember (or should know, if you don’t yet) that I’m a third-generation BC forestry nerd, a tree-hugging commie, and a pinko environmentalist, so maybe I’m a little biased. But even if I wasn’t as rabid as I am about BC environmental history and environmental politics, I’m confident that after having read Andrew Nikiforuk’s newest book, I’d still stand by the following claim:

Andrew Nikiforuk’s Empire of the Beetle is the most important book to have been published in BC so far this century.

That’s not to say it’s the best book, because that’s a very different question. Nikiforuk’s not aiming at literary excellence, though at his best he’s a rival for John Vaillant in the way he brings together disparate and complicated facts in the service of an energetic narrative. He’s also not giving us bullet-proof academic work, though I was sometimes reminded here of the brilliant Julie Cruikshank’s ability to nestle such careful research into the texture of wide-ranging, apparently effortless stories.

Nobody but Nikiforuk, though, has put this much time into understanding the question of beetles in the forests of this area (by which I mean not just BC but the whole Pacific Northwest), and I don't know who could communicate that complex understanding so smoothly. He contextualizes the contemporary beetle crisis against similar crises elsewhere at different times, and he links the BC mountain pine beetle crisis to crises among different tree species (here and elsewhere) caused by different species of beetles. Most amazingly to me, he’s even able to dwell lyrically and powerfully enough on beetle biology itself, especially beetles’ speciation and evolutionary history, that I came away feeling like I’m working in the wrong academic discipline.

Like beetles are where the cool kids are at. Or to put it less flippantly, where the only really important work is being done.

Nikiforuk brings together the history of forestry as a science; the vagaries of public policy related to forests and forestry; and the miraculous lives of beetles. At bottom, he moves toward the argument that humans are coming to the end of their run, and that beetles are taking the world back from us: “mammals[, not just humans but mammals altogether,] look like a quaint evolutionary experiment with limited prospects” (p.164). Beetles, he explains, can be understood to farm entire forests. We’re okay with the idea that an ant colony works together to build its complex structure and (for example) maintain small farms of fungus, but we can’t fathom that beetles kind of do that with entire forests, on an almost unimaginable landscape-wide scale. Maybe it’s a metaphor, “farming,” but maybe not: it’s the closest we’ve come so far to describing the world-changing collective practices of a million members of the same species.

So let me say it again. Empire of the Beetle is the most important book published in BC this century, not because its subject is so important to BC, but because its message about beetles’ past and future influence on human history is so troubling, so detailed, and so richly imagined. You need a copy of this book for yourself, and you need to buy it for anyone you know who won't get around to buying it for themselves.

Oh, and the book's really well written, too. I kind of hate this Nikiforuk guy. I wonder if I can convince him to attend our book club meeting in November when we talk about the book....

(Don’t trust my praise of Empire of the Beetle? Trust the Winnipeg Free Press: they get it.)