Sunday, February 24, 2013

Iain M. Banks, Hydrogen Sonata

Interesting: the commercial-type reviews of Iain M. Banks' Hydrogen Sonata are way positive (like the Guardian is, say, or the Independent), but the fan-type reviews are kind of lukewarm. I'm not an established fan of Banks' Culture books, this being only my second one, and the first in 15 years, but lukewarm sounds right to me.

I enjoyed the novel a whole bunch, Banks is a terrific writer, and clearly I've got to read Consider Phlebas and Use of Weapons, but parts of this novel are like five-finger exercises. Mind you, there's no law saying a novel has to do everything that it possibly can, and given that Hydrogen Sonata is part of a series, maybe Banks' representation of the Culture realm is best served by a bunch of books that don't each try to do everything. Taken together, maybe they do it all better than they would if they were all fab, you know?

But still: I love being unable to resist a novel's reaching out to drag me under the surface, in fact that's kind of what I'm looking for, and that's never going to happen to a reader of Hydrogen Sonata.

The best blogger review I've seen of Hydrogen Sonata is this one, and it's good enough that I barely need to write my own: basically, Banks can write fiction as well as anyone can, but in this novel, he's just not interested in either the story or the characters. That's kind of a problem, but if you're excited enough about the ideas he's juggling, or about the notion of an "exciting space romp," you might not notice. The novel's full of, as Random put it, "seemingly pointless aerobatics." It's vastly more rewarding than Cirque du So-lame, but unfortunately there's a family resemblance.

You're SO going to enjoy it anyway!

(Also, this Random person deserves way more readers. No idea what the backstory is, but stop by when you've got a chance.)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Adrienne Fitzpatrick, The Earth Remembers Everything


It's a gem, Adrienne Fitzpatrick's The Earth Remembers Everything: what Eat Prey, Pray, Love might have been if its author had been more interested in the style of prose than the style of clothes, in social justice than social climbing.

From Auschwitz to Stuart Lake, Vietnam to Haida Gwaii, The Earth Remembers Everything brings together a lot of stories, and a lot of moments in Fitzpatrick's life. Basically, she's spent several years living and travelling away from her home in British Columbia, and during those years she's made a point of visiting and learning about historic sites of great violence -- including similar sites in British Columbia, in the years near European contact with First Nations here. This book is about those visits and those places, exploring the question of whether and how places remember the violence done there: "a phenomenological experience of place," as the introduction puts it.

The movement between places and stories and periods gets complicated, and Fitzpatrick doesn't give you much help. There are place-based titles for the different sections ("Vietnam"; "Chinlac"; "Poland"), and the occasional references to different years and durations, but my own experience of the book was that "adrift" seems both a good way to feel during the reading and a reasonable description of Fitzpatrick's emotional life during these years. The "Dene" and "Chinlac" sequences, too, might seem to follow each other in sequence, but they don't, and they're not about the same places. Similarly, the Haida Gwaii sections were narrated a bit like dream sequences, so all things considered, it's not a bad idea just to surrender to the flow of prose.

Fitzpatrick seems here precisely as uncomfortable as she should be with these topics and places, aware of being unable to escape finally either the colonial perspective that defines her life in Canada, or the touristic perspective that colours her time elsewhere. Settler Canadians don't have an absolute home, in this kind of language, though I don't say this self-pityingly (and neither would Fitzpatrick, I don't think): Yankee no longer has another home to go to, that's all. Really, she's taking us touring with her, including to places in British Columbia that form part of her own deep backstory, and asking us to look at the impacts that especially dark moments in human history have had on these places.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Maleea Acker, Gardens Aflame

Update: this review has been partly retracted. Feel free to read this one, but you need to consider it to be incomplete.

The annual Times-Colonist used books sale is coming up before long in Victoria. I don't buy much there anymore, because frankly I'm a lot happier supporting independent sellers of new books, but it's impressive to see how many copies there are of classic Canadiana: separate tables for Atwood, Pierre Berton, and Carol Shields, and an entire wing dedicated to Peter C. Newman.

And really, why? I've always assumed that a lot of these books are given away -- and then donated -- because the giver means well, but doesn't know where to start. We readers aren't easy to buy for, we know that, especially when a wishlist would be called "cheating," and especially when the giver isn't much of a reader, but there are solutions.

One of those solutions, in BC: Transmontanus is always a good answer. They're an unpredictable bunch of books, some of them poignant and some of them slapstick, and others mostly informative, so there's always going to be a choice in the catalogue. Browse them online, and then get your local indie bookstore to order a few in.

Mind you, I'm not sure how highly I'd rank Maleea Acker's Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC's South Coast amongst its Transmontanus kin. In following a tried and true strategy for environmental writing, she blends her own story (which is a good one) with the story of a place (which is also a good one). These books aren't long, however, though much longer than an essay, and I'm just not convinced that it's carried off the best way it could've been. Acker's web home for material from the book is well worth exploring on its own, especially for the gorgeous colour versions of the book's black-and-white photos, and I wish I was more consumed by the book. Indeed, I blame myself, and I'd encourage you to read Amy Reiswig's appropriately positive story for Focus on Acker and her book.