Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane

So yesterday, @GenreADay reminded all of us that progressive was once upon a thing:
And with that one tweet, away went a good chunk of the evening's productivity.

They didn't consume me the way they did some friends, but Marillion was a minor obsession for my entire life as a teenager. I had all the LP's from the years before Fish left the band, including some picture discs (like for Script for a Jester's Tear, a title to cringe at if ever there was one), 12-inch LP singles, even some bootleg concert recordings, but Fish's departure wasn't some sort of trigger to break my Marillion habit. The songs just weren't connecting in the same way anymore. They had never been about my own life, a small BC logging town having little to do with early 80s British prog rock, and I got that my time at an English-style boarding school didn't qualify me to feel like a Marillion character. By Clutching at Straws, it had become obvious, and they were mostly dead to me.

It's embarrassing, now, listening for example to Fish's keening laments in "Kayleigh" ("Kayleigh, I just want to say I'm sorry, / But Kayleigh, I'm too scared to pick up the phone") or the snarling venom of "Forgotten Sons" ("Minister, minister, care for your children -- order them not into damnation / To eliminate those who would trespass against you!"), remembering how strongly I felt the lyrics even though at the time, I was an 14-year-old afraid of girls and unkissed, unexposed to even a hint of genuine political action, and yet I can air-play every instrument for every one of those songs. Badly but emphatically and in private, just how one ought to play air guitar.

Which brings me, obviously, to Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane, this month's reading for the book club.

I'm leery of giving too much away from this novel, because if you're not going to like this book, it's best if I don't do anything that might persuade you to give it a a try, and if you're the kind of reader who might fall in love with it, then your pleasure might be a little fragile. Even at 170 pages, it's more of a novella than a novel, and Gaiman develops and pursues a very narrow thread here. I'm not touching the book's final third, I should say, even though there's so very much to talk about in terms of who the narrator turns out to have become, because you need to come to this novel as open as possible.

Really, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a novel of childhood, a fantasy novel that should also be understood as a realist dispatch from inside the very different reality that children occupy, as well as a reflection on the years afterward. Gaiman's epigraph from Maurice Sendak shouldn't be overlooked as merely a stick-tap to the author of Where the Wild Things Are, though it's that as well, even if you appreciated the movie as much as I did, loved also the Dave Eggers novel:
"I remember my own childhood vividly…. I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn't let adults know I knew. It would scare them."
The narrator, an unnamed middle-aged man reflecting on his childhood while on the lam from his father's funeral, is Gaiman himself, is Gaiman's aging fanboys, is every fantasy narrator. In the successive generations of Hempstock women (hemp as pot-style expansion of the mind?) that his narrator encounters to such transformative effect, Gaiman recalls all sorts of magic female-led or female-centric communities; the villain and/or antagonist (also a woman, as maybe she had to be…) echoes numerous nightmare scenes in her shifted shapes. I don't think Gaiman's stealing anything unduly, but I don't spend all that much time with fantasy, so I'm not the best judge. My sense, though, is that everything's invigorated here, and that originality would be unhelpful anyway.

And so it was helpful to be pushed to reflect again, for the first time in many years, on how important, how overwhelmingly important, the 1980s version of Marillion was to me at the time, in spite of its bombast and its utter irrelevance to my actual life, because that's what my childhood youth felt like. All our childhoods feel like that, and it's why our departures from childhood have to be so absolute, and why we get so twitchy about adults who play video games or the like: leave part of it behind just once, and it's all gone, all lost.

And so the shouting responses to somewhat negative reviews of the book make great sense to me, even though I'm absolutely on board with the mixed reviews. I know that the terms make no sense, but it's my blog, so I'm using them: the more adult you get about The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by which I mean that if you take a critically remote stance, the further you get from your childhood brain, and the paler the novel becomes. Magic disappears when you get rational, and while that's precisely how I approach the atheism/religion question, I've got vast amounts of time for imaginary magic in fiction.

So … maybe don't think too hard about The Ocean at the End of the Lane? Manage that trick, and it'll turn out to be magical after all, at least for a little while. Distrust the novel, and the glass will fall away, unrecoverably turning back into sand.

Up to you to say whether that makes it a novel worth tracking down, I should think. But there are some really smart reviews out there, should you want to read one.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Nick Cutter, The Troop

I don't read a lot of horror, and very little of what I watch has anything to do with horror. While I was impressed with the pseudonymous Nick Cutter's The Troop, it didn't do anything to shift me toward spending a second more with horror than I need to.

Don't get me wrong: Rob Wiersema remains a terrific reviewer, and his admiration for this book doesn't make me doubt him. And while I thought "Nick Cutter" comes off as more than a little impressed with his own cleverness during interviews wherein he considers allegations about his identity, my eye-rolling won't be held against him.

But really … I get that there are genres, and that each genre has its fans, but this one? Disgusting, but not in a good way; descriptive, though not in a way I trusted. If this is the good stuff, then next time I stray from my usual, I'll probably skip horror and go for romance.

In sum: yeah, you're right, I gather that it's pretty great. Just not for me.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Thinking Through Nature - books ordered

Posting some rough ideas about what to do with my fall Literature and Environment course last week got me some great advice, and lots of supportive messages as well. So, I've ordered my books now, and once I finish marking this week, and then finish the small task of negotiating a first unionized agreement for faculty and librarians here at UVic, I'll figure out just what kind of course to build on top of and around them.

Here are the five books, in what might feel like a useful sequence:
If you're thinking that's too few texts: maybe. I'm thinking that I'll get the students to group off and present something (maybe online?) on other texts that might have been included, like the 1852 Canadian Crusoes by Catherine Parr Traill, or the 1900 Heart of the Ancient Wood by Charles GD Roberts. And I'm also mulling over options to get students working with environmental protests or actions of one kind or another, so there's lots to think about….

Richard Wagamese, Medicine Walk

Seriously, that's all I want to say.

In Robert Wiersema's review of Medicine Walk (which I saw in the Edmonton Journal but was inexplicably headed "special to the Sun"), he sounded almost at a loss for words about what makes this book so great. Ask anybody who knows Wiersema, and you'll hear that's not something you expect to see. He's a better reviewer than I am, so check out what he has to say, but the thing is, Wagamese's genius in this book is just to tell the damned story and keep everything else the hell out of the way.

You know the story about sculptors, cutting away the parts of the rock that don't fit the sculpture? Yeah, that. Again, over to Wiersema: "Wagamese is able to evoke entire worlds out of the simplest of passages, a sensitivity to subtlety and the smallest of gestures." This novel is stuffed full of meaning, much of it suspended and inaccessible in tension and silences and tableaus.

Reading Medicine Walk, it's almost like I found myself living with my nerves on the outside of my body, much the same way that Wagamese's characters do: so much unsaid, so much unsayable, and so much information flooding in through the senses that the book contains more of the world than there is in the world we're walking around in.

If you're the kind of reader who wants to know stuff about the book before making your call, fine, but you're getting nothing from me. I'm giving you absolutely no details about Medicine Walk, so just trust me, all right? Admittedly I'm exhausted these days, more than a little on the edge, but some random stranger on the bus asked me what I was reading. I tried to summarize it in a couple of sentences, and I choked up. Choked. Right. Up.  It really is just that beautiful, that remarkable, that memorable, this novel.

Medicine Walk will be the best book to appear in Canada this year, and it's the best I've read in who knows how long. Write that down.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Thinking Through Nature

Here at UVic, I've been lucky enough to teach the first three versions of English 478, a variable-content course at the intersection of literature and environment. In September 2014, I'll be delivering the fourth version, under the rubric "Thinking Through Nature," and it's planning season: book orders are due, and I'm looking for advice in all the wrong social media places.

We English instructors are free to propose each year what we'd like to cover in any of the department's variable-content courses. Courses can't cover the same ground within any rolling three-year period, and some years, the department's Curriculum Committee decides that some variable-content courses shouldn't run at all, so I'm feeling very lucky these days.

Here's the description that was approved for the course to be offered in September 2014:
"An examination of nature, both as an idea and in its material form, throughout twentieth-century Canadian literature. Explores the foundations and consequences of the stereotypic view of Canada and Canadians as being obsessed with and grounded in nature, especially wilderness. Reflects upon touristic and governmental discourses of Canada and Canadianness. Blends literary studies with environmental studies, environmental history, and conservation biology."
Eagle Pass Mountain, BC
And also:
"We will question what consequences this traditional faith in wild nature might have in the near future under climate change, and what consequences it has had over the last hundred years. In particular, this course is intended to let students connect Canadian literature to the aims and  methodologies of academic programs from across the university, such as environmental studies (especially law and history) and conservation biology."
So, I'm left with two big questions: which directions should the class head, and what texts should we look at?

Directions: the easy option would be to stick close to literary history and ecocriticism. Nothing wrong with aesthetics, obviously, and English students generally seem interested still in the traditional questions of literature, so maybe that'd be more attractive for a larger group of students.

But more and more, I'm feeling seriously drawn toward taking a much more activist approach. Could an English class work, if we read all our literature in relation to something like the recent IPCC climate change report; the Enbridge pipeline's Joint Review Panel report; or the potentially destructive Park Amendment Act here in BC?

In other words, are English students prepared to buy into a course that blends environmentalist protest, ecosocial critique, and literary studies?

Texts: this is tricky not just because there are SO MANY GREAT OPTIONS, although there are, but because the choice of texts will limit the kinds of directions we'll be able to pursue. Here's where I'm at right now:
I'm really looking forward to this course, or at least I will be once I finish digging out from under the torrent of marking under which I'm currently buried.

But for now, I'd appreciate any advice or suggestions you might want to share in the comments. Which books do I choose, would English students sign up for a protest-like course, and which issues might we emphasize for confrontation?

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Hannah Holmes, Suburban Safari

I really, really enjoyed Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn, by nature writer and science writer Hannah Holmes. It's a thoughtful, well researched, kind of fun almanac about the changes Holmes' in garden and lawn throughout what amounts to a typical Maine year in the first decade of the 21st century (and I do love an almanac). You'll come away charmed by Holmes and her compatriots, animal, insect, and plant, and you'll learn plenty of small details that you'll wish you'd always known.

Mind you, I weep for a world where anyone, even the benightedly unintelligent Entertainment Weekly, could possibly provide blurb fodder like the offensive and patently absurd equation that "Holmes is a Rachel Carson for 21st-century suburbia." I'm not the only one objecting, at least, so that dries my tears a bit, and that's from someone else who genuinely appreciated the book. Rachel Carson and Hannah Holmes are both American women whose books are about environmental issues: that's no reason to equate them, even if it's a reason to connect them.

Don't hold this against Holmes or Suburban Safari, though. I've been too busy in recent weeks to read consumingly anyway, but it has been one of those times where I've chosen to slow down in order to prolong my time in the mental space that the book provoked. My intentions are good, but there's so much about my local ecology that I don't know, so much about my own garden and lawn that's either invisible to me or subject to terrible management, that it has been inspiring to spend time with someone acting on her intentions and becoming genuinely, carefully knowledgeable about her own place in the world.

Plus it's the kind of book where you're constantly learning terrific "hey, did you know…" facts perfectly suited for dropping into conversation:
  • Earthworms are, in almost all parts of North America, an invasive species rather than a native species (pp.90-91), and they're killing forests.
  • A person living in the Sonoran Desert could gain sustenance from at least 375 different plants (p.129).
  • Trees can smell the chemical signature of other plants being under stress (such as through insect attack), and will produce chemicals resisting the stress before they're stressed themselves (pp.157-159).
  • "A fungus scholar once told me that rain causes fungus spore-pouches to burst and release kazillions of spores into the air, and that the smell of baby fungi is mistaken for the smell of clean air" (p.169)

Very enjoyable, very informative, and a baseline for how environmentally aware left-wingers and liberals really ought to be about urban nature (though it may also have a logical home among Stuff White People Like...).

Glynnis Hood, The Beaver Manifesto

Before we look at Glynnis Hood's nerdy little gem The Beaver Manifesto, I need simply to say that y'all should regularly be browsing the new releases zone for Rocky Mountain Books' RMB Manifestos series. Naturally they won't be equally appealing to everyone, but in my book, they're the only reasonable competitor for the Transmontanus series (from New Star Books). Volumes in both series are short, highly readable nerdstravaganzas, with either an intensely local focus or a personably political view of the world.

Revolutions aren't individual actions. Build your community, if you want to change your world.

And speaking of community, one crucial lesson from The Beaver Manifesto, a 2011 RMB manifesto by Glynnis Hood, is that North Americans -- especially Canadians, but not only us -- should imagine that this continent evolved under the joint stewardship of beavers and Indigenous humans. We've all gotten past the renovated "noble savage" stereotype that sees First Nations peoples as a kind of collective proto-No Impact Man, I hope, what with the irrefutable evidence (even for would-be deniers) of large-scale urban-style construction, fire-based resource management, and permanent aquaculture installations. Humans thoroughly reshaped the apparently natural environment of North America in all kinds of complicated ways before European contact, so settler Euroamericans need to get over themselves, and I think mostly that's underway.

Beavers, though, unless we've dealt with them at any length on the land, we tend to see as mascots and aren't-they-cute amateur engineers. Hood has done great work here in writing a popular-style book heavily indebted to academic research: hydrological and ecological studies of beavers' effects on the land (including during drought conditions), statistical data about the absolutely VAST scope of the fur trade, and political analysis of deliberate local beaver extirpation as a strategy of corporate warfare. Without beavers, human and animal populations in the Great Plains (on both sides of the border) would have been at great risk of collapse in the face of prolonged or intense drought. In regions without regular precipitation, or where steep slopes would otherwise have been subject to slides and slumping, it's really all about beavers: with them, there's a chance at a rich and thriving ecosystem, including humans, but without them, we're never far from catastrophe in the form of landslides or desertification.

Take Canada's boreal forests, for example. Hood's academic research (with Suzanne Bayley) has shown that upwards of 80% of open-water area is directly attributable to beavers. Given the ecosystem type is known for having such characteristic elements as bogs and moose, it may be accurate to say that the world's largest coterminous forest owes its fundamental structure to the multi-century efforts of beavers, most of which (most of whom?) were killed so that Europeans could wear particularly snazzy hats.

North America would have been a different place altogether, if beavers hadn't been pushed near extinction. If maybe half of the estimated six million beavers trapped for their fur had been left to keep managing local ecosystems, it's possible that the terrible American drought of the 1850s and 1860s would have been far less consequential, and it's even possible that the 1930s Dust Bowl would have been much more of a local event. (Side note: it's extremely difficult to figure out how many beavers were trapped! Hood doesn't specify a figure, and "six million" is the best I can find online. Advice appreciated.)

There are plenty of ecological atrocities that we should mourn and that should radicalize us. Today, I'm with Glynnis Hood in seeing the beaver trade as having generated a reduced, weakened North America. Rewilding should maybe start there -- and I'm taking rewilding more seriously all the time.