Monday, June 30, 2014

Roy Meyers, Dolphin Boy

I guess it's always been this way: come up with a cool enough concept, and you might be able to find someone willing to bet on your novel. Of course, "someone" is now the self-publishing industry, just like it used to be vanity presses and (long before that) subscription publishing, but there was a brief but mythical period where actual presses might publish the craziest things, just because it thumped onto the right person's desk after the right combination of cocktails.

So yeah, in 1967 someone just had to fall in love with Roy Meyers' manuscript for Dolphin Boy: "The gentle dolphins knew exactly what to do when a small human baby fell into their midst," as the back cover puts it. (In other words, it is in no way affiliated with the Arab/Israeli documentary Dolphin Boy.)

Basically, a baby lands in the ocean where no human is able to save it, and the dolphins decide to look after it. Though obviously he understands that he's not a dolphin but a human, he's raised as a dolphin, and grows into the manliest manly man ever. Serious conflict arises, predictably, when young John finds himself among humans for what might as well be the first time: will he be able to overcome human deceit, ignorance, and destructiveness, and retain the dolphins' openness, compassion, and wisdom?

And I'm not going to give you any spoilers, but … that's because you probably expect most of them already. Romance, inheritance, pirate treasure: tell me what you'd see as predictable, and I'll tell you both what your obsessions are and that it's betwixt these covers.

Plus it's the first volume of a trilogy, so it ends with almost nothing resolved, less even than with your usual trilogy. Meyers is keenly interested in dolphins and in whale welfare, so I wanted to like Dolphin Boy for that reason, and he's thoughtful about educational theory, but ain't no way I'm reading two more novels like this one just to get whatever payback there might eventually be. Disappointing.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Bertrand Sinclair, Big Timber

Modern times: we're so much smarter than our forerunners, you know? Writers from the past are lucky to be mocked by us, because we see so much more clearly than they do that if they only knew what we're doing to them, they'd count themselves lucky that we're insulting them, since otherwise they'd deserve their ignominious anonymity.

Plus it's, like, the golden age of television, or whatever.

Probably a lost film
When we look back at any previous literary period, however short it might be, the texts that remain visible to us are really just the recovered teeth that allow archaeologists to theorize, accurately, the divisions and overlaps between species or evolutionary stages. Those teeth (so to speak) were anchored in jaws, which were wrapped in muscles, which were dangling from skulls, etc etc, and we only get the full picture if we read the forgotten works, including works that maybe don't have much claim to live on in memory.

But the thing is, and here's where we start belatedly to approach the point of this post, novels from the first years of the twentieth century sometimes got abandoned for strange reasons, including just plain randomness. Dig around, and you'll find some seriously cool stuff. Possibly not something great, but wouldn't it be tiring if you could read only great novels? (I've said before that the pre-WW2 period produced some odd novels, though: here, and also here, and most definitely here and here.)

In 2012, Ronsdale Press reprinted Bertrand Sinclair's 1924 logging novel The Inverted Pyramid, and I immediately assigned it for my UVic course on British Columbia literature. Ronsdale made the right call in not reprinting Sinclair's 1916 novel Big Timber (Gutenberg version here), because The Inverted Pyramid was more ambitious, more literary, more politically charged, and I'm comfortable that we read it in ENGL 456 last fall. But when a prolific author has only one book in print, students are going to get limited access to the worldview behind the book, so it's a shame that Big Timber hasn't made it into reprint status yet.

Plus it's a shame for its own merits, really, because the world needs more romance novels set inside logging camps. In Big Timber, Bertrand Sinclair moves between reflections on the nature of nature as landscape and as resource; rumination on the gendering of social restrictions; and doubts about the exploitive capitalist structure of colonial resource extraction industries. Also, fisticuffs and opera, so we all win!

Plot summary blogged here
The book opens with 22-year-old Estella Benton arriving by train at what appears to be Harrison Hot Springs, from Philadelphia. Her father has died, leaving no estate to speak of in spite of his enormous income from working in finance, throwing her onto the tender mercies of her brother Charlie who has been seeking his fortune as a rapacious small-time logger on the BC coast. Stella has been trained to no useful end, and through a variety of elliptical phrasings, Sinclair makes it clear that her family have fitted her only for some version of servitude, either through marriage, ill repute, or low employment. Her brother makes her a low-paid cog in his logging operation, from which perspective she judges the moral lapses of all the men in camp, including Charlie, coming over time to develop bitterness as well as wisdom, and the tension between these attitudes toward the world is what animates the remainder of Big Timber (bearing in mind that this is just the novel's set-up).

As the novel develops, we encounter competing would-be lumber barons, a shooting, babies, an inevitably homoerotic fight scene, a lengthy visit to Seattle, forest fires, a white picket fence, and a First Nations female character who rather blows up Stella's naive notion of Indians. Something for everyone, really, and I'm serious when I say that Big Timber would be a really enjoyable book for an awful lot of readers who are much, much too cool for this sort of thing.

I confess, yes: aesthetically the pulling together of narrative threads leaves something to be desired at the end of the book, and politically the novel's apparent push towards feminism and away from both colonialism and capitalism falters badly as it all wears on, but come on: the novel's from British Columbia in 1916, and it's out of print at this point except for an over-priced uncorrected print-on-demand facsimile version from a dodgy publisher. You look only for nuggets, you'll miss all the gold dust. This is one heck of a dusty novel -- up to you to decide whether it's also just a heck of a novel!

Friday, June 06, 2014

Book club, July 2014 - February 2015

Oh, to be in Singapore….
So, the Beer and Books crew has chosen its books for the next several months (July 2014 through February 2015), and they're fantastic:
We talked about several other books, too, that we couldn't agree to include. One of the criteria is that no one can have read the book yet, so when we talk at any length about something, inevitably someone reads it, so it'll never become a club title. That's fine, but it means we tend to keep track of titles that didn't make it onto the roster, like these ones (some of which, I have to say, came in for some pretty serious mockery...):
Going to be a good year, I'd say!

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Hugh Brody, Maps and Dreams (2014)

Oil and gas exploration occurring in tandem with pipeline expansion and construction, leading to runaway anthropogenic climate change: the stakes are so high for all of us.

More than that, the stakes are unimaginably high in culturally specific ways for the First Nations whose territories are being exploited by the natural gas fairyland in what's currently known as northeastern British Columbia, that frankly I'm not sure how I could have sounded so terribly blasé, just three years ago, the first time I read Hugh Brody's remarkable 1981 book Maps and Dreams. Everyone needs to read this book even now, absolutely everyone, and if a copy had been put in front of every Canadian university student in the early 1980s, the quasi-utopian impulse that's basically my brain's reptilian core wonders whether we might collectively have built a different world by now.

Okay, sure, maybe Jason Kenney, Christy Clark, and John Baird would have found a way into power regardless, so maybe we'd still be short on butterflies and unicorns. But the thing is, Brody wrote Maps and Dreams in an attempt to blow up or otherwise transform Canadians' perceptions of Indians; economic expansion; oil and gas development; and frontier mythologies. It's detailed, thorough, narratively intriguing, and intimate, but it didn't achieve what it needed to. Thirty years on, this book still reads like a revelation to most people, with 1981's worrying current events remaining worryingly current in 2014:
We need to change, the circle cannot hold, time to raise the black flag, etc etc. Hugh Brody managed to articulate all sorts of reasons for this in 1981, writing from and about a rapacious carbon-economy context whose grip on our collective imagination has only intensified over the years:
Any restraint upon the search for, and exploitation of, oil and gas reserves is held to be mistaken, futile, or simply unimaginable. We no longer believe that national interests, still less the needs of even a majority of an electorate, can much influence large oil and gas corporations. We are lured into being fatalistic about the very possibility of politics that mean anything to ordinary people, and about any prospect for control over our everyday lives. (p.274)
So, yeah. That right there is why I'm teaching Maps and Dreams in the fall, in English 478 at UVic. Time to radicalize, time to reimagine the humanities, time to prove that John Baird's Canada is not a real place.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Harold Rhenisch, Tom Thomson's Shack (2014)

Most often, this blog is a place for first thoughts: careful thoughts, but first thoughts rather than professionally considered opinions. I read a book for the first time, and then I write about how the reading experience went, or what I didn't quite get about the book, or what the book leads me to reflect on from some element of my life. (Cheap memoir, I guess, is what I write sometimes in lieu of book reviews….)

And then there's Tom Thomson's Shack, from the inimitable Harold Rhenisch, which today makes its third appearance in this space, after a 2008 initial reveal and a second read the same year, before teaching it for the first time. These days, it's competing seriously for the position of Book I've Most Often Read, with M. Wylie Blanchet's Curve of Time and Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, as I've been finding that scenes and lines from the book keep climbing out of my memory to bother me at odd moments: teaching, walking, gardening, trying to sleep, I've been seeing my normal internal soundtrack replaced by this book's insights and worries, and that's a good thing.

If nothing else, and there are lots of somethings else anyway, the book's incursion into my unconscious validates my decision to teach Tom Thomson's Shack this fall at UVic (described here and here), for the second time. I first tried to teach it in an elective second-year class that ended up having only eight or nine students, so there weren't enough voices that this book's strangeness could really exist out in the spaces between us in class, and in general I refuse to lecture when the whole audience could fit in an Econoline van.

This fall, Tom Thomson's Shack will be in an upper-level undergrad class that has always had at least 35 students, the three times I've taught it, so I'm genuinely optimistic that we'll be a large enough group that we can crowd-source some variant ways into this prickly, engaging book whose genre is utterly undecidable. In theory, it's about Rhenisch's trip to Toronto to promote his poetry volume Iodine, his first time in Toronto, as it happens, but the experience was epochal for Rhenisch, as he realizes that by visiting Ontario for the first time, after living his whole life in British Columbia, mostly in the Okanagan, for the first time he's physically entering the idea and image of Canada. This realization leads him to think about wine-making, dirt, transcendence, colonialism, an Apple II-E computer, pruning fruit trees, the Group of Seven, and frozen lakes. Mostly it all makes sense, but usually not until you're a few pages past the sparks that you appreciate but that puzzle you, and it's full of both assertive self-confidence and persistently reflexive self-doubt, and it's fabulous:
My country, the Interior, and its culture were founded, largely, in 1909, in an era of art, formality, dance, and classicism. It was a time of Beauty and Empire, of honour, loyalty, royalty, polo, snobbism, suppression of Indians, repression of women, and a belief in progress, pianos, and war. Whatever prejudices we bring to this matrix, and whatever knowledge we have gained, whatever we have suffered and endured because of it--however we have grown beyond it--it is still only through that point that we live, however it may have changed in its contact with the wild, inhuman land. We live here at the edge of the wilderness, the edge of the human. We live in landscape. This is the painting entered, and lived. (p155)
("Fabulous" as a word meaning both "amazing" and "fable-making," you understand….) This book is going to pair so very well with Hugh Brody's Maps and Dreams, and with Angie Abdou's Canterbury Trail. Course registration starts in the next week or so -- why is it not September yet?!?