Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Thomas Wharton, Salamander

Too busy to get deeply into book? No time to read? I hear that, and my schedule can compete with anybody else's, but I've burned an inexplicably large number of unavailable hours over the last few weeks with Thomas Wharton's Salamander, and you should do the same.

Though my reading mostly consists of books that I think might work for me, and in consequence I'm rarely displeased living inside the books that I do, I haven't felt as addicted to a book in a long time as I was to Salamander. I can't think of a way to describe the novel that doesn't end up carving up its potential readership into a niche inside a subgroup within a sector, but the impression's what I want to sell, not the book's content: more than any book I read last year (and I read some good ones), Salamander was impossible to put down.

For those keeping a close eye, yes, you're right, I did say that Richard Wagamese's Medicine Walk was the best book to appear in Canada in 2014, as well as the best book I've read in who knows how long, and I did say that John McPhee is always amazing: how could I argue with myself?

My point, simply, is that this book should be a passion not for a deeply subdivided group of potential readers, but for the sum of all its potential readerships. You like a technological fantasy, something like steampunk but not exactly? Bring on the mechanical sailing ship, the automatons, and the impossible clockwork castle. Your tastes run toward historical romance? Let's visit Montreal on the eve of Wolfe's defeat of Montcalm, admire a Slovakian countess's impossible love, meet a black female pirate pursued by an implacable foe, and worry about the mysterious backstory and fate a tattooed orphan ignorant both of his name and of his country of origin. You'd prefer perhaps more or less realist historical fiction? Spend some time with an 18th-century printer and bookbinder, or explore the over-crowded streets of 1740s London.

And that's not even bringing up the Kabbala-related magic-like ink, type, and paper.

None of its genre divisions exclude readers who'd be more likely to stumble in while in search of their usual desires, and the book's more powerful because of the overlap and collision between all these things. Seriously, it's such fun, even if you don't care that the research's impeccable and the literariness beyond reproach. You won't even notice, though if you do, you'll appreciate it all the more.

When I first read Wharton's Icefields, I didn't quite get it, though I've taught the book twice since then and found it very rewarding. His peculiar novel The Logogryph worked for me immediately, though, and I'm scheming to get my hands on the rest of his work. These three novels are very different from each other, and all remarkable: Thomas Wharton is very much a novelist worth following.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Harold Rhenisch, The Wolves at Evelyn

At a certain point, you should all know that I may quit reading anything but Harold Rhenisch.

Would it be tough to get off the treadmill that sees me doing about 50 reviews a year on this site? Probably impossible, but nobody writes like Harold Rhenisch, and if he's not getting as wide an audience as he deserves, well, maybe his fans should just obsess openly to make up for it.

The key to understanding Rhenisch's The Wolves at Evelyn, and much of the rest of his nonfiction, is coming to terms with his idiosyncratic understanding of colonization in British Columbia. Until you get used to it, things are weird. Describing his German grandparents' trip across Canada by train, Montreal to the Okanagan, Rhenisch changes up the geography:
"They might as well have taken a train from Mombassa, up to Nairobi, and then west to Lake Victoria, passing through the savannah and the flame trees, past the Masai villages and derelict train stations and mad Englishmen who had hitched zebras to their carts and careened wildly through the bush while their polo horses died of sleeping sickness and their coffee plants withered and shrivelled with blight and locusts stripped their corn fields down from spring to autumn in five minutes. This is how far they had come." (p.72)
Africa, of course, is not a country, and we're all Twitter-stoked to jump on a writer who might possibly be using Africa merely for metaphoric or symbolic effect (rightly so, in most cases). Rhenisch is a white Canadian, and it's weird to see him comparing Kenya with Canada, and it's weird to have him writing about the impact of subsequent waves of European colonization on previous colonists in Canada. But the world is a complicated place, and part of his point is that much of his Canadian childhood was lived not in BC but in an imaginary Heimat Deutschland. More broadly, too, the terrain of rural BC now is an overgrown checkerboard of failed colonist dreams (p.152), orchards and homesteads and small towns with lives so short that they never earned dots on a map, leaving nary a shadow or an echo unless -- like in a medieval English field -- you stumble over a hummock that you belatedly recognize as an overwhelmed fence.

British Columbia is Indian country, no question. Rhenisch is utterly clear about the intensity and depth of the prior claims on the land here, noting that "the Secwepemc knew the Cariboo before there were any trees on it, that they watched the trees come." At this date, though, Rhenisch wants to say that "Native and immigrant earths mingle in this country," even though over everything hang still "the stars out in the Chilcotin, in territory never ceded to Western civilization, which has never been owned" (pp.208-10). His family raised him in a transplanted Heimat, but ever since, he has been trying to think and write his way into a British Columbia that differs from the official version, and my imagination lives somewhere like the place he's trying to build.

As a nerdy English prof, lately I've been trying to think my way through to what might count as an honourable settler-colonial ecocriticism, and there's something in Rhenisch that I can't let go of, even if I can't grab onto it, either. I keep hoping that I'll figure out, for good, even just one thing about all this. Maybe one day.
Admittedly, I somehow haven't read his whole oeuvre yet, but it's coming: comments one, two and three on Tom Thomson's Shack, plus Winging Home, and now also The Wolves at Evelyn.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Nick Hornby, Shakespeare Wrote For Money

Such a fun book, SUCH a fun book: mind you, Nick Hornby's three collections of "Stuff I've Been Reading" articles, including Shakespeare Wrote for Money, means that I might as well mothball Book Addiction HQ.

The columns Hornby wrote for The Believer are chatty and detailed, thoughtful and personable, and who needs that?

For some readers, the great pleasure in this book will be Hornby's discovery of YA literature, especially fiction, and especially fantasy. In answer to the broad anxiety that grownups shouldn't waste their time on kids' books, Hornby answers simply that if you think YA is for children, you're saying that SF is for engineers. With that absurdity out of the way, he's off to the races, adoring MT Anderson's Feed and Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and a bunch of other YA novels.

But he enjoys poetry, and he gossips about his friends and family, and he rhapsodizes about fiction (Ondaatje's CanLit classic Coming Through Slaughter coming in for the highest praise), and he makes a credible case for reading nonfiction attentively for its artistry, as well as for its content.

Hornby reads for fun and for wisdom, and he reads well. He's a book club all to himself.