Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves

It's right there on the list, #73 out of 79 among "Books That Literally All White Men Own: The Definitive List,"* so … well, I don't know how I feel about that.

The list, I mean, in that I've read 21 of the 79 and taught three of them, and I'm unaccustomed to being gendered and raced all that accurately. Mark Danielewski's novel House of Leaves' place on the list, however, I'm totally fine with. This might be the biggest wank of a novel I've read in years, which for an English professor is saying something.

Seriously, this is a 700-page novel that purports to analyze a non-existent documentary film of a possibly haunted house that contains a door to a constantly shifting labyrinth of unlit corridors and rooms, and that:
  • includes an extraneous 40-page index;
  • requires you to be familiar enough with deconstruction to notice some of the jokes and follow some of the exposition, but not so much that you'd ridicule the Derrida dialogue for being unutterably, cartoonishly untrue to Derrida's habits of self-expression;
  • spends a startling amount of time self-consciously slumming amongst drug-takers, alcoholics, strippers, tattoo artists, and the like (look at meeee, exactly as edgy as These People!); and
  • is really about how suburbia is, like, totally a rabbit hole for Creative Geniuses to fall down and be swallowed by.

I've blogged before about how horror isn't my genre, and that's one of the generic affiliations this novel gets tagged with. To the extent that it's a novel of and about horror (and yes, it's partly that), then this would explain some of my skepticism about House of Leaves. But really, it's barely a horror novel: definitely unheimlich, a word unpacked and repacked with relentless self-congratulatory humour here by Mr. Danielewski, complete with requisite sneering allusions to Heidegger, but that's hardly the same thing.

What some pages look like. Fancy.
I see that other reviewers regularly remark that readers tend to either love or hate this novel, on which grounds they are pleased to call it a cult novel. I'd suggest, though, that an alternative response to House of Leaves is to have a hard time not rolling your eyes while reading it. Presumably I'm not far off the target market for this novel, but lordy, am I ever judging you harshly if you loved House of Leaves.

(It may be worth saying, incidentally, that in the New York Times, the worryingly prolific poet Robert Kelly described this book as, among other things, "sexy," which made it into a blurb on the back cover. More wrong, a reviewer has rarely been.)
* For the record, about this brilliant list from The Toast:
  1. I've read #11 (high school girlfriend), 15 (tutoring high school kids as undergrad), 19 (humouring a friend), 34 (book club), 61 (undergrad pretentiousness), 64 (because Tolkien, seriously, you guys), and 74 (BECAUSE JACK LONDON = AMAZING, so shut up);
  2. I've been given #24 (not sure who by - read it, ugh), 40 (friend - read it, hmm), 44 (brother-in-law, unread), 58 (brother-in-law, unread), 60 (ex-wife - read it, appreciated it), and 73 (student - read it, see above);
  3. I've bought for myself #12 (prof's recommendation - read it, loved it), 49 (not sure - read it, loved it), 55 (not sure - read it, loved it), 57 (friend - read it, LOVED IT), and 68 (course text - read it, LOVED IT); and
  4. I've taught #35 (took over someone else's course - students mostly liked it), 38 (dystopian environmental lit - students suffered), and 56 (history of nature writing - students seemed baffled).
Yep, I'm more than a little bit white. Though it's less clear how manly I am.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Andre Alexis, Fifteen Dogs

So anyway, Hermes and Apollo walk into a bar….

Andre Alexis' novel Fifteen Dogs does indeed begin with something like that old setup for a joke, with the two Greek gods sitting in the Wheat Sheaf Tavern in downtown Toronto, pondering whether humans are uniquely unhappy or whether other beings, if given the same intellectual capacities, would be similarly unhappy. Greek gods being what they are, a trial is arranged, and the fifteen dogs occupying a particular Toronto shelter are given the same kind of intellect that humans have. Hijinks ensue, as well as an awful lot of pain, suffering, and ultimately death -- because the bet turns on whether any of the dogs will die happy. Except for that detail, and maybe for some such readers it'll be fine, this will be just as inspired a Christmas gift for a dog-lover as it seems to be.

Mind you, while reading Fifteen Dogs I kept thinking about my first long-ago read of Leon's Rooke's novel Shakespeare's Dog. The 1980s New York Times review sounds about right, though when I read it, I was enormously impressed by the way that Hooker (the dog) had more depth and character than Shakespeare himself (or Himself).

Photo from
Here, similarly, there are no human characters with as much depth as is available in some of the canine ones, but there's one key advantage to having lots of thinking dogs. In brief, some of Alexis' dogs are terrible individuals: some of them boring, some cruel, some hidebound to ritual, some self-interested.

As appealing as it was to spend time with dogs you admire, there's a special genius involved in deliberately refusing to go for the ideal. These dogs are no more honourable than the humans whose city they occupy, along the margins, where they face threats from humans, from other dogs, and, most worryingly of all, from each other.
From pinterest user Jessie Ashley

Distinctly the majority of your reading time, though, is spent with dogs whose time is more than worth your own, particularly a poet, anxious about the impermanence of orality; a pseudo-socialist, supportive of the group but keen on exceptionality; and a well-meaning but under-equipped leader. The poems themselves might be worth the price of admission, in my mind, but then I'm nerdier than your average reader.

This was my first time reading with a Kobo, I should say, and as such I've found myself utterly incapable of remembering phrases and passages in anything like the detail I'm used to, plus there's no easy way to flip back and forth through the book in search of echoing lines -- plus it seems mysteriously to have disappeared from the borrowed Kobo, so now I can't even go digging for anything. Score one more for hard copy, if you're keeping track at home.

Trust me, though: this is a terrific book, full of insight and speculation about consciousness, dog being, and the meaning of happiness. Much recommended.

(And if you like to have music playing while you read, here's Andre Alexis' suggested 15-song playlist, via Largehearted Boy. Another win for the interwebs.)

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Jim Sterba, Nature Wars

If we're ever going to understand how we might relate with nature, we'll have to come to terms with the notion of shifting baseline syndrome.

Shifting baseline syndrome is Vancouver-based fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly's term, but it has rapidly come to be widely accepted. Basically, what we see in front of us represents "normal" to us, and if we don't have a clear sense of history, then we never question what relation the present has with this historic. Across just the span of our own lives, we tend to hear as nostalgia comments about the past, including our own "when I was a kid" stories, but SBS explains that we are incapable of tracking change unconsciously. We adapt, and generally without reflecting very closely on what we're adapting to. (Click here for a sobering historical series of "trophy" fish catches, discussed by Loren McClanachan.)

Jim Sterba doesn't mention shifting baseline syndrome in his book Nature Wars, with its breathless subtitle The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds, but it's behind most of the social phenomena that he describes. His story is of the American Northeast, which is subject to a number of historically unique pressures and phenomena, but to lesser degrees (and with local twists) the same story is playing out across North America, including here in British Columbia.

Really, it's all about the pace of change.

Think about white-tailed deer, which here in Greater Victoria have been the subject of so much discussion. As Sterba remarks, it's estimated that there were once about 25 million white-tailed deer in the United States, but by 1900, there were only about half a million left. We've built cities and roads based on there being few deer to get in the way of Progress, but there are a lot more people now than there were in 1900, and a lot more humans, plus these things called "cars." Whereas in 1900 there were half a million white-tailed deer in the United States, by 2012 fully half a million deer were killed by cars ANNUALLY.

Photo by Amy Stein, in Men's Journal
Or think about feeding wild birds. In 1945, you just couldn't buy bird feeders, because who would do such a thing? Sure, we could watch birds, count them, eat them, but it'd be absurd to attract them without utility to our homes. In 2010, Americans spent roughly $3.5 billion on wild birds, just in the forms of bird feeders and bird seed.

Or pet cats: from only 4 million in 1947 (though an uncountable number of farm cats), to 86 million in 2011, plus an estimated 60 million feral cats. Cat lovers refuse to take this explosion into account, when they think about the impact they're having on bird populations. Sterba does what I think is his best to treat with respect protectors of feral cats, who after all tend to be motivated by respectable ethical considerations, but lordy, are they ever misguided in consequence of their historical and ecological ignorance.

Sterba's book is a bit of a slog to read, as it's a very long work of journalism rather than creative nonfiction, but it's such an important subject. He doesn't make recommendations, since that's not really the journalist's way, but he sets the table nicely. I've come away a lot readier to be involved in discussions about reducing animal numbers through lethal force, and that's a sign of how effectively Sterba has marshalled his evidence.

(I'm late to the party, so this is a short post, but the NY Review of Books had quite a long discussion, complete with huffy letter to the editor from the save-them-all activists Sterba describes; the Wall Street Journal offered a mid-length but not very thoughtful reading; and even Men's Journal weighed in.)

Sunday, May 03, 2015

David Mas Masumoto, Epitaph for a Peach

One of the world's great know-you're-alive foods is a really good peach, straight off the tree, soft enough you worry it might be overripe, but instead a fuzz-covered gushing orb that's sweet enough to trick you into thinking you've got taste receptors on your teeth.

And I say that as someone who in the early 1980s once participated in accidentally picking 250 pounds of peaches at a U-Pick orchard when we meant to stop at a hundred, they were that good.

David Mas Masumoto's Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm, like the best peaches, is worth your time in every conceivable way. First appearing in 1987 as an essay in the LA Times, the book was published in 1996, which was around the time I first found it. Two decades later, the book reads as beautifully as ever.

One of Masumoto's strengths is his willingness to confess his incomplete knowledge in such a way that a reader can recognize both the knowledge and the movement toward knowledge. This book documents Masumoto's attempt to preserve an old but delicious peach variety from obsolescence, caused by its short shelf-life and fragile flesh, and so we get to watch Masumoto spending a year exploring his soil, failing at marketing, and connecting through labour with his family, but always thinking about might be the right next task. By the time of the book's completion, Masumoto has spent a number of years moving toward lower-impact methods, closer to organic farming, so he has a lot to say about cover crops, weeds, migrant workers, and competitive farming.

It's a joy, for me at least, to walk his orchards, prune the trees, fall from ladders, and I can't imagine a reader who wouldn't find something to love here.

But then again, I was distracted throughout by the California drought. Masumoto mentions drought a few times, talks regularly about irrigation and fog and storms, and mentions casually at one point that droughts are hard on farmers because they don't get the bad-weather reprieves from hard work:
"The years of continual drought have almost killed me. These months are filled with monotonous days of clear skies. Each morning begins with a work list and the expectation that most of it can be accomplished. I don't have the weather as an excuse to slow down." (p168)
What would the balance be now, I wonder, in how Masumoto would talk about drought and labour, in terms of obligation toward the land?

(Please check out the update from NPR, too, about what has happened with Masumoto's family over the last twenty years. Some very good news there!)

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Jude Isabella, Salmon: A Scientific Memoir

If you wanted a keystone species for BC, the obvious choice is salmon. They're abundant, delicious, and miraculous in their eventual returns from ocean to the rivers of their birth, and above all that, they have the power to change the earth itself.

Over time, you see, the nitrogen in the decomposing bodies of thousands of salmon measurably changes the forests surrounding salmon-bearing streams. The trees are bigger, the plant communities are different, the undergrowth supports a larger variety in insect and bird species. Salmon built BC, not just its fishing economy but its very terrain, and they're still building it.

Mind you, Jude Isabella's Salmon: A Scientific Memoir is at pains to clarify that in honouring the salmon, we're failing to honour herring, eulachon, clams, and all the rest. Salmon records something like four years of research trips in BC that Isabella, a science journalist of some note and editor-in-chief of the brilliant new Hakai Magazine, had taken in the company of scientists of numerous stripes. Separate chapters look at clam gardens built maybe 5,000 years ago and maintained for centuries, at why we should be wary of focusing on the glamour of sockeye, and at intersections between fishery science and traditional ecological knowledge.

But I should say that as nerd-riffic as Salmon is, it's also a chatty, appealing book about the people engaged in figuring out the past and future of fish in BC, and about the kinds of places that most of us don't ever get to visit. Isabella has a great eye for character, and so this book has more in common with books like Terry Glavin's The Last Great Sea than it does with the academic work of the researchers she travels with.

As essential as salmon are to the story of British Columbia, and to the stories of the rich, complex cultures that developed here over the 14,000 years before European contact, they're only one essential species among many others, and that's one of Isabella's points here. An accurate portrait of BC certainly can be rendered through salmon, and Isabella has done a terrific job of illuminating the materials which would contribute to such a portrait, but it's only one portrait. If you follow her on Twitter, though, you'll see that she's keenly interested in other portraits, other materials, and other places -- I'm keen to see where else she takes her readers. Salmon is from Rocky Mountain Books, though oddly it's not in their very cool RMB Manifestos series, and they're to be commended for publishing this fascinating little volume.

Recommended for all shades of eco-nerds, fish-eaters, and place-lovers!

Friday, May 01, 2015

Harold Rhenisch, Carnival


Grammar nazi, soup nazi, feminazi.

Harold Rhenisch has written far more accessibly in other books about growing up German in Canada after WW2, in both Out of the Interior and The Wolves at Evelyn, but one of the things I enjoy about Rhenisch is that he never compromises for the meagre reward of communicating more clearly with his readers.

With Carnival, though, a fictionalized ventriloquizing memoir about his father's life in and escape from Germany, I sometimes found myself wondering if Rhenisch was deliberately writing against his potential audience, deliberately reducing their number so he could just get on with the business of sorting out his own experiences and his own history.

As Brian Fawcett put it in My Career with the Leafs, which I'm pleased to have re-read recently, the word "Nazi" was for many years a standard insult in Western Canada, among kids, anyway, for anyone not clearly Anglo. Those German-ish children whose families fled the Nazi shame only to find themselves regularly threatened, pummelled, and physically injured for the crimes of that distant country their families had abandoned must have suffered in all kinds of complicated ways, and Carnival's strangeness gives a real intimacy to the backstory of that suffering.

Strictly speaking, this book grew from eight hours of 1987 recordings that Rhenisch made of his father telling one last time the stories that he'd been telling for Harold's whole life. Interspersed among these biographical fragments (none of them identified as such in the book, I should say) are what I take to be something like fantasias, with angels and returns from the dead and such, as well as what I think are Rhenisch's imagining what it was like for his father to return to his family home many years later:
"This is, however, above all a work of fiction, and its story, of the forces unleashed in 1930s Germany and of their terrible retribution, of an entire generation raised without parents or history, confronting the worst horrors of our species without the insulation or protection of society, the consequent death of civilization and of the world of story--and its eventual and unexpected re-creation" (p.8)
And it is all horrifying, appropriately horrifying. The story-filled world of Hans's childhood rots and collapses into a cruelly material too-early adulthood, with a child killed in the very first moment of this town's occupation by French troops, and a girl raped to death by occupying soldiers who are subsequently killed for their crime, publicly, by their officers. There's nothing redemptive in the lives being depicted here, no answers for any of these varieties of pain suffered by any of the characters on or off the page, and yet in spite of Carnival's formal inaccessibility and the unpleasantness of its content, this is a book that provokes obsessive reading.

To sum up: I'll never feel about Carnival how I feel about Rhenisch's more BC-centric work, like Tom Thomson's Shack or The Wolves at Evelyn, and to be honest I have no idea who I might recommend this book to. It's remarkable, Carnival is, and it deserves to be remarked upon and to be shared, but I'm just not sure who by. This ignorance, though, I'm prepared to lay at my own feet.