Thursday, November 19, 2015

Alejandro Frid, A World for My Daughter

Definitely one of the most salutary books I've read in some time, Alejandro Frid's new Caitlin Press volume A World for My Daughter has the intriguing subtitle An Ecologist's Search for Optimism. Marketing's needs means that titles and subtitles generally aren't to be trusted, but not this time: Frid's chapters are addressed to his young daughter, and his overall focus is on how his work as an ecologist both puts him on a trendline toward depression and despair, and puts him in the way of reasons for optimism and joy.

Frid's book takes the form of letters to his daughter Twyla Bella, currently 11 years old, though the letters are written with a voice and complexity that's pitched to her slightly older self rather than her present self. A very bright young teenager could make excellent sense of the book, certainly, but this isn't a book for children so much as a book for parents which models an ecologically thoughtful relationship with one's own child.

Frid's ecological encounters have led not only to the cataloguing and hypotheses of a scientist, but to the synthesizing worldview of an engaged thinker. In 2012 Frid was among many arrested in Vancouver for blockading coal trains, and in 2014 for protesting pipeline expansion. His scientific experience has imposed a moral obligation on him, an obligation intensified by his role as father.

Deer in South America, caribou in the Northwest Territories, glass sponges near Vancouver, kelp forests off Haida Gwaii, Frid's career as an independent ecologist has offered encounters with innumerable species in remarkable places. We dive with Frid amongst rockfish, and we hike cliffs with him to count Dall's sheep. We hunt and fish and paddle with him.

We're even there when he leaves his 7-year-old daughter on a small island in Haida Gwaii for the day, alone except for her 9-year-old friend, because everyone on board ship needs to participate in the day's data collection. Later that day, we watch proudly with him through binoculars as the children find shelter in a storm, and we reflect on what this means:
My responsibility is to hand down to you the stories and tools that will allow you to deal with a rapidly changing world and do what you can to steer that new world towards a path of greater resilience. (p.72)
When young Twyla Bella finds her own shelter, while Frid himself is working on a population survey out of fear of eventual extinction, we see broader reasons for optimism. She has some of the tools, in other words, and she's resilient in the way that so many children are, the way that a whole world needs to become resilient.

And so there are all kinds of reasons that different readers should appreciate this book. I was insufferable reading A World for My Daughter, even if I restrained myself from reading it aloud to everyone around me the whole time. If a copy isn't under every Christmas tree this year, I'll be very disappointed in all of you.

(Presumably I should be reading David Boyd's Optimistic Environmentalist as well, to see how an environmental lawyer manages to find hope in times like these? But these days, I'd rather think about materialities than about policy. Soon, perhaps!)

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Jim Robbins, The Man Who Planted Trees

Let's get the phrasing right: "misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows."

We're more used to the idea that politics makes strange bedfellows, a line written first by Charles Dudley Warner, but that's a later adaptation. Shakespeare in The Tempest brings together in a terrible storm a shipwrecked jester, Trinculo, and the beastly Caliban. Trinculo sees no alternative but to hide under a cloak being worn by a sleeping man with "a very ancient and fish-like smell," and so with dyspeptic resignation, Trinculo complains that "misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows."

Living in the shadow of anthropogenic climate change certainly counts as misery, and the ecologically inclined do find ourselves at times, at least temporarily, on the same side with people whose ideas we'd rather be able to object to for their strangeness. In a nutshell, that's almost exactly the case with David Milarch, the protagonist of Jim Robbins' recent book The Man Who Planted Trees: A Story of Lost Groves, the Science of Trees, and a Plan to Save the Planet. (No, not the older book of the same title, nor the movie neither. Keep up, people.)

Millrace's self-appointed mission is to collect and propagate the genetics of the largest specimens of the world's trees, from white oak to willow to Sitka spruce to sequoia, through cloning. He's driven, genuinely driven, by a sense that climate change will exert such a terrible force on forests and individual trees that all these species need to be propagated again from the oldest, largest, tallest examples, on the principle that these are genetically the strongest examples.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Maleea Acker, Gardens Aflame (take #2)

See, I knew at the time that I didn't like Maleea Acker's first book as much as I should have. I did say that I was distrustful of my reading at the time, and that a careful reading of Gardens Aflame would be rewarded, but I'm not sure any longer that it's worth posting any thoughts unless I can stand behind them. (Amy Reiswig's review upon the book's launch got it right, I think.)

Prompted by a stray meeting with Acker at a recent reading in Victoria, it was time for me to revisit the book, to see whether my somewhat cranky first reaction was appropriate.

And it wasn't, so I've posted an update comment there at the top of the page. This gentle volume is very impressive, and I'm really glad I came back to realize as much.

The trick with Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC's South Coast is that it may not be the story you expect, or that you've trained yourself to expect from works of natural history tinged with personal memoir about the very recent past. The Garry oak is a remarkable tree, as the cover photo suggests, and as everyone who lives in Victoria should already know, and the camas flower (also on the cover) is a gorgeous late-spring gem.

But Gardens Aflame isn't about these glamour species, and that's part of her ethic and her aesthetic in this book.

Similarly, Acker mentions her recent marriage breakup, speaks warmly of walks with her rain-begrudging dog, and honours through personal narratives the ecologically minded people she meets, but it's also not about Acker and her recovery from trauma through nature.

In other words, it's not traditional nature writing. A lazy reader is going to see all these traditional traits and think that they don't add up the way they should to traditional nature writing, and just might flip to the next book in the pile. As David Gessner has convincingly argued more than once, we don't need traditional nature writing. In Sick of Nature, if I may paraphrase, he proposed that we set the whole field ablaze and see what species thrive in the newly sweetened soil:
If nature writing is to prove worthy of a new, more noble name, it must become less genteel and it must expand considerably. It's time to take down the "No Trespassing" signs. Time for a radical cross-pollination of genres. Why not let farce occasionally bully its way into the nature essay? Or tragedy? Or sex? (Gessner in the Boston Globe)
Gessner's thesis has found traction, and so natural history's former readers are now gleefully reading memoirs that exploit but bash natural history, pooh-poohing the delicate observer and yet receiving boxes full of the same for Christmas.

Gardens Aflame, though, transforms nature writing by climbing more deeply inside the genre, rather than disrupting it. In some ways, Gardens Aflame represents the best of natural history writing. It's full of micro-stories (memoir, history, botany, natural history, geology); it's full of details that the author earned through time and energy spent in place, with people who already knew better; it delineates intransigent problems without being despairing, potential solutions without being programmatically helpful.

Acker rejects a focus on the charismatic species of oaks and camas in favour of the total meadow ecosystem (following Alexander Humboldt, in essence), and insists on small stories rather than an overall narrative. Through these decisions, Acker disrupts traditional nature writing not by getting loud, but by focusing her quiet onto the crucial issue of care.

Nature writing often focuses on what we see: on what we experience, more broadly, but vision generally trumps the rest of the senses. I'm tired of witnessing, tired of admiring, and yet I'm not equipped to throw myself into advocacy, into action.

In an ethic of care like Acker proposes in Gardens Aflame, I can find a home. And if I'd been able to see my fatigue as environmental depression when I first read this book, I would've found a home there the first time around. It'll stay on my bookshelf, and I hope it'll appear on yours before long.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sarah de Leeuw, Skeena

"On first opening de Leeuw's Skeena"
What does it mean     mean
to be mean
pluck someone else's lines      chords
fuck someone else's lines 
Skeena    Skeena     into you mean
     -ing I fall      grasping      wishing
bridges between      honouring
sonorous     clickclack     clockcluck     boulders
rolling boxcars     tracks and lines
grumbling back     to back
me into me     mean
meaning Skeena     Skeena 
I blame you
Maleea Acker.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Theresa Kishkan, Patrin

Melancholy, plangent, luminous: in case of fire, break glass and release the adjectives, people!

Theresa Kishkan's new novella from Mother Tongue Publishing, Patrin, is every bit as remarkable as one might hope. Set in the 1970s and starring a bookish, brownish young woman with an immigrant's name, Patrin alternates between Victoria, BC; a backpacking tour of sunny Europe (plus England); and a quest through what was then Czechoslovakia. Kishkan renders all these locales with great intimacy, including what I think must be a roman a clef for Victoria's writing community at the time, centred around a nameless but unmistakable version of the inimitable Robin Skelton.

In brief, young Patrin Szkandery is finding her way as a writer but non-student in a university town, wishing she could learn about the Romani heritage that her father and grandfather never shared with her before their deaths, when she gets an unexpected opportunity to pursue this heritage on the ground in Czechoslovakia.
I'd never known poets before--how could I, in my household, my father a radar technician and my mother someone who believed in the sanctity of cleanliness? (p.47)
It's a novella about a young woman's first loves, about the evolution of family in the echoing shadow of immigration's discontents, and about the long reach of History. We fish for trout in BC streams, beside which we sleep in a tent trailer; we learn traditional ecological knowledge from First Nations women in the Fraser Canyon, and from Romani women in Czechoslovakia; we sleep with musicians in Greece, as one does; we navigate the treacheries of post-Stalinist Communism.
I'd had a love affair, which made me feel sophisticated, if still a little heart-sore. And I knew Wimbledon Common the way my former classmates knew the trails of Beaver Lake. I knew the protocols of shopping at a greengrocer's.... (p.84)
Reviews of Patrin are still thin on the ground, since Kishkan is still on what amounts to a launch tour (that lands here in Victoria on Thursday, November 5th), but I expect that it'll draw a lot of positive attention. I'll have more to say about this book, I suspect, once I've had time to reread it and to think about it in relation to Kishkan's own 1970s poetry (Ikons of the Hunt, for example, on my shelf at the office), but I'm confident in saying that this is a seriously accomplished little volume.

Previous visitors here may recall that Kishkan is a house favourite at Book Addiction HQ, with links to my several other commentaries through the years included in my review of her most recent book Mnemonic, but I'm not favouring Patrin out of nostalgia or any similar emotion.

Plainly put, Patrin is a thorough, spare novella that exploits the genre's allusive strengths in pursuit of an intimate grasp of multiple, interlocking histories. And it's a delight.

Disclosure: Kishkan is virtually a friend, even if we've met in person only once, and Patrin was partly inspired by our mutual Czech friend Katka Prajznerova. But I stand by the views expressed here, and I've bought copies for Christmas gifts already.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Carol Shaben, Into the Abyss

I distrust anything that strikes me as an easy read: reading has to savour of Buckley's Mixture ("It tastes awful -- but it works!"). Even if there's obviously some very good writing, I don't like being comfortable when I read.

All of which is meant to explain why it's a genuine complaint, if a stupid one, that Carol Shaben's Into the Abyss is a remarkably fast-paced book-length work of journalism, smart and tough and a very pleasant companion through the surprisingly few hours I spent with its nearly 300 pages.

The subtitle of Shaben's book, if you haven't seen it yet, is How a Deadly Plane Crash Changed the Lives of a Pilot, a Politician, a Criminal, and a Cop, and that's a very accurate description of the book and its contents. Larry Shaben, then a minister in the Alberta provincial government; pilot Erik Vogel; RCMP officer Scott Deschamps; and regularly convicted drifter plus small-time criminal Paul Archambault spend a frigid night snowbound in northern Alberta, after a plane crash kills the other six occupants of the plane (including Grant Notley, the father of Alberta's current premier, Rachel Notley). Shaben covers this night with intimate detail, but the real story of the book is what happens over the succeeding decades. It's a fresh story, impressively told, about interesting characters facing looming death and complicated fates.

And I wanted to enjoy the book more than I did. English professors shouldn't be allowed to read for pleasure.

When a reviewer wants to protect a book's important narrative details, the normal approach is to talk about style, but in this case the characters' outcomes are so large a part of how I respond to the book's style. At bottom, I wanted the journalism to drag a bit, so that I could feel more of how these characters were experiencing both the immediate aftermath of the crash and the variously long years remaining to each of them afterwards. Long-form journalism often plays with pacing, forcing its readers to speed up and slow down, introducing phantasms of artsy-ness into the fairly business-like trajectory of its story arcs and sentence structures, but Shaben doesn't do very much of that here. There's always the option to focus on the writer's own personality, shifting toward the memoir, but Shaben doesn't do that, either, even though she's the daughter of one of the survivors.

If you're a completist interested in reading all possible books about disasters and crashes, this is an excellent one to add to your roster. Ditto for people interested in the back story behind Rachel Notley, and the mindset of those sometimes described as "career criminals." And ditto, too, for readers who appreciate it when a nonfiction story becomes a page-turner. All that's here in spades.

I just wanted more mourning, more anxiety, more emotion. Page-turning isn't even a beginning for me, because it doesn't count as something worth praising. If it works for you, though, well this book might be a great choice for you.

(Need more? There are spoilers a-plenty in the Toronto Star's review; the National Post has an unusually sensible negative review; and Shaben herself was on NPR to talk up the book when it came out.)