George Szanto, Bog Tender

How does one properly respond to another well-written almanac-style memoir that draws on the traditions and modes of nature writing? At length, obviously, but if you've been here before, you know I sometimes don't shut up when I should, so that's not news. Reviews in press both local and national have accorded considerable respect already to George Szanto's Bog Tender: Coming Home to Nature and Memory, calling it "voyeuristically satisfying," "exquisitely rendered," and "Beautifully written, deeply felt without succumbing to cheap sentiment," and I liked the book well enough, but somehow I couldn't convince myself into writing an entirely serious review. Frankly, there were too many angles to this book where I bounced off rather than reflected.

Herewith, some of those bouncing angles.

Tender is the bog

Am I the only one who didn't immediately understand that "bog tender" should be understood to be of the form "bartender"? There I was, wondering in nerdish bliss whether we were going to hear about how bogs make things tender (cf bodies in Celtic peat bogs) or about how bogs are innately tender (cf biotic fragility), only to discover that, no, George Szanto tends to a particular bog on Gabriola Island.

Szanto's bog, though, is both a material bog whose tending he undertakes determinedly, even if he did have a road built across the middle of it, and a metaphor for the stew of memories rotting productively inside our separate crania. Nature and memory, as the subtitle has it: predictable, but also right.

Go west, old easterner, go west!

There's a long tradition of Easterners coming to the eccentric Gulf Islands and being delighted by what they find here: The Lotus Eaters, for example, or the second generation in the Giller-winning (but Mook Club-loathed!) Clara Callan. Szanto's book is a very good example from this tradition, but really, what's the privilege being accorded these come-from-aways, anyway?

And I'll say a wee bit more about it down below, but a healthy dose of the Gulf Islands' Easterner-charming eccentricity is the property of the Easterners themselves. Plenty of long-time Gulf Islanders are basically small-town putterers and dreamers, fixing their own tools and brewing their own booze and complaining about intellectually distant layers of government: an island-locked version of Hamiota, Manitoba, or Carrot River, Saskatchewan, but overrun by Easterners able to buy what they like.

Szanto, I should say, seems like a good guy and a better neighbour: there's a large stock of pre-existing bitterness around here about eastern Canada, so it's just that for me, Szanto shouldn't escape the traditional critique just because he's written such a good book.

Goddamn boomers; goddamn boomer academics

And this one's all on me, not even Islanders generally: I just can't handle much talk about the triumphs of the 1960s, especially about American counterculture, not when the victors of the 1960s came to such absolute dominance in matters cultural, corporate, and capitalist. Every book that heads for the 1960s, when I don't expect it to, is at risk of never being finished.

From BC, A Day at a Time
Good job, all of you, in protesting against Vietnam. But your strategies don't work anymore, because you and your heirs are in charge now, and you know that at bottom, it's only theatre. Gripping, crushingly real, painful, but the audience doesn't have to stay in its seats, so it doesn't. Mostly we flail about, trying to use your own rhetorics against you, but when we sound like you, you know that we're reachable.

Boomer academics, too, and your near-automatic hires: today's rare job competitions routinely draw applications from far more than a hundred qualified people (more than 500, sometimes). Szanto, in 1966, tells his supervisor he was thinking of looking for work; the supervisor thinks for a bit and then says only, "Let me make a phone call"; and a week later, Szanto's holding a letter from UC San Diego: "Our chairman ... would like you to interview him" (p248, p249).

Would I be okay reading about this if it seemed relevant to the contemporary Gabriola plotline? Maybe, but it wasn't. Or if it was, I was too cranky to notice.

When smart people wear tin-foil millinery

Now, I did promise above to say a little more about Easterners and Gulf Island eccentricity, so consider yourself warned. I'm hyper-sensitive to these things, given my involvement in a local fight against anti-wifi forces in my child's school district; on the wifi question, there's so little science that sees wireless to be a health concern that it's a logical absurdity to hold the position. (Yes, yes, research should continue, because science, of course, yes: but it's not a debate. It's just NOT.)

There's more science about the cell-phone towers that Szanto's concerned about, but not a huge amount more. Enough that I'm not going to call you out for the concern, at least, especially given all the other risks that we're surrounded by, but....

But a Gulf Islander who's using meditation to treat medical conditions? Easterner (which includes someone from Vancouver, if that's not clear). His particular condition does sound as if traditional treatment is a very bad idea, agreed, but I worry about his friend.

In sum

Malaspina Galleries, photo by Kevin Oke
There's a lot to like about this book, and I have no problem with the praise you can find in the five separate reviews linked to in this post's third sentence. Szanto's such a talented writer, truly, and I'm pleased to see such careful attention to a local spot of place.

But for me, my response savoured altogether too much of the ohforchristssake for me to want to recommend Bog Tender to just anyone. Your family members of a certain age, definitely them, especially if they're from Ontario (a province which includes Greater Vancouver, for some of us BCers), and they comprise a healthy slice of the actively reading public, so Brindle & Glass was smart to publish the book.

It's just not for me, and I'm more than a little sad about this conclusion.


Fraze said…
Reminds me of democracy.

We want to respect the tastes of others, we promise we'll honour the tastes of others, and then everybody else makes it clear that they're thoughtless, superficial, willing participants in some kind of weird folie à plusieurs.

You've done an excellent, respectful job of the only possible response—speak up and move on—but Lord there are times when I wish "caveman" was indeed a career choice.

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