Friday, August 19, 2016

Jeff VanderMeer, Area X

If you're wondering whether to read Jeff VanderMeer's Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy, maybe just read what the New Yorker had to say: "Often, speculative fiction betrays itself, becoming predictable just at the moment when it's supposed to be 'out there.' But the Southern Reach books make it all the way out."

Mind you, the New Yorker drops a clanger in the piece that shows its ignorance about places far from New York, describing the book's setting as "a landscape that combines the marshes of Florida with the islands of Vancouver." The islands of Vancouver are what, now?

The New Yorker is too mainstream to be trusted for its views about SF, of course, except by non-SF readers who fancy themselves up for a bit of slumming (Atwood fans, for example), and the same could be said for the celebrated piece on Area X in the LA Review of Books. Still, reviews and reception from the broad SF community have been very positive as well.

The forthcoming trilogy of movies based on the novel(s) will be massively successful, I should think, but it's going to be crucial that you read the book(s) first: they're gripping, evocative, and readily accessible even though (because?) they're deeply, deeply weird. This is NON-postapocalyptic ecological SF, and for all kinds of reasons, it's something that almost everyone ought to read.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Richard Wagamese, Indian Horse

I continue to stand by my insistence that Richard Wagamese's Medicine Walk was 2014's best Canadian book, and my love for that novel has only grown since then. Still, now that I've read Indian Horse (how the hell I didn't get around to it, who the hell knows, seriously), we all should have known that he was about to do something this amazing.

One of the 2013 CBC Canada Reads selections, Indian Horse follows the life of Saul Indian Horse from before his birth (because understanding family sometimes takes more than the one generation) through his family's colonialism-driven, alcohol-sparked implosion, his years at residential school, his rise as a hockey hero, and the consequences of growing up with these competing pressures. Saul shared not just his grandmother's gifts but also, and crucially, her embeddedness in the world, so when his family fell away from him, he was left with a sense of vision but nothing to train it upon. Hockey is of course the Canadian Game, and so for all sorts of reasons cultural (for Saul) and literary (for Wagamese and his readers), hockey is where his gifts were exercised.

It's a gem of a novel, with complicated characters cleanly sketched out, a frame narrative that fades into the background but explains perfectly the voice and narrative structure, and twists that I should have seen coming and yet broke my heart. Unfortunately, I don't know if there's much more I can say about the story itself without giving away something valuable, something that you'd be far better off discovering for yourself.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Back to the Red Creek Fir

"It's like ... it's like it's rising from the centre of the earth," breathed my normally unflappable brother-in-law.

Photo from WCWC
We drove this morning from Victoria to Port Renfrew, heading first to Avatar Grove. We hadn't been to the grove since July 2010, and back then there was really no infrastructure on-site. There's not much of it now, really, but enough to keep you mostly off the soil and so (in theory) not compacting the roots. It's a special place; you can find bigger cedars elsewhere, but the burls and gnarling are incredible. Plus it's an easy drive from Port Renfrew, with some signage and decent logging roads for the last few kilometres.

From there we drove back to Renfrew, eating at the fantastic Coastal Kitchen Cafe to fuel up for our return to the Red Creek Fir and to talk over what might mean we'd defer the trip for another time. When you're traversing an active logging road, a lot can happen in a year, and since we hadn't been there since last August, we needed to make sure we thought about our options and about possible risks.

Last year we'd tracked our distances and markers quite carefully (posted here), so we were comfortable with our approach. The first sign of trouble? Throwing the Cube into a ditch to avoid a logging truck, just a kilometre off the highway with still fourteen more to go: and then again two kilometres later.

Yep, there's active logging just a couple of kilometres before the world's largest Douglas fir, with Madill doing the work at this point. They're mostly building roads right now, but some trees have come down. We had to wait for some very large equipment to finish their tasks, at two different spots along the road, and the surface of Bear Main is pretty carved up. This has disrupted some of the markers we expected to depend upon, and that's going to get worse before it gets better. By the winter, there will be at least two main-looking roads going off each side of Bear Main, and that'll make it tough to find your way through to Mosquito Main.

WCWC folks, or improv troupe?
You decide
Still, we made it through safely, banging through some narrow and slightly overgrown tertiary logging roads to get there, and I was so pleased that we'd gone to Avatar Grove first. Big trees there, sure, but the Red Creek Fir is utterly, utterly astonishing. It's roughly fourteen feet across, forty-four feet around, and if those dimensions don't make sense to you, it's as wide as a Toyota Prius is long, and it's circumference is about the same as that of an 11' by 11' room.

And somehow, I haven't yet met anyone (outside the executive of either the Western Canada Wilderness Committee or the Ancient Forest Alliance) who has actually visited this tree. It's my happy place, but I don't want to be the only one who visits....

John Reibetanz, Afloat


Though I read quite a bit of poetry, I'm rarely quite comfortable with what I'm reading. It takes a different commitment than does reading fiction or nonfiction, different tools, and as a reader you benefit from quite a different relationship with text.

It took some time for me to appreciate John Reibetanz' Afloat as much as I’ve come to, and it wasn't clear to me at first why that should be so. Mostly Reibetanz' poetics emphasizes clarity over obscurity, image over abstraction, rhythm over intertextuality, and that's generally where I find myself gravitating, unawares. But I experienced the book as uneven, surprisingly so, though I recognize that some readers are doing to see there instead a diversity of method.

For me, the opening section of the book feels the weakest, and it wasn’t until the middle section (reflecting on the Three Gorges Dam) that I felt fully at home in the reading, even if that sensation faded again toward the book's end. Even through my limited and carping perspective, though, I can see that there’s some terrific work here, some of it quasi-prosaic (“Glaciologist. Tracking / a glacier. Who will he be / when it’s not?” [“Glaciologist,” p.18]) but some of it more elevated or otherwise poetic, as in Reibetanz’ reflection on monarch butterflies that Homero Aridjis might have observed:
o lover of mountain streams that echo      the soft rain     of rallying wings      sing the rhythms you share with them
that heart and butterfly may lift      and find their way home.

(“The Monarch Butterfly Migration, 1943,” p.73)
Frankly the sequence "Laments of the Gorges," on the Three Gorges dam project, is exceptional, and if Reibetanz wins awards or accolades for this book, I'd bet that this section is responsible. There are also some wonderful poems in the final section, but as a total collection, well, I've read some other books of poetry recently that struck me consistently with more intensity than did Afloat. For the right reader, this would be a terrific collection of mostly lyric verse, even if I'd rather read Basma Kavanagh or Emily McGuffin, who themselves are mostly working in the lyric mode.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Adam Dickinson, The Polymers

"I hate my genitals," writes Adam Dickinson in "Hang-Ups": "They remind me of communism. / Who needs another vanguard party / ascending the staircase / à la mode?" (p.39)

There's a whole lot of funny in Dickinson's collection The Polymers, though readers would be better off being deeply immersed beforehand in contemporary poetry. This book takes real chances formally and intellectually, and Dickinson's efforts reward a patient reader who's prepared to put in the work necessary to make sense of the endnotes while worrying over the separate poems -- though I'm not quite that reader, myself. Rachel Wyatt in Lemonhound might be that reader, or at least her review is a wonderful lesson in patience and inspired reading, but even she comes away puzzled by The Polymers.

The book's organizing conceit is to explore assorted plastics and petrochemical compounds, thinking through their creation and non-decay in tandem with the composition and decomposing of poetry and poets. Some poems are filled with poignant remarks, Rube Goldberg sentence structures, near-impenetrable poetics, and satire:
Mosquitoes pass along malaria like constructive criticism, while the buzz on the street is run-on sentences accruing in prisons with dangling modifiers and infinitives split along party lines. Business interests disperse their eggs on the fabric of passing interests. (“On Again, Off Again,” p.22)
Other poems are, well, "poems" rather than poems as such. Several consist entirely of diagrammed chemical compounds, with "Honed Security Procedures Following the G-20 Toronto Summit Protests" being one example. It's not until you read the endnotes, at the back of the book, that you realize the diagrammed compound is Kevlar, a key bulletproof material. (Ditto "Che Guevara Delighted to See His Face on the Breasts of So Many Beautiful Women," for spandex.)

“Holy Shit, Ruby, I Love You” might well be my new favourite poem for reading aloud, though it doesn’t quote well. More accessible, but less rhythmic and evocative, is "Hoarding":
The trouble with idealism 
is every so often
you have to dig up the bodies
and move them.
That plastic patch in the Pacific
 
stealing all our shit. (p.66)
At times, and sometimes for a few pages at a time, it's a book to fall in love with, to marvel at for the ways in which it manipulates cross-references and competing registers of syntax and meaning.

But I give the last word to Rachel Wyatt: "This is a book worth reading in order to struggle with its alienness, to be confronted with its unfamiliar language and representations, and maybe even to be defeated, confused and lost in its play between serious sociological or environmental points and an evasive looseness of reference." I genuinely don't know how to sell the virtue of a book that leaves you feeling defeated, confused and lost, simply at the way it uses language. The expert reader of contemporary poetry would experience The Polymers quite differently than would anyone else, and I'm uneasy with the degree of isolation there.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Doctorow & Stross, The Rapture of the Nerds

Like Mr. Boing Boing has any reason to care about the opinions of a crank with an old-style Blogger template.

And yet my hopes for Rapture of the Nerds, the SF novel from Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, were so, so crushed when I finally got around to reading it. At least it was a fast read, because otherwise I don't know that I would have bothered finishing the book, even if it was part of my self-prescribed late-summer non-academic reading detox.

There are all kinds of plot points major and minor that should be interesting (an ant hypercolony that's eating the remnants of North American civilization, religion as sexual perversion as religion, grubby Welshmen, mostly normalized transgender identity, the materiality of the Cloud, the persistence of nature...), and yet I kept thinking of dodgy Simpsons episodes, where the jokes come at you relentlessly but don't add up to anything more than nuanced than a body count.

Doctorow and Stross deserve their separate stardoms, but this book? Jesus.

Monday, August 08, 2016

TC Boyle, A Friend of the Earth

TC Boyle isn't a cheerful man, telling the Guardian a few years ago that "It's all over. The planet is doomed. In a very short time, we're probably not even going to have culture or art." So ... yeah.

The occasion for this remark was the 2012 publication of his book San Miguel, but he was actually thinking about his turn-of-the-century novel A Friend of the Earth, which is set in the late 80s / early 90s as well as 2025. The question at issue was whether 2025 was too far in the future, or if 2015 would have been a more appropriate date for imagining a future after climate change gets truly cataclysmic. We've made it through 2015 now without falling into Boyle's apocalypse just yet, but with 15 of the 16 hottest years in recorded human history having hit since 2000, and with 2016 on pace to beat the record set in 2015 (which smashed the record set in 2014...), who knows what's about to come.

A Friend of the Earth, though, even given all these complexities, is a strange read. Its protagonist, Ty Tierwater, was born around 1950, and while humanity has developed and deployed technologies to drastically extend the human lifespan, it hasn't done anything to escape the cultural touchstones of the 1960s and 1970s. The apocalypse, in other words, is a perpetual Boomer society (the horror! the horror!), and while this feels like the right place to lay certain kinds of blame, you're stuck as a reader with those sorts of references, narrative decisions, and novelistic details. (Strange names, for one detail, but also the continuing into the 2020s of hippie life choices as the height of counterculture.)

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Brenda Shaughnessy, Our Andromeda

A friend loaned me her copy of Brenda Shaughnessy's Our Andromeda because our daughters, very different from each other, occupy worlds unlike those known by most children. The final section of the book, which shares its title, explores another of those kinds of worlds, one occupied by her own son. I haven't read a more lovely, painful poetic sequence about children in a long time, and it's such a valuable piece about neuro-atypical kids and their families.

About the silence that such struggling families often hear from families with typical kids:
Why on earth would it be the closest,
dearest friends to shit the most toxically
on a sad new family struggling to find
blessing where blessings were? (p.121)
Not fair, sure, but an enormous guilt dwells within the relief one feels at someone else's pain. Calvin Shaughnessy was born alive, in which he was a miracle like the rest of us, but kids like Cal aren't celebrated by the people around their families. Their families are celebrated, though, for overcoming the challenges that such children represent: as if our children are in essence burdens, curses, afflictions.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Madhur Anand, A New Index for Predicting Catastrophe

As I've mumbled before, there are poetries that don't fully make sense to me, and Madhur Anand's in her collection A New Index for Predicting Catastrophe is one of those. She's seriously talented, and when she finds a careful reader who grasps both her methods and her aims, the outcome is a beautiful thing: you'd be far better off reading Rudrapriya Rathore's generous, patient review in The Puritan than trusting these notes.

Throughout Anand’s book appear found poems, more or less, drawn from Anand’s own scientific articles: at least, they’re composed solely of words and phrase drawn from those articles. I loved the strategy, audacious and inventive, but in general these weren’t the strongest poems in the collection, and so I found myself wondering about the value of the strategy – even though I immediately imagined adapting, borrowing, building on it.

And I wondered and worried, even though there are many lovely poems here, memorable and striking and carefully considered, and even though Anand has a great hand with the intimate image:
Two glasses sit side by side
on the table like windows
one filled with sunshine
one with melting ice caps
(“Three Laws of Physics,” p.79)

Friday, August 05, 2016

Berg & Seeber, The Slow Professor

What's not to love, to an academic, the sight of other academics acknowledging our collective time under the wheels of progress, administration, and anxiety? Go check out Emma Rees' lovely review, if you have the time.

Mind you, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy didn't arrive without detractors, even if some of those detractors hadn't yet read the book itself, and even if some of them mostly agreed. Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber, its co-authors, take the view that the job of professor shouldn't be survivable only thanks to imperviousness to an intensity of pressure that drives others into illness (or worse), to persistent refusal to do the work necessary to keep the institution vibrant, and to atomization rather than collegiality. I don't see what's wrong with that, and so I found myself completely ready to follow along with their approach to reimagining the contemporary university.

But it's complicated. Their decision to focus on professors had the effect of seeming to exclude students, instructors who aren't professors ("sessionals," they're usually called in Canada, and "adjuncts" in the US), and other members of the campus community. I spend a lot of energy worrying about those people, and so it makes sense to me that one should critique them for this gap. But is reimagining the university a job that can be achieved with only one 100-page book? Should we expect two English professors to correctly do all this work on their own? Should we blame them for failing to be polymathic prophets and fixers? No, no, and no, but still: not only is it not easy to see professors as the most long-suffering or victimized folks on campus, it'd also be wrong to see them us that way.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

DW Wilson, Once You Break a Knuckle

Maybe I grew up in the wrong small town: maybe my parents moved me out to boarding school just in time: maybe I didn't understand the place where I lived.

In any case, D.W. Wilson's Once You Break a Knuckle depicts via linked short stories a manly, boys-into-manly-men, knucklehead small town in which I likely would have been beaten regularly. It's a British Columbia town, a Kootenays town, and the specific location matters a great deal, but not as much as you might expect if you think it's CanLit. Really, the positive reviews mentioning Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, are quite right to recognize the transferability of Wilson's material into the larger history of literary bafflement at the spectacle of what passes for masculine development.

And yet this is a book that stands apart from everything else in this line. The death in "Don't Touch the Ground," and that death's immersion in (and emergence from) systemic teenage violence? Horrifying, poetic, inadequate, predictable, impossible: it's a small story, scenes from a complicated life, and from this sketch you can imagine might grow almost any number of futures, none of them clean. I keep coming back to this story when I think about the book, even though there's nothing about it that justifies my reading it centrally, because its structure feels to me so representative of Wilson's approach to narrative sequence and to voice.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings

You want to know something about how complicated Jamaica is? Read just this one commentary in the Jamaica Observer, "When a simple 'to rahtid' will not do", and follow the clues: power cuts in the House of Parliament; a 30% year-over-year increase in robberies in the commercial district; and most importantly for this post, the Tivoli Report on the 2010 Kingston unrest (a.k.a. the Tivoli incursion), in which 86 people were killed in the search for a don who had already promised to surrender himself.

Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings is loosely based on the personalities and histories behind the Tivoli incursion, with Christopher "Dudus" Coke recreated in the figure of Josey Wales. The novel's all about voice, James says in his acknowledgements section, "a novel that would be driven only by voice," and frankly it would've been good to know that before starting to try and keep track of the novel's dozens of characters (some of them with multiple names) in several locations interacting in all sorts of ways. I'm considering dropping the word "bombocloth" into conversation, though, so that's something.

There are lots of reviews of this novel, some of them lengthy and most of them glowing, so feel free to spend time with Anupa Mistry (Toronto Star), Scott Carey (Medium.com), Christopher Tayler (London Review of Books), or Zachary Lazar (New York Times). Heck, stop by Rolling Stone itself to learn more about the author.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Leanne Simpson, Islands of Decolonial Love

I'll let Lee Maracle have the first word here about Leanne Simpson's collection Islands of Decolonial Love, which Maracle blurbs: this "is the sort of book [she has] been looking for all [her] life."

One reason for this, is that this isn't a readily accessible book if you don't have the secret handshake, and Maracle has it. Marilyn Dumont, a terrific writer herself, has some advice for the less connected:
"Some readers may take exception to Simpson's unconventional approach to story structure, characterization, and European literary aesthetic, but her use of Indigenous rhetoric when working in the English language exposes the power imbalance inherent in the colonizing effects of English, which undermined our stories as legend and our songs as entertainment. Through her moving stories and credible characters, Simpson reasserts and honours Indigenous forms of expression."
In other words, this isn't standard CanLit, and its relations to works produced from within a broadly European literary tradition aren't overly recognizable. More specifically, the book's tissue of references and allusions, that foundation underlying every text's identity, have everything to do with Anishinaabe culture, with settler Canadian culture visible only as caricature, only rarely, and generally either ignorant or villainous. Settler readers have to get over themselves if they're going to enjoy a book like this, but if they don't know the references, good intentions won't take them very far.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Basma Kavanagh, Niche

Front to back, Basma Kavanagh’s Niche is my favourite book of poetry this year: each turn of the page brought me something unexpected, even if she's pursuing some themes repeatedly throughout the book. The mythic as real comes up several times, in “How to Find New Myths,” for example, and extinction is a persistent theme:
We taste our death
in every extinction,
our extinction
in every death.
("Threatened," p.70: the whole poem, cf. Atwood's "You fit into me")
Kavanagh has the ability to adopt multiple perspectives in aid of a consistent ethic, speaking often for what I take to be some version of herself but also imagining herself (sometimes anthropomorphically) into the desires of the nonhuman:
The sphagnum bog tingles, its granite on edge, crests of Cladina lichen tender and expectant, alert to a pain that never arrives, forests of reindeer lichen with no reindeer in sight....
The ocean lacy and tattered, crumpling down to suffocating darkness as its auk-shaped, cod-shaped, salmon-shaped, tuna-shaped, walrus-shaped, leatherback-shaped, sea mink-shaped veins collapse. (“Phantom Limbs”, p.42 – prose poetry, I think)
These assorted themes and approaches come together in how Kavanagh reflects on human efforts to address the environmental crises of climate change, resource extraction, ocean acidification, and so on. At bottom, Kavanagh recognizes that any actions we take will lead to change that we will never ourselves see, and so the intimacy her readers seek with the world is never to be fully achieved—but that’s all the more reason for us to seek it.

And in the heartbreaking “Coda,” too, Kavanagh imagines the assorted happinesses that the world might experience after human extinction: “Only hawks will eat songbirds on the new earth, / no naked animal cover itself with another’s skin” (“Coda” part 4, p.107). Hers is a comprehensive sympathy, in other words, a sympathy even for humans in our collective inability to care for the world that made us, and that's an emotion I find myself craving. Sure, conservatives presumably loathed CBC for making the superficially humanity-hating "Coda" one of its 2014 poetry prize nominees, but who says those guys are reading attentively?

Seriously, this is a fantastic book, one that can be enjoyed by a whole lot of readers, and I know I've got some people I'm buying it for...

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Ariel Gordon, Stowaway

Oh god, Ariel Gordon is going to email me. And I just don't know what she's going to say.

Quite simply, I felt conflicted about Ariel Gordon’s Stowaways.

On a per-page basis, I felt myself more at home here than in most poetry books I've read in the last few years, more comfortable especially with the voice and the store of images. In the end, though, I just don't know what I think of it overall. Do I distrust funny, which is all over this book? Probably: I’m not sure how to weigh humour. Do I overvalue the complicated, which this book isn’t? Probably: but I don't particular enjoy overtly complicated poetry.

When I came back again to the book, I felt like Stowaways showed more inconsistency than it should. It may be simply that Gordon's going after enough different targets and goals that I'm not quite keeping up, but I'm not sure it's a collection so much as it is a book of separate poems. Still, at its best, there’s a sly and telling humour to Gordon’s verse that I very much appreciate:
how the word wild has begun to beg,
as a half-starved
bear begs: defeated, but with one eye
on the toddlers
& lap dogs.
(“How to Survive in the Woods,” p.58)
As much as I enjoyed the separate poems, I wanted more from Stowaways, and I hope that Ariel Gordon will achieve even more with her next collection. I'm planning on buying that one as well, and I hope you do, too.