Sunday, March 25, 2007

Jasper Fforde, The Eyre Affair

I've always loved Douglas Adams, so I mourned his loss even though (I'm sorry, I'm sorry!) I wasn't keeping up with his current work anymore. I received and read Julian Barnes' History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters this fall, and lovedlovedloved that. I've enjoyed the David Lodge I've bumped into, and I think Salman Rushdie is very funny, and so on.

So with all this in my background, I was unnerved -- Jasper Fforde seemed too good to be true. As a result, rather than seeking him out, I've kept him on my long-term radar. I'm not convinced I was wrong to delay checking him out, now that I've read his first novel for my introduction to him, but that's only because I'm the kind of person who hates finishing something I enjoy. (I refused to read more than one short story in Alistair MacLeod's Island on any given day, and some days I read the previous day's story again. Yes, "The Closing Down of Summer" was one of those.)

And I really enjoyed this novel. Hilarious, more literary than some professors I know -- I mean, than I've heard of -- and a fine piece of crime fiction to boot. (Oh, and the romance stuff is good as well.) It's a one-trick pony, in the sense that The Eyre Affair doesn't have the range or variety that Barnes' above-mentioned masterwork does, but my what a pony. It just keeps doing the same almost unimaginably complicated thing correctly, all the way through.

I'll be adding more Fforde to my shelves, happily, and likely loaning it out to anyone I can think of.

Terry Glavin, Waiting for the Macaws

I've admired Terry Glavin for a long time, so when I saw it on BC Ferries last trip to Vancouver I started leafing through the new one I saw at the store - Waiting for the Macaws, and other stories from the age of extinctions. When I happened on some comments about how the language of environmentalism isn't adequate for our current crisis, I knew I needed it.

And WHAT an educational book. My goodness. I think of myself as reasonably well informed, but I learned so much -- not just about Russian fish species, whaling, that sort of exotica -- but also about stuff I think I know already, North American animals since European contact in particular but also the vast changes in agricultural diversity. I'm used to the sense of crisis, but not with so much data behind it.
So much is uncertain in the world, but one thing we can say with some certainty is that we are living in an age when we will at last discover the answer to the question that has haunted philosophers from time out of mind. It's the question about whether humanity is capable of determining its own destiny. We should know that by about 2030, they say. Certainly not much later. (280)
Glavin does a great job of linking the data to individual stories. His kids steal unidentifiable breeds of apples from abandoned orchards on Mayne Island; over 6,000 breeds of apples grown commercially in the US vanished between 1903 and 1983. That's roughly 90% of them, and two-thirds of American apple production consists of Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, and Granny Smith. The story's the same for corn (307 to 12), carrots (287 to 21), watermelons (223 to 20). The next step is to link monocultural agriculture to the Irish potato famine, which he does persuasively. Yikes.

But it's not a depressing read, because throughout Glavin keeps an eye on one core idea: human-driven extinctions have always come when we didn't really understand what has happening and what the consequences were of our actions. Whenever we've recognized crisis, we've almost always made heroic efforts to halt it, and what's coming is the largest crisis we've faced -- but with the most lead time we've ever had, too.

Wide-ranging and brilliantly written. Glavin's such an alert writer, opinionated but willing to let the research do the heavy lifting, that I envy his every word.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

March 24 - Thrift Store day

A lovely time with my daughter today, getting kids' books for her as well as my style for me.

Salvation Army first:
  • Rohinton Mistry, Tales from Firozsha Baag ($2.29 - but I fear I may have it at the office already, since I've taught a story from it in the past)
  • Eric Sloane, A Reverence for Wood ($1.99 - never heard of him, but "the special knowledge of which wood was suited to which task" sounds right - but I don't see the promised "color plates" anywhere...)
  • Robert Wiersema, Before I Wake ($2.50 - "advance reading copy, not for sale" is a siren song for me - and I went to university with Rob)
  • ed. Patricia Demers and Gordon Moyles, From Instruction to Delight: An Anthology of Children's Literature to 1850 ($2.99 - took a grad course from Pat Demers, and to her I owe the motivation behind my first publication)
Then Value Village:
  • Richard Hakluyt, Voyages and Discoveries ($1.99 - good classic stuff)
  • Des Kennedy, Living Things We Love to Hate: Facts, Fantasies and Fallacies ($1.99 - autographed by Kennedy to "Joan, Denman Island, June '92," who got it for her birthday from (possibly) Dick and Pam and who spilled something precisely on poor Des' signature)
  • Thomas King, Medicine River ($1.99 - an inexcusable hole in the bookshelf)
  • Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose ($2.99 - in which I begin my quest to collect all Stegner's works)
A good day, all told!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Barry Lopez, Desert Notes

So large and passionate his readership, so influential his books, I expected to like Barry Lopez. God save me, though, I don't -- at least, not yet.

Stephen Trimble writes approvingly that "Lopez speaks and writes about our sacred relationships with the earth with such seriousness and depth that he has become the most respected voice of ethical conscience in the chorus of naturalist writers." That "has become" keeps me from tugging on my hair a bit, since all I've read is Desert Notes, and I just didn't see an object large enough to cast the shadow it does. It's not the least bit unethical, and he does seem highly respected, and indeed the book does have some very good bits, but ... I don't see it. I don't.

The back cover of the old Signet edition I picked up compares Lopez to Don Juan, in the Carlos Castaneda books, and of course Don Juan is generally accepted to have been fictional. I'm not for a moment suggesting that Lopez is having us on, or doing anything but writing seriously, but as a rural-born Canadian who grew up amid camping AND logging, his (or maybe his characters?) modes of approaching nature ... bother me. I'll keep reading him, if only to see why the reputation kept growing, but gosh, this book really annoyed me.

While I was reading, it was all I could do not to gripe openly about what felt like such early-70s cliches: hallucinations masquerading as intellectual analysis, escapist mysticism, outdoor nudity (both genders, only one seeming sexy and unnecessary -- you guess which one).... Oh, wait, no -- I did gripe openly while I was reading.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Wallace Stegner, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs

How did I not find Wallace Stegner before?!? Partly because my lack of interest in Wallace Stevens kept me from Wallace anyone, if I can confess the staggering depth of my pettiness, partly because he's American and I choose Canadian whenever I can. Partly because I don't know who in my life would have known his work to tell me about him.

It turns out that he views as highly formative some childhood years spent in Saskatchewan, so I could extend an honorary mantle of Canadian-ness to him anyway, but I don't need to. This book articulates more cogently than anything else I've ever seen the peculiarities of growing up intellectual in the West. This book automatically goes into my repeat cycle, and I'm eventually going to read everything else Stegner wrote -- and much of what he enjoyed reading, too. I've got a sense of mission for my academic, writing, and reading lives now, and while I'm sure that sense will prove frail, I've got this gem of a book to reach back to.

In the beautiful final essay, Stegner remarks that he felt always that his enveloping culture was one of movement rather than stability, of isolation and fragmentation rather than coherence. As a result his youthful revolt was unlike those of non-Westerners:
I had to revolt away from what I was, and that meant toward something--tradition, cultural memory, shared experience, order. Even my prose felt the pull of agreed-upon grammar and syntax. Eventually, inevitably, I was drawn to what I most needed. (223)
Which is why (shock of recognition!) I love grammar so much. It is. I know it is.

But I'm right with Stegner about the next step as well, which he doesn't articulate in quite such a quotable morsel. Namely, we who love the West -- no matter how unconscious our love -- are engaged in the process of settling it more deeply than simple accommodation. We're looking to see the West properly, richly, in all its angles and colours, so that we act toward it with honour. Ignoring the east and its history, or Europe and its history, isn't the answer, but enmeshing ourselves in the development of our own Western places and their history -- now, that's the right answer, the way forward.

So back I go, gleefully, to the ungainly popular verse of Robert E. Swanson and Robert Service, to the unfashionable 1940s fiction about logging and farming, to the lovely lovely poems of Tim Bowling (and the ones I don't like, of which there are more than I'd like...), maybe even to Joe Garner, autographed copies of whose novels grace many a yard sale on Vancouver Island. My place makes sense, if I can just take the time to make sense with it.

The Douglas Adams caveat, of course, in relation to the Electric Monk in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency: "The Door was The Way. Good. Capital letters were always the best way of dealing with things you didn't have a good answer to."

Today, though, I'm a True Believer -- to the big rock candy mountain, folks....

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Lawrence & Nancy Goldstone, Slightly Chipped: Footnotes in Booklore

Strange like me! Ahhhhh.......

OK, actually the Goldstones are a little stranger than me, since I buy books on the cheap because I want to read them, rather than for talismanic reasons related to edition and physical characteristics, but I recognize their booklust, the greed their fingers feel for old paper, even the failed attempt to control expenses. (If I had more money, I'd spend most of it on books. Period. I spend as little as I do because that's how much I have.)

The Libray of Congress description on the info page says it's about book collecting, and it is, but Paul Theroux's travel writings can be described with the same quality of justification as "about geography." The Goldstones travel between places where one could buy books -- libraries, book fairs, stores -- and they're passionate about the individual books -- Virginia Woolf & Lytton Strachey, Letters ($125); Ben Franklin's Notes on Electricity ($3,000) -- but it's about the passion, not the collecting. That's why we attend a live performance of a 1940s radio Dracula at a crime bookstore, for example, and a rare books event at the Pequot Library, where the authors get not just to see a Kelmscott Press Chaucer (one of the most beautifully published books the world will ever see) but to handle both a twelfth-century illuminated book of letters and a fourteenth-century Book of Hours.

We watch the Goldstones gradually realize that they might as well spend the money, and that they might as well quit debating whether they should spend it -- because they just will. We watch the birth of a new obsession, with Hogarth Press books and the Bloomsbury circle. We meet odd characters, most of whom seem worth the drive all the way from this side of the continent. (Most of the book takes place in the American Northeast, where there are more older books in more stores than on this Pacific coast. Sigh.)

Anyway, I had this book in mind while digging through the thousands upon thousands of volumes at the Times-Colonist book sale a few weeks ago. I decided not to spend more than $40 there, and spent $37, but I only managed it because I kept myself out of the individually priced books area, where the Good Stuff lived. I don't regret that, because really I just want something to read. I can live vicariously through the Goldstones, and buy only the occasional book for ownership reasons, because I'd rather read a dozen good ones than spend the hours looking for a newer edition than I already have.

But lest I come across as dismissive of the Goldstones, I hasten to say that I simply MUST find the previous book now, Used & Rare, because I was so cranky when this one ended. Too much fun!

Monday, March 12, 2007

Bernd Heinrich, Winter World

Too geeky even for me, is Bernd Heinrich's intensive study of animal adaptation to winter in New England. Sure, it's published by a popular house, but it makes few concessions to popularity. It's rigorous in its detail, unrelenting in its focus and internal references, and thorough thorough thorough.

OK, maybe it isn't too geeky for me, but it's on the edge -- and those who know me will know how far out there this book is!

I grew up in the BC interior, where it snows and gets cold, about five miles from a highway and ten miles from town (of only 1500 people), so Heinrich's focus on animal life itself isn't unusual. I can see my father making good sense of this stuff, for example, though he wouldn't care -- I think, and for example -- to work his way through the chemical analysis of supercooling that allows some species to survive body temperatures below the freezing point of water.

Plus there's also the problem of character. This book's about animal adaptation, but it's also about Bernd Heinrich. That includes deliberately living part of the year without electricity, taking his university students to live with him in his off-the-grid cabin in winter, and regularly but casually mentioning his "pet" owl Bubo. I can't yet put my finger on what it is about Heinrich's observing perspective that rankles a bit, but undeniably I rankled. Maybe another day I'll figure that out, after the next Heinrich book I read....

In sum, I call it fascinating stuff, but 315 pages seems like the wrong length: I'd enjoy a shorter version, but I'd completely inhabit a longer book.

Roland Barthes, Eiffel Tower & Other Mythologies

There's something compelling for me still about Barthes: not his insight, crystalline as it might be, but his insider's tone on subjects I've never experienced directly. Monsieur Poujade is who, exactly? And I've never been to Paris, so that rules out just about every subject in The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies. He knows his milieu so well that I feel brought into it, in spite of my ignorance, much as I do with really good medieval historians and music journalists.

In the end, though, I'm just not ... excited by Barthes anymore. I'll teach some of his more hardcore semiotics work this summer (to legal studies students currently over-confident in their interpretive skills), but I thought maybe there'd be something less intense that could work as well. Nope.

For me, at last, it's that we all do Barthesian interpretive work all the time now. So successful was his analytical mode that most of us have incorporated it into our daily approach to the world -- and hence made it difficult to approach Barthes' own daily work with excitement.

I grow old, I grow old...
I shall wear my trousers rolled.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

March 4 - Times-Colonist book sale

For a total of $37, the following:

Poetry first:
  • Christian Bok, Eunoia
  • Jamie Dopp, The Birdhouse, Or
  • George Fetherling, Singer: An Elegy
  • Sid Marty, Nobody Danced with Miss Rodeo
  • bpNichol, Zygal: A Book of Mysteries and Translations
  • Adrienne Rich, The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977
  • Stephen Scobie, The Spaces in Between: Selected Poems 1965-2001
  • Sharon Thesen, ed., The New Long Poem Anthology
  • Tom Wayman, ed., A Government Job at Last: An anthology of contemporary work poems
Non-fiction, green or rural:
  • Edward Abbey, Postcards from Ed: Dispatches and Salvos from an American Iconoclast (ed. David Peterson)
  • Ken Drushka, Stumped: The Forest Industry in Transition
  • Joseph Finkhouse and Mark Crawford, ed., with photographs by the Water in the West Project, A River Too Far: The Past and Future of the Arid West
  • Barry Lopez, Crossing Open Ground
  • Barry Lopez, Desert Notes: Reflections in the Eye of a Raven
  • David E. McGill, 101 Stops of Interest in Beautiful British Columbia
  • David Adams Richards, Lines on the Water: A Fisherman’s Life on the Miramichi
  • Joan Weir, Walhachin: Catastrophe or Camelot?
And the rest, miscellaneous:
  • A Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles
  • Peter Elbow, Writing Without Teachers
  • Edith Fowke, compiler, The Penguin Book of Canadian Folk Songs
  • Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within / Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life (published as a single volume)
  • Geoff Pevere & Greig Dymond, Mondo Canuck: A Canadian Pop Culture Odyssey