Thursday, April 26, 2007

April 26 - subTEXT (UVic SUB)

Bless 'em, those students who give up on books that we profs love and want them to love as well. I always leave an armload that I'd rather buy, but there's always next time. In every university town, the best-kept bookstore secret is the Student Union's consignment store:
  • ed. Robert J. Brym, Regionalism in Canada ($1, because it's from 1986)
  • Stephen Collis, Anarchive ($4)
  • ed. Daniel Francis, Imagining Ourselves: Classics of Canadian Non-Fiction ($5)
  • Richard Harris, Creeping Conformity: How Canada Became Suburban, 1900-1960 ($15)
  • Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett ($4)
  • J. Lewis Robinson, Concepts and Themes in the Regional Geography of Canada (Revised) ($5)
  • Rick Searle, Phantom Parks: The Struggle to Save Canada's National Parks ($7.50)
  • ed. A.J.M. Smith, The Canadian Century: English-Canadian Writing Since Confederation ($2)
I'm teaching from Imagining Ourselves in three sections of English 215 next year at UVic, so I might as well start reading ahead.

And the Stephen Collis book appears to be the author's own copy, annotated for reading aloud and with a list inside the back cover of where the poet read on a cross-country tour. I'm tempted to contact this Collis character....

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Peter Elbow, Writing Without Teachers

I've been working in an increasingly Elbow-y mode in my return to academic life. I had the good fortune to team-teach with Maureen Nicholson at Royal Roads in August 2005, and she modelled for me some of the benefits of using Peter Elbow's ideas more deeply than I'd figured out at that point.
And now I've finally read Writing Without Teachers, and I'm not sure what it does to me. It speaks directly to my ambivalence about marking, for sure, to my reluctance to write for myself, and to my distrust of my own past writing -- including writing that's found some success. But I don't really know how to move this into my classrooms.

Actually, no. I know how I'll use it in my nonfiction classes, because there we deal with these exact problems of voice and readership and self-editing. But I don't know how to move the inspirational model of writing into the research-based land of academic composition. I'm not sure how an introductory biology student, for example, would make sense of Elbow's freewriting toward a final paper. Of course Elbow's model makes lots of room for late-stage editing, which I assume includes the quotation of or reference to research material, but the introductory nature of the student's knowledge would make much of the writing premature before some hardcore research on the topic was done.

Elbow's words on marking rang very true. For my composition classes, I have a vision in mind of Good Academic Writing: I'm aware of the ideology behind it (thanks to Williams and Nadel's Style: Seven Lessons in Clarity and Grace), but I want sentence-level clarity, few basic grammatical errors, awareness of grammatical complexity (such as using grammatical "mistakes" for deliberate effect), and an intro plus conclusion that help a reader without being obvious about it ("In this essay I..."). But the model doesn't always explain why I want to respond positively or negatively. I've known that since I first started marking, lo these many years ago, but his discussion is the clearest articulation of it I've seen, and hence it's very seductive.

I'm not turning my first-year composition classes into Elbow's teacherless classroom, though. I don't think he'd recommend it anyway, but I'm saying it anyway. So there.

But I'm posting some of his words on my office door, because they spoke directly to the kind of project I insist on in my classes:
The function of a good critic, then, is not to discredit a bad reading but to make better readings available. (166)

The main hindrance to the search for truth is probably the inability to abandon a present belief and adopt a better one when it comes along -- even though it may be harder to believe, or may involve admitting you were wrong, or may come from someone you don't want to agree with. (184)

April 24 - subTEXT

From the university Student Union's consignment bookstore:
  • Joseph Gibaldi, MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (sixth ed., $6), and
  • Diana Giltrow's Academic Reading: Reading and Writing Across the Disciplines ($5).
I've been meaning to get into Giltrow for years, so the happenstance meeting on the subTEXT shelves clinched it. And how do I not have the MLA Handbook already?!?

April 20 - Book Bedouin

There's a multi-table remainders kiosk in a local mall on occasion; he's packed up until August now, but before he went, for $5.99 I picked up a collection edited by Eric Simonoff called Sleepaway: Writings on Summer Camp. I imagine it'll come in handy for upcoming creative nonfiction classes.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveller

Since it was written in 1979, translated in 1981, I shouldn't have been surprised to find Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveller to be ... a little bit of a wankfest. High theory, put into action. Well, into words, of course, but high theory nonetheless: pure metafiction.

But it was good stuff nonetheless -- or maybe because of that.

I mean, it ends with happiness, happiness for the characters that promises happiness in the world for we readers, and that's not something I expect from theory.

The concept is straightforward: there's a Reader (you), and the Other Reader (Ludmilla, who you fall for), and the two of you are just trying to read a book. But the book is incomplete, and when you track down another copy, it's different. So Calvino's book is a dozen chapters about the Readers, and about the same number from these other books. All the chapters from the imagined other books feel as Calvino-ish as the ones about the Readers, but it's self-consciously fictional anyway, intensely self-conscious, so that's no complaint.

(Though I can't imagine I'm the only one who sees some fairly oppressive cultural stereotyping here, especially in the Japanese "book"....)

And there are after all some lovely lines and images, and in the end that's all I wanted. It was a bonus to see two readers find love through and in words at the same time; I need to see others engaged in hoping.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Jamie Dopp, The Birdhouse, Or

No, that really is the full title: The Birdhouse, Or. Once you get into the book, though, you discover that the first poem sequence is about the building of a birdhouse, a feat attempted and accomplished by father Jamie and his sons, approved of by Wendy.

And you learn that after the "Or" in that section's title is a seriously impressive subtitle:
He attempts to introduce his sons to the uses of certain tools, and is struck by a number of observations about fatherhood, with three minor miracles and an extended discourse on a significant but rarely considered part of the human body.
This title embodies some of what I enjoyed so much about this book: there's a rare balance here between a sense of awe that threatens to turn maudlin, and a sense of perspective that threatens to turn cynical. Dopp writes with what feels like great openness, tolerating a nurse's remark after the birth of his child that you "can never really be sure" who the father is; describing calmly how he had lime thrown in his eyes, ambushed, by a soccer teammate he called "limey"; dancing naked in front of the TV's election results after driving home, uncertain, from the candidate's office. (Openness, like I said.)

But really, it's about the poetry. My favourite poems here join what I arrogantly confess is the fairly short list of poetry that says what I wish mine did:
Goddamn poets and goddamn poetry
with their promises of a deeper life
getting me drunk and
confused with yearning in
the middle of the afternoon
(on getting home later than promised, after lunching with a visiting poet)
The book reads as a sequence, which is something I delight in, rather than as excerptable single poems and lines. I prefer albums to singles, so this pleases me, but it makes it tough to sell lines....

(The final section didn't work for me, I admit. I'm not one for overly clever stuff, and most of the pieces in this section were "generated through collage techniques" (as the book puts it) from Cleanth Brooks' Well-Wrought Urn, plus some lines from Derrida, a couple of very good Canadian poets, and an article in Star about Sonny Bono's death. Clever, in other words, though appealing in their own way.)

The book fed my continuing interest in generational matters, though, poets and writers coming to terms with fatherhood and sonhood. The Birdhouse, Or would have made it into regular rotation for that alone, even if some of the lines weren't so damned beautiful.

Nick Hornby, How to Be Good

A tonic, is what it was supposed to be, and it was: Nick Hornby's How to Be Good helped me get over Chip Kidd's Cheese Monkeys in next to no time.

Not that it's a world-changing novel, but I went into it expecting light and frothy, with turns of phrase precise as Salchows, but also something zeitgeisty, and I got more than I wanted. It's Nick Hornby, so he doesn't need my promotion, but I do thank him for this, this week.

Not that I was heartened by the collapse of the husband's project to Improve The World, or the somewhat defeatist concept of marriage, but the characters felt to me like people talking in the world, and my bourgeois allegiance to realist fiction (say it isn't so!-ed.) (um, it isn't so?-auth.) asks for that sometimes. And after Kidd, I needed to make peace with my stolidity and middle-classness.

Plus, I laughed on the bus as I was reading. Judging stares be damned -- I laughed in public anyway, and that's a rare thing for me.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Gwynne Dyer, Future: Tense

I didn't really want to know all this. I'm happier muddling along in my artsy way, dabbling in books and helping students with grammar, but friend Rob thought I'd appreciate Gwynne Dyer's Future: Tense - The Coming World Order (it should be two colons, but that looks silly). And I do appreciate it, really, but it's written for Canadians about -- basically -- how the world needs to respond to the madness in American politics organized around Iraq.

The gist is that Iraq was intended as a test case for the world the neo-conservatives wanted to create, namely permanent American pre-eminence, acting independently rather than in service to international law. Dyer's main thesis is that the UN is a good idea, irrespective of its miscellaneous failings and weaknesses, because it represented an ingenious way of slowly convincing every sovereign nation to sign onto a non-aggression pact. He views the UN as a hundred-year project, one that had done some very good work in its first 60 or so years but that is now under serious threat as a result of American unilateralism.

Dyer says that we live in an increasingly multipolar world, where American dominance is on the way out due simply to the pressures of trade, population change, and climate change. So, we need to be developing mechanisms that can survive whatever shifts may come in the nation or nations that are the most powerful on the planet. The Cold War, he argues, was inherently stable, because it was one on one; a multipolar world is like the world before WW1, a time of changing and secret alliances that made the war inevitable. Current military technology, if multiple great nations went to war, would result in the destruction of what we know as civilization. It's the goal of the UN to prevent that, through the creation of stable international law that governs the relations between nations of all sizes.

Dyer's analysis of neo-conservative speeches and declaration is devastating, incidentally. His perception of the sophistry of Richard Perle, for example, is astonishing in its clarity.

The book argues that if it takes the US much longer to get out of Iraq, the other countries of the world are likely to start making allegiances that exclude the US. This would lead to global instability of a kind and degree not seen for close to a hundred years, and it would take all of our best efforts simply to avoid annihilation.

I support the troops. I do. We need the troops to be willing to do what they're told, because if they don't, we will have lost the roots of civil society. But I'd rather they were home -- they've been given the wrong orders.

I support the troops, but not their leaders.

Uwe Timm, The Invention of Curried Sausage

I haven't found out to what extent this novella is "accurate" about the invention of curried sausage, which I gather is a popular dish served at food kiosks in Germany, but I don't really care. (I'm interested, but I don't Need To Know.)

What fascinated me was the relatively nonpolitical treatment of life inside Germany under Hitler, at the very end of the Second World War. I say "relatively nonpolitical": it's the story of a deserter (being sheltered by a woman almost his mother's age who becomes his lover), there are some unsettling references to trainloads of Jews being sent out of the cities, and there's some debate about the first pictures coming out of the concentration camps. It's worth reading, I think, strictly for the portrait of Germany.

But Lena Brucker (how do I make an umlaut on here??) is a treat. An elderly woman telling her story retrospectively to an unnamed narrator, she forces him through the power of story, nothing more, to remain longer than he would like, simply to hear more of the story. He wants the answer to a simple question: did she invent curried sausage, and if so, when? She has a much longer story in mind, one that includes subtle resistance during WW2, post-war economics, 1940s gender relations, etc., and the great thing is that she makes him listen.

I haven't tried to make the dish yet (p. 211, curry from a prepared tin, plus "ketchup, nutmeg, aniseed, black pepper, and fresh mustard seed," cooked in a frying pan with sliced skinless veal sausage), but I know what I want it to smell like....

Joseph Heath & Andrew Potter, The Rebel Sell

There's the usual hype on the cover, with the (in Canada) predictably cantankerous blurb from Rex Murphy on the front -- "intellectual martyrs fighting the good fight." This predictability is what kept it unread on my shelf for so long, even though -- confession time -- as a TA I marked a whole set of essays dealing with Heath and Potter's book. (TA's don't always read all the material? - ed.)

But you know, this turned out to be one of the most intellectually engaging books I've read in a long time. The Rebel Sell: Why The Culture Can't Be Jammed is provocative, thoroughly researched, and intensely argued. I've already begun recommending it to reflexively countercultural students, the ones working toward the same kind of angst I went through myself at different points in my life.

Heath and Potter are strongest on consumerism, but their lessons go much further than that. In brief, they argue that the standard argument about consumerism is entirely misguided. Rather than representing a tendency toward sameness -- herd behaviour -- consumerism is instead driven by exceptionalism. We all want to be cool enough, and that requires constant change so that we can stay close to the truly cool. For their part, the truly cool -- the countercultural -- have to remain different from the rest of us. The increasingly self-conscious nature of the countercultural means that they're changing faster and faster, but the rest of us just keep on keeping up.

In other words, the consumer fashion cycle is driven by those who mock consumer fashion and think of themselves as outside the loop.

The clearest example is destination tourism. The cool used to go to Australia, but now everyone goes there; next came Thailand, but now there are too many tourists; now it's ... where? It doesn't matter, really, because the point of cool travel is to be the only one there. Once one person goes there, though, someone else goes, and the destination gets less cool, and it's off to the next place. Heath and Potter put the problem this way:
[A]s the tourist wave passes through a previously untouched area, the local economy is completely reshaped in anticipation of the visitors to come. The very antimaterialist attitude that leads people to seek out exotic places in the first places draws more and more regions into the global economy. (277)
In other words, the commercialism of formerly cool travel destinations is caused inevitably by the arrival of the cool, NOT by the subsequent arrival of the masses. Naming something as cool leads inevitably to its uncooling, which occurs through domestication, increased consumability, and so on. I can't find the line, but at some point they describe the cool as the "shock troops of mass consumerism."

Incidentally, Heath and Potter wind up recommending business travel as the only legitimate form of travel, because it represents contact between two entities (people, cultures, etc) with the same goal in mind and already sharing enough of the same perspectives to represent something other than invasion. Fascinating stuff.

Plus, now I get to think of my deep uncoolness as a politically progressive stance. That's what I call cool.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Chip Kidd, The Cheese Monkeys

I reallyreally wanted to like this book more than I do -- ah, well. You can find plenty of complimentary remarks on Chip Kidd's The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semesters online, along with more on his book design for other authors, so let me counter some of the compliments about his novel. (About his designs for this book and others, I have nothing but praise.)

The Cheese Monkeys is a summer read for people too good for Summer Reads. It's made for beaches and busses and coffeeshops, anywhere someone who might notice the cover and think "Cool" would be considered a potential date. The text complements the design well, in that it's flashy and grabby and seriously cool, but ultimately not more than that. It felt like a self-indulgent creative writing exercise by someone with the cash to get it printed by a vanity press -- and for someone with the hep-cat credentials of Chip Kidd, let's face it, a place like HarperCollins IS his vanity press.

I worry that I find myself siding with, of all authorities, Entertainment Weekly on this, which the back cover says found the book "Retro kitsch. Thoroughly sophomoric." I like retro kitsch, and have lots of things I'd describe that way -- even a musical snowglobe a friend brought back from Hawaii last year containing a chubby muumuu-wearing maiden riding a dolphin -- and I liked that about this book. But sophomoric, that I'm intolerant about.

Admittedly fiction is taking up less and less of my shelf space, as I fall further for non-fiction and cultivate my poetry obsession, but to me The Cheese Monkeys felt stylish and funny and ... empty. Not empty in a good way, not like an Evelyn Lau poem about doomed sex or a good bit in Douglas Coupland's Life After God, but just plain lacking.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

John Berger, And our faces...

And our faces, my heart, brief as photos: one of the more evocative titles you'll come across, I'd say. The book lives up to that evocative title, I think, but (a) I'm not sure because I'm confident that I don't really understand the book, and (b) to the extent that I think the book lives up to the title, it's because the book is more evocative than clear.

Berger's full of interesting ideas about time and its passage, as well as about the here-ness of the world, but it reads more like a series of connected fragments than anything else. Clearly that's part of the project, but it didn't hook me this time. It might hook me on a future reading, since I intend to give it multiple reads over the years, but not this time.

I've wanted to read this book for a long time, because Berger's Ways of Seeing and About Looking are iconic books about perception, and Berger's politics are intriguing. AOFMHBAP didn't disappoint, but I just didn't connect especially well with it -- until the end.

The last page is heart-breakingly good:
What reconciles me to my own death more than anything else is the image of a place: a place where your bones and mine are buried, thrown, uncovered, together. They are strewn there pell-mell. One of your ribs leans against my skull. A metacarpal of my left hand lies inside your pelvis. (Against my broken ribs your breast like a flower.) The hundred bones of our feet are scattered like gravel. It is strange that this image of our proximity, concerning as it does mere phosphate of calcium, should bestow a sense of peace. Yet it does. With you I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough. (101)
The last line made me tear up. There's some frankly unnecessary sexual imagery in the passage ("my left hand lies inside your pelvis"? really?), but oh the last line.... I don't know that I've seen a sense of love's eternity that works this well for an atheist, and I don't know that I will.