Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Will Ferguson & Ian Ferguson, How to Be a Canadian

The Ferguson brothers: an active bunch of cultural producers, with one representative in books (Will), one in theatre (Ian), and one in music (Sean). Will's the one with the most money, I'd guess, but Sean teaches at McGill, and Ian (who seems wildly accomplished) is co-author of How to Be a Canadian, so they're both doing OK.

There's a cheery blurb from Douglas Coupland on the front cover, and I would normally take that as a good sign, but.... Well, he's credited in red print as "Doug Coupland," so (a) maybe it's some other guy they wouldn't have to pay as much, and (b) am I supposed to notice the implied familiarity, since as a mere reader I only see books with the full name "Douglas" on them? Yes, yes, I know I'm both obsessing and delaying comment, but these things happen.

I really wanted to like this book, but I didn't. It's Dave Barry with local content.

What's wrong with that, you ask? Like you, I love Dave Barry's work. Actually, no, I love the first half of almost every Dave Barry column, and I appreciate the running gags (like the line "I am not making this up," for example, or his regular references to "alert reader [name]"). The second half of a typical Barry column rarely works for me; I way too often get bored, tired of the schtick, even a little embarrassed for him. I imagine Mr. Barry doesn't mind too much, since he's both a kazillionaire and a widely respected linguist, but still.

I stuck with the book, because it was going quickly enough I could say to others, "Hey, I read yet another book this year, boy, am I clever," but I'm not buying copies for Christmas gifts, even though the new cover is stylish indeed. There are some funny bits, actually some very funny bits, but they got increasingly predictable the more I read. Maybe it's just that I'm already Canadian enough, in the proper sort of way?

Too much of it felt cheap and easy, like the repeated references to tongues frozen to metal posts, politeness, federal government agencies, the word "eh," that sort of thing. Don't get me wrong, "cheap" and "easy" are two characteristics I prize above most others, but I want my authors' pages to show signs of sweat. I had the same reaction to Will Ferguson's novel Happiness, but I'm not rereading that one just to find something specific to say about it now.

Some of you might appreciate the nice discussion of why the standard Canadian version of anti-Americanism (I'm looking at you, Zoot), but this book is perhaps best dipped into while you stand at a bookstore. Maybe instead you could buy something by Tim Bowling, Tom Wayman, or best of all the brilliant and lamented Bronwen Wallace.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

And in related news...

... fully tenured professor Ward Churchill, an extremely important influence on Derrick Jensen, who has of course himself been much discussed lately in these pages, was fired today from his position in Ethnic Studies at Colorado University at Boulder. The charges? Let's hear it stright from CU's press release: "a pattern of serious, repeated and deliberate research misconduct that fell below the minimum stand of professional integrity, involving fabrication, falsification, improper citation and plagiarism."

My professorial self is fascinated with all this, and I've already read the entire 124-page report of the university's investigative committee. They've done a thorough, valuable job of this painful, thankless task. As an example of how real academics approach scholarship, this investigative report is both transparent and astonishingly good!

Churchill, you might recall, described some of those who died in the World Trade Center as "little Eichmanns," meaning that they were part of the US military-industrial complex that was killing innocent Iraqi civilians, especially children, through the sanctions in place up to 2001. That's not what he was charged with or investigated for, because his university declared that the essay including this phrase was a constitutionally protected example of free speech, but it made the committee's job that much more difficult because of the inevitable scrutiny applied to every step of their work.

But this news complicates rather my emotional and intellectual response to Jensen's Endgame II, which response was complex enough even before my recent and ongoing debate with Keith Talent around here. I'm tempted just to say that I'll shut up now, but it's more my style to drop into a flurry of despair, interspersed with good old-fashioned self-doubt.

Nice content for my 100th post, I'd say.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Jensen, Endgame II (cont.)

I needed to reply to a comment by Keith Talent in response to my review of Derrick Jensen's Endgame Vol. II. I was trying to reply in the comments area, but it was taking more space than was in any way reasonable. Hopefully he won't feel attacked by this, since my intention isn't to personalize the debate; I take his remark to be culturally symptomatic, and respond accordingly.

Keith wrote as follows:
Looks like a pretty poor argument to me.

I think [Jensen] needs (among many other things) to persuasively argue for amoralism or moral egoism for the premises to lead to the valid conclusion that he *should* do whatever it takes to get there. It's far from clear why old growth forests are intrinsically a good thing. No doubt he attempts to make his case elsewhere. But I don't think one would need to be a rabid global-warming denier to find the arguments unpersuasive. If the summary of the book is as you present it it looks as if any arguments he does have are predicated on some fairly speculative premises, such as civilisation being unchangeable.
The summary is pretty much as I present it, and it does begin from some specific premises. In fact, both books begin with a set of them, including Premise Six which begins with the words "Civilization is not redeemable." But it's a 900-page two-volume work, so naturally Jensen covers a lot more ground than I've described.

I ran out of space in my comment and had to create a new post because you got me cranky, Keith: How on earth could a person see old growth forests as a bad thing?

Here's one argument thread that hits close to home for me in British Columbia, because of how much I happen to know about the topics: trees in the watersheds of salmon-bearing streams are significantly larger than are trees in non-salmon watersheds, even when you adjust for age, precipitation, temperature, elevation, and so on. Trees tend to be further apart, with a less dense understory that's more easily travelled by larger mammals as well as home to stronger and more diverse populations of birds and small mammals. More scientifically, "[i]sotopic analyses indicate that trees and shrubs near spawning streams derive approximately 22 - 24% of their foliar nitrogen (N) from spawning salmon" (Helfield and Naiman). As well, "At salmon-spawning sites it takes 86 yr for Sitka spruce to reach 50 cm dia ... as opposed to 307 yr at sites without salmon" (Bartz et al).

Why? Based on analysis of tree-core samples, it's clear that this is because the nitrogen from dead salmon is widely distributed throughout the entire watershed by the actions of (primarily) birds and bears.

Put a dam on a river, and the number of salmon able to get upstream and spawn drops precipitately. Or you could fish the population hard in the ocean and as it enters the river (as we do here at the mouth of the Fraser River), and for that reason as well fewer salmon will make it upstream to spawn.

The consequence of a crashed salmon run is that every single upstream watershed changes, dramatically. Without the arrival of several tons of fertilizer every autumn, the plants just can't grow like they used to. Trees stop growing as quickly; the understory changes; populations of mammals, birds, insects, and amphibians decrease and have to find alternative food sources.

In the last 100 years, salmon numbers have dropped catastrophically in BC, and the consequence is that huge volumes of nutrients aren't reaching upstream landbases. The example closest to home for me is the Salmon River, near where my parents live in on Shuswap Lake; it was difficult a century ago to take a boat up-river, so thick were the salmon in spawning season, but only a few hundred salmon return each October now.

The government's response has been to promote fish farming in open-net pens in the ocean, with its attendant hazards of sea lice infestations; dead zones from fecal matter and non-organic food waste; and threat to wild populations based on genetic change and competition due to escaped Atlantic salmon into this Pacific environment.

Let me be clear: habitats hundreds of miles from the ocean are changing because of how we treat salmon, and our response isn't to find some way to increase spawning salmon populations, or to help those upland habitats replace the lost nutrients (through some magical solution without impact on that other place that will have to surrender its nutrients to replace the salmon), but to find other ways to eat more of something similar to the various local species of fish we've driven to the brink of extinction.

So, yeah, I'm comfortable saying that civilization is unlikely to undertake change voluntarily that threatens the privileges of the civilized.

On the other hand, I deeply respect the work of Terry Glavin, who in Waiting for the Macaws argues forcefully that we're decent enough as a species that we always want to change positively and to learn from our mistakes, but I'm having a hard time being optimistic. I just don't see us learning fast enough to be able to do enough to change before it's too late.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Derrick Jensen, Endgame vol. II

I've been guilty in this blog of overstating things. I didn't mean to, I didn't know I had, but I've said or implied that a few of the books I've read over the last while have changed me.

And then I read Derrick Jensen's Endgame, Volume II: Resistance. ("Sounds like the title of a video game," said one friend.) And I realized that at bottom, I've never changed, and neither has anyone else, and we need to.

These two volumes can be relatively easily summarized, even though I've only read the second volume:
This civilization is unsustainable but cannot be changed. No civilization can be sustainable if it relies on the use of non-renewable resources. It is therefore doomed to collapse. It is already collapsing.

If we allow civilization to collapse gradually, those in power will destroy every element of the planet in their attempt to retain their privileges: fish and animals and birds, humans poorer and less powerful than themselves, the trees and the deserts and the mountains.

We can only avoid this total destruction if we take down civilization ourselves, before the momentum of collapse really gets going.

It's time.
And I don't know what to do.

Jensen is a persuasive, engaging writer. He's funny and kind and bright, but the book is crippling. As he says in some of his talks (which you can see on Google Video), none of us really believes that civilization is going to change voluntarily to become sane and sustainable, but we don't talk about this much, because "we're all so busy pretending we have hope." The only answer, he argues, is that all of us need to use our skills to take down global civilization in order to generate the possibility of true local community: destroy dams, knock out power generation systems, or cut oil supply lines; learn the local plants that we can use for food, medicine, clothing, and so on; that sort of thing.

So... how do we keep going?

Jensen spends a lot of energy arguing against pacifism. I'm not going to get into that here, because it's treated thoroughly in other places, but here's the outcome of his analysis:
"I have no interest in spiritual purity. I want to live in a world with wild salmon and old growth forests and oceans full of wild fish and mothers who do not have dioxin in their breast milk, and I will do whatever it takes to get there" (p. 718).
What's wrong with that?

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Book club #2: The Road

The guys who made it to the inaugural book discussion said this time that they were kind of bummed out without Cormac McCarthy, but we soldiered on at Christie's pub* nonetheless.

Generally we liked the book, with a couple of exceptions:
  1. The journalist argued that the lack of punctuation felt like gimmickry. This meant that I didn't have to do it, so I enjoyed defending his position while poking fun at him just like everyone else did.
  2. The marine engineer said he got so depressed reading it that he and his wife finally finished their last wills and testaments.
  3. The teacher was able to read it so quickly he didn't bother stopping to go to the bathroom, which (a) is just flat-out impressive on his part and earned a toast, but (b) was exactly what I was complaining about in saying it's too easy to read.
Some interesting conversations, though. In particular, we spent some time talking about allegory. In this novel, ten years after some sort of apocalypse, nothing lives except stray humans who exist in an almost purely predator-prey relationship with each other. (You hide, or you're eaten. Other humans are the only protein source left on the planet, except for the declining supply of canned food in pillaged supermarkets and secret caches.) No birds, no animals, no plants, no insects, nothing in the oceans or rivers or burned-over forests. Realism dominated our readings, and most of the reviews I've seen, but a couple of guys wanted to talk about allegory instead.

Maybe this is just how separate from nature we've become, how distant from each other's emotions and lives. This may be the logical extension of current civilization, in a realist sense, but it's also a symbolic portrait of isolation: paranoia against other humans, ignorance of the nonhuman world. Ash everywhere, including clogging the man's lungs and killing him: realistically from the apocalypse, allegorically a sign of our consumption of everything around us.

But the counter-argument was that this is just a way of avoiding the bleakness of McCarthy's novel. The Road presents the end of the line for this planet. As best the characters can see, nothing lives but humans, and precious few of them. In the end, some years after the book's last page, the last human may die a couple of days after gnawing the cartilage from the second-last human's bones. If we are able to read this vision realistically, rather than like something from speculative or science fiction, then it's no wonder we cast about for allegory as an escape.

On the positive side, I finally drank something by Crannog Breweries, "Canada's only certified organic farmhouse microbrewery." It's based in Sorrento, BC, not far from the ol' hometown ("old," you pretentious twit-ed.). I had no idea that Christie's is the only place in Victoria you can get it, but I've now finally experienced the Back Hand of God (a stout, naturally). Crannog Breweries is fully integrated into the farm, with water coming from an on-site well, many ingredients being produced on the farm, and all by-products going to feed the pigs and chickens. It's an amazing place that I've been hearing about for a few years, and I'm hoping to visit next month.

Next time we do nonfiction: Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

*If you followed that link, do tell whether you were as puzzled as I was by the abundance of photos and the lack of useful information.

July 21 - garage sale

Three bucks got me an ancient hand-powered drill, with warm wood handles, plus a similarly aged coping saw, and the following books:
  • Mary John & Bridget Moran, Stoney Creek Woman: The Story of Mary John -- how do I not already own this?!?, plus
  • C.S. Lewis, six volumes of the Chronicles of Narnia, in the Penguin boxed edition I so coveted as a kid, only missing Voyage of the Dawn Treader -- maybe I'll find religion, who knows.

July 21 - Beacon Books

For $18, Derrick Jensen's A Language Older Than Words, with the following inscription:
To Raffi,
With gratitude and admiration for your voice, your singing, and especially your heart.
In the spirit of remembering that which we already know,
Derrick Jensen
Occupied Miwok Homeland
Raffi?!? Really?!?

Friday, July 20, 2007

Human, exactly human

I walked the dog this afternoon, on Mount Doug: parked at the bottom, walked the paths up, saw the lateness of the hour, ran the paths down. And for that hour I was wildly human, so much that my heart hurt.

Near the mountain-top the wind came up, and the maples drenched me with reserved rain that had fallen earlier in the day. At the bottom, Oregon grapes were ripe in sunny patches, oozing deliciously tart juices, not far from wild blackberries that no one but me ever seems to notice, much less eat. At the summit the grapes are still two weeks from ripeness, and the blackberries have for some reason failed to fruit. In the cedar grove I ate a whole handful of huckleberries, plucking them as I stood high on a mossy stump cut before the fire that went through the park many, many years ago, and at the parking lot the last slightly dried thimble-berries.

I've been reading Derrick Jensen, scaring myself with nonfiction dreams of apocalypse, but you know, on Mount Doug today I felt like I could do without civilization after all. I had to rush down the mountain to pick up a pizza, mind you, but oh, oh, those huckleberries....

Friday, July 13, 2007

July 13 - Sorenson Books

First time at Sorenson's, and it was a treat. Very good place, with carefully selected used books of good quality, though I cunningly got away with only three of them:
  • Barbara Kingsolver, Small Wonder ($10.50) -- rumoured to be a gorgeous little essay collection, and it's helped literature/environment folks find a better way to grasp her fiction, so I'm really looking forward to it;
  • W.B. Schofield, Some Mosses of British Columbia ($0.50) -- adding to my wee collection of BC Provincial Museum nature handbooks; and
  • David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day ($8.00) -- I already know these essays are funny funny funny!

ClustrMaps and visitors

I love my ClustrMap - not because I need the number validation to feel whole, because I'm under no illusions about the traffic to this blog, but because I'm constantly amazed by the locations of visitors.

In particular, welcome to those of you who seem to be stopping by from Iqaluit!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Jonathan Harr, A Civil Action

In keeping with my recent theme of clearing up leftover must-reads from the 1990s, I finally got to Jonathan Harr's 1996 A Civil Action, which the sticker on the cover proclaims was a #1 National Bestseller as well as the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction. The book doesn't mention the star-studded 1998 movie of the same name based on the book, but it's worth mentioning here, I'd say.

So three difficult-to-justify factors make this an unlikely book choice for me: big sales (Harr doesn't need money or support from me), critical praise (see previous thin justification), and a movie (ditto, plus the possibility of co-option, and by John Travolta, no less - though William H. Macy's good...). On the other hand, I teach nonfiction sometimes now, so I'm trying to read more of it, and this is after all a story of environmental justice denied, so for those reasons it made it into the "sooner than later" pile.

No question, this is a powerful story. Apparently the original draft MS was 1500 pages long, crammed with detail that went toward evoking every aspect of this compelling legal case, so it's an editorial triumph for Robert Loomis at Random House that he managed to get it down to under 500 pages. It's a real page-turner, and I mean that as a compliment. You get carried away by the force of lawyer Jan Schlictmann's passion for it all, so the pages pass rapidly, and when things start to go wrong, and the story slows with fewer actual events and an absence of real progress, you feel every page turned like a finger poked against your forehead: when the action stops, but the pages have to keep being turned, you share the weight felt by Schlictmann and his partners.

I'm glad I read it, and I'd recommend it to anyone interested in crime stories, justice, or environmental issues. It's a fairly quick read, and it gives some terrifically clear insight into how the legal process works for complex environmental cases: clear enough that I'm ready to start Derrick Jensen's Endgame Volume II: Resistance, which seems to go so far as to explain how many pounds of explosive might be needed to take out different kinds of dams.

Pevere & Dymond, Mondo Canuck

I've been browsing for a few weeks through Mondo Canuck: A Canadian Pop Culture Odyssey, because it's overwhelming all at once, like a dictionary is: 53 essays on topics as diverse as Stompin' Tom Connors, Porky's, made-in-Canada game shows, and "Canadian beefcake." Since the book came out in 1996, of course, there are some badly dated references (Gino Vannelli - beefcake of the highest order), and the "but of course you already know this" tone hasn't aged well.

But the book itself reads well still, particularly some of its background assumptions about why Canada is how it is, and why Canadians are how we are. As a Vancouver Islander, I begrudge somewhat the repeated remarks about Canada always being so damned cold you won't willingly leave your rec room, but the insight applies extremely well to Canada east of the Fraser Valley:
the suburban voice is shaped by the shared experience of countless hours of unsupervised TV viewing between school's end and the summoning for supper: it's a voice that's intelligent but rarely angry or political, and invariably informed by the various fantasy writers, TV shows and records that filled the hours between casseroles and butter tarts. (p. 186, from the section on Rush)
Something to think about in relation to Richard Harris' book Creeping Conformity, on the development of Canadian suburbs to 1960.

It's not a consistently insightful book, and for me it's vastly inferior to Douglas Coupland's series of dictionary-style collections of "essays" (City of Glass, Souvenir of Canada, Souvenir of Canada 2, and most of all the powerful, buy-it-for-everyone-you-know Terry), but in a way I don't see Coupland doing his books without this one. In any case, apart from standing as the inspiration of Coupland's wonderful volumes, Mondo Canuck will remain a record of 90s Canadian self-perspective, and that's a good kind of success for a book to accomplish.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

July 11 - Bolen's

Only one: Derrick Jensen's Endgame Volume II: Resistance, which for $23.50 gives me ways and means and reasons to change the world. Damn The Man.

By the way, and if you don't know who he is, Derrick Jensen rocks. Intensely.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Eric Sloane, A Reverence for Wood

Cults roam the world. We know this. We fear them, with their rites and their implements and their inscrutable commitment to causes dark and wild.

And then there are cults like the one around Eric Sloane: many Sloane fans are elderly, many wear suspenders and ball caps, and they quietly see The Way Forward in and from his detailed, sketch-illustrated books about bygone America.

I'm trying not to become a Sloanie myself, if I might coin a phrase, not just because celebratory Americana unnerves me (though it does), or because I'm cautious of movements generally (though I am), but because he's an Easterner through and through. Among American oldtimers, I want to throw my lot in with Wallace Stegner instead, and with his thoughtful passion for the West. I might as well say it, though: Eric Sloane's popular history is deeply compelling for someone like me.

A Reverence for Wood, first published in 1965, was Sloane's twenty-first of his thirty-eight solo-authored books. Many of them are popular works on early American history, especially on rural, agricultural, or labouring topics. This one focuses on -- anyone? anyone? yes, you in the back? correct -- wood. An organizing theme is an ancient variety of apple called the "Seek-No-Further," but Sloane is at pains primarily to articulate the depth and complexity of the early American connection with wood.

This "historical novel," as Sloane calls it, moves back one century at a time from 1965 to 1665. As a result, the first chapter is about a man dismantling a collapsing barn one nail at a time so he can re-use the wood. He's working with a very knowledgeable older local fellow: they figure out that some of the planks, for example, were cut as floorboards in the early 1700s, based on nail holes and saw marks. We learn about the history of nail production, from hammered to punched, square to round, as well as about the various cracks or "checks" that wood gets as it dries. Subsequent chapters on earlier centuries explain topics as diverse as:
  • the evolution of the andiron;
  • why stone fences zigzag through dense New England forests;
  • how to make charcoal;
  • how to make bentwood boxes; and
  • how to pick and store apples, including how and why to individually hang high-quality eating apples from their stems.
I tell you, it'd be like listening to my grandfather, if he really knew the things that, as a kid, I romantically thought he knew. It's about the East, though, about a mode of settlement that's foreign to British Columbia, as it is of all Canada west of Ontario (and, as Stegner insists, to just about the entire American West as well). This is a world without much relevance to my own, except for the passion and the sense of embodied memory.

Such a delight, this book! From now on I'm going to look out for some of Sloane's other ones when I'm in bookstores: maybe Our Vanishing Landscape, An Age of Barns, or A Museum of Early American Tools....

Monday, July 09, 2007

Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air

Yep, I've leapt into the late 90s: I can cross off my reading list Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster. (Man climbs well and likes it; man becomes journalist; man cadges way onto Everest expedition; most other members of the expedition die on a single horrifying day when he manages the summit.)

I'll resist the temptation to make fun of the no doubt publisher-enforced subtitle, because the book's content is after all searing and the writing is after all powerful, but ... "the Mt. Everest Disaster"? There's only been one? As Krakauer says in a late chapter, this allegedly disastrous year had 12 deaths among the 398 climbers who went higher than base camp, which is slightly lower than the average death rate of 3.3% (p. 357).

This review is a decade too late, but this book deserves most of the good press it got. I was so hooked by it, by the characters and the struggle and the details details details. As a kid I read and loved sports novels (Chip Hilton: Clutch Hitter -- no, I'm not kidding), and that has certainly coloured my reading habits. Krakauer's version of nonfiction reaches back to those books, for me, linking sports-page statmania with the psychological and philosophic meaning of the physical world. I'm not going to go all Buddhist, or materialist for that matter, but here are a few words from Scott Russell Sanders about contemporary fiction:
No matter how urban our experience, no matter how oblivious we may be toward nature, we are nonetheless animals, two-legged sacks of meat and blood and bone dependent on the whole living planet for our survival. ("Speaking a Word for Nature," in Glotfelty & Fromm's Ecocriticism Reader, p 194)
Russell is in no way talking about Krakauer or this book, but his words line up pretty well, I'd say, with the experience Krakauer writes of (conjures up?). These characters, especially those who barely survive, echo and call up a whole tradition of suffering and penitence, of awareness and sensitivity, that enrich considerably what would otherwise be a straightforward tale of life and death in the mountains.

There's a terrific chapter about blame, about why he survived when others died. He takes the blame for some deaths, lets others blame him (even quoting substantial portions of letters from family members of those who died and blame him for their deaths), and assigns some responsibility to others. It's naked, gripping stuff, and it exemplifies why this book exceeds plain old adventure writing.

(Mind you, is there such a thing as "plain old adventure writing"? Genres are illusions anyway, but it's rare that a nonfiction book is published without some reach toward the meaning beyond the materialities we walk through daily.)

It's no Banner in the Sky, mind you, but then there was only one James Ramsay Ullman....

Friday, July 06, 2007

July 6 - department book quarry

Members of the department regularly leave unwanted books on the benches outside the main office. Most months, the quarry is composed of slightly outdated composition or literature textbooks. Come summertime, though, you get folks wanting to tidy their shelves, so they get rid of those volumes they always meant to get to but have given up on. Alternatively, the sentimental value evaporates from older volumes, or the shelves get too damned full -- or the person is retiring and having to cram an office full of books into a full house.

Not a large haul, but interesting and free:
  • Dai Qing (ed. Patricia Adams & John Thibodeau), Yangtze! Yangtze! Debate over the Three Gorges Project -- this book was both published and banned in China in 1989, and while only 25,000 copies of the original remain at large in China, it was credited with a five-year delay in beginning this massive project. More in a subsequent post, because I'd like to read it sooner than later;
  • ed. Margaret Barber & Grainne Ryder, Damming the Three Gorges: What Dam Builders Don't Want You To Know -- an internationally authored 1990 companion text to the previous item in this list;
  • ed. Edward M. White, The Writer's Control of Tone: Readings, with Analysis, for Thinking and Writing About Personal Experience -- dated but interesting composition handbook from the year of my birth; and
  • ed. Derk Wynand, Introductions from an Island, 1976 -- a slim chapbook of writing by contemporary UVic creative writing students, including W.P. Kinsella, Theresa Kishkan, and Doug Beardsley.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

McCarthy 2, and Myers' A Reader's Manifesto

Some time ago, I read B.R. Myers' cranky A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose, in which he excoriated notable and praised practitioners of select styles of American fiction. There's been a fair bit of conflict about Myers' slim volume, so beware my opinion unless you research it yourself, but Myers makes more sense than he should: as Gerald Howard, executive editor at Doubleday, put it, the book is "sort of smart but definitely annoying." I completely agreed with Myers about Annie Proulx, the one author I'd read of his targets, but for some reason it doesn't affect my pleasure in her work.

I sense that this somehow marks me as a failure.

Anyway, Myers deals in one chapter with Cormac McCarthy. Myers was writing before The Road, but the objections hold nonetheless: "McCarthy relies more on barrages of hit-and-miss verbiage than on careful use of just the right words.... [I]t's really just bad poetry reformatted to exploit the lenient standards of modern prose" (47).

There's one regular stylistic detail in McCarthy that galled me, I have to say, because I flinch at my own writing when I see it, and that's the construction "like [phrase] some [adjective + noun]." The phrase is optional, but here are some examples:
  • page 3, "Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world"
  • page 3, "Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast"
  • page 10, "like some old world thespian"
  • page 24, "They were discalced to a man like pilgrims of some common order for all their shoes were long since stolen."
Oddly, I didn't have to look up that word "discalced" -- not because I'm a word and trivia freak, though I kind of am, but because Diane Schoemperlen used it in precisely this context in Our Lady of the Lost and Found.

And don't forget the lack of commas: "In that long ago somewhere very near this place he'd watched a falcon fall down the long blue wall of the mountain and break with the keel of its breastbone the midmost from a flight of cranes and take it to the river below all gangly and wrecked and trailing its loose and blowzy plumage in the still autumn air" (20). Too good for punctuation, I guess.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Yes, our men's book club chose for its second book the current Oprah's Book Club choice. If you haven't kept track, though, you should know that Oprah's gone hardcore: Steinbeck's East of Eden, three separate Faulkners, Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, some difficult stuff. Admittedly she's also chosen Sidney Poitier's biography Measure of a Man (which, let's face it, would be a just plain crazy choice for a book club), but McCarthy's books have always been rough and blooded and old-school manly. Hardcore as well, I figured.

But I bought this book today, and I'm already done. Comfortably. Is this the easiest read to win a Pulitzer ever, or what?!?

The gist is clear: Life on earth has been destroyed, though it's taking a few years to finish dying out. Nothing grows in the world: no birds fly, no animals or fish or even insects remain. There are only people, trekking the ash-filled world in search of tinned food, fresh water, and people to eat. A man and his son wander like everyone else, but they've drawn some lines of decency: no eating people, no theft from the living, only self-defense. The man can't figure out why to keep living, since the world is dying out, but he can't see a reason to give up either. God isn't his answer, but he does tell his son to keep "carrying the fire." How else to respond to apocalypse?

Since there are hundreds of reviews of The Road in papers and blogs, I'm going to make a few points and let it go:
  • what makes McCarthy think he's too good for standard punctuation marks? I kept having to reread dialogue to figure out who was the one saying nothing but "Okay" in this particular exchange
  • some images are going to stick with me: the spitted and roasting newborn mentioned in every review, obviously, but also the apparition of the gray sea under gray clouds of ash, the decay of abandoned houses, and so on
  • the tone is devastatingly appropriate. Devastatingly appropriate
  • how the hell else is a decent person to respond to apocalypse and the inevitability of imminent planetary death?
But I don't know about the Pulitzer. The Road is the most McCarthy-ish novel imaginable, so since he's already been praised for this kind of thing, it's reasonable that he gets bigger praise for doing his standard schtick more intensely. But for those who read apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic "genre fiction," this won't sing -- it's easily read genre fiction for people who think they're too good for genre fiction, but it isn't great genre fiction. I grudgingly admit that I guess it's better "literary fiction," but it should still take me longer than two hours to read three hundred pages of it.

July 3 - Russell Books

A quick zip into Russell Books, post-haircut, for the next book club book, Cormac McCarthy's The Road for $16.99. How on earth did I manage to escape without a dozen more, you ask? Easy: no time, no time.

Kids' authors: Tove Jansson rules

The other week, Fiona was complaining about Dr. Seuss -- not that Seuss-ish books aren't dandies, but she's tired of them. Plus the neutered nudity, and the inexplicable feet, the limited real vocabulary and the vast fake vocabulary, and so on. "More better words!" was roughly the war cry that led her to Bill Peet and William Steig.

I suggested at the time that she pick up Lynley Dodd, but I have a better idea yet, the best of all possible ideas: Tove Jansson, whose stories about Moomin sustained me for years when I was a lad but whose online presence is shockingly faint.

Any more high-end suggestions out there?