Friday, August 31, 2007

Barbara Kingsolver, Small Wonder

I ask you, who the hell shouldn't read Small Wonder?

At her best, and in this collection of essays she's many times at her very best, Barbara Kingsolver writes with an almost unmatched lucidity and warmth. There are gems of essays here on a variety of subjects, like local food; mothers and daughters; 9/11 and patriotism; and the business of editing.

As with other books that've already found large audiences, I don't need to say much about Small Wonder, but I kind of want to anyway. Here are some capsules:
  • the pair of essays "Letter to a Daughter at Thirteen" and "Letter to a Mother" rise high above the stereotypical, even though (because?) they're so firmly anchored in the predictable in women's lives -- I almost forgot I had a beard while reading these two
  • Kingsolver navigates 9/11 with remarkable sensitivity, especially in one wise essay written almost immediately after the events, so much so that Chomsky's 9/11 is going to stay on my shelf for a while yet
  • I wish I ate from her garden, pantry, and oven. Her comment on the relative costs of organic food and Costco, a retort I've already been using myself: "Cancer is expensive, too" (125)
  • God bless Nikolai Vavilov
  • The wonderful American poet Lucille Clifton apparently once explained that she mostly wrote short poems (20 lines or so) because that's all she could remember all day until she could sit down at night with a pen. Bless us parents, and listen to Clifton read her "Homage to my Hips."
I could read these essays all day. I actually finished the book a week ago, but I left this post until I had time to flip back through them again. As it happens, they were better when I stormed through them -- the isolated lines don't flash at you with as much effect as there is in the larger draughts you get from paragraphs and pages and whole essays.

Read this book, and buy it for the sensitive you know who don't read much. Once they start Small Wonder, they'll get why you can't stop reading.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

August 23 - Hornby Island free store

Bless 'em, the hardcore islanders who set up the free store and recycling centre, as well as the cheerful tourists who keep using it so keenly. And more to the point today, bless those who threw out and/or donated the following:
  • David Arnason, The Circus Performers' Bar ("a hilarious, compassionate look at male neo-consciousness taking shape in the western world," according to the rear cover, but I'm not sure what that means, and it's been a long time since this book's 1984 publication...)
  • George Berkeley, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (in which Berkeley forcefully answers in the negative as to whether a tree falling in the forest with no one to listen makes any noise)
  • Theodora E. Colborn et al., Great Lakes, Great Legacy? (a joint publication of the US group The Conservation Foundation and from Canada the Institute for Research on Public Policy: 1990, but probably still urgent)
  • Joan MacLeod,  2000 (Canadian drama, a genre about which I'm mostly and ashamedly ignorant, about "the notion of the wild invading the city and the city invading the wild," with a very nice first scene)
  • North & Thomas, The Rise of the Western World: A New Economic History (have I not mentioned what a geek I am?)
  • Philip Sykes, Sellout: The Giveaway of Canada's Energy Resources (1973, so it's very badly dated, but I've got others on similar topics from the same period, so I'll happily add it to my very dustiest shelf).
As well as Jamie Dopp's The Birdhouse, Or, which I gave to my brother-in-law as some Very Readable Contemporary Poetry. I already have my own copy of this excellent book, and I recommend that you get your own.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Annie Proulx, Accordion Crimes

I don't disagree with the opinion of B.R. Myers, who has appeared before in these pages, that Annie Proulx's writing can be a mess. The unmanageably long sentences, the similar verbal prolixity on the part of characters separated by miles and years and nationalities and backgrounds, there are all kinds of things about her prose that ... can irritate one.

But as Joseph Williams and Ira Nadel say in Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace (one of my favourite composition texts, though it's more than that), we describe and think of prose in terms of its effect on us, not purely in relation to its formal characteristics. Bad prose doesn't necessarily doom a novel (no matter what we teachers tell our students about their own prose). Proulx's Shipping News remains one of my favourite recalled reads, though I haven't gone back to test my recollections. I'm confident that it includes many of the things that irritated me about Accordion Crimes, but that doesn't and didn't matter to me.

Because in her earlier novel, there were characters who gripped me. Quoyle and his daughter Bunny; Wavey and her son Herry; minor characters like Nutbeem and Billy Pretty, all of them became and remained familiar and compelling, very quickly. There was a focused story that needed to be resolved, with a narrative logic that we could quickly recognize and connect to.

Accordion Crimes doesn't give us characters to distract us from the clanking prose or the ramshackle plotting. Or rather, it gives us a plenitude of characters, a surfeit of them, a cornucopia - indeed, too many. And it gives us not a story, a plot, a narrative, but a bouquet of stories, a clutch of plots, a ... oh, to hell with it.

I wanted to like this story, organized as it was around the fate of a handmade Italian accordion that was meant to be a man's calling card on arriving in America, the testament that he deserved to work creating such instruments. Instead the man lives brutally and dies horribly, after which it falls from hand to hand of people who also live and/or die horrifyingly. There's the girl whose arms are sliced off by scrap sheet metal that flew off a truck driving by her farm; the boy (who doesn't die) who's beaten so savagely by his father for participating in fraud with a religious healer that his vertebrae pop through his skin; there's rape and murder, predictably. The great weakness for me, though, was the tiring, numbing sequence of peculiar characters described in terms of physical oddity. There was no sign of the sensitivity to human lives that marked The Shipping News, because there were too many characters for there to be any time for sensitivity, and no sign of the evocative prose, because it was hosed onto every surface it might stick to.

Which was odd, because these lives and deaths were horrible. I wanted to feel with and for these characters, but I didn't, because there were too many. I want to impute to Proulx the vision that would mean she did this on purpose (big dark world, can't care too much or it eats you alive, but look closely at the darkness my child, etc.), but that's where the prose style trips me up.

I just didn't buy it. Bottom line: Annie Proulx's Accordion Crimes felt to me like an oversized final project for a third-year creative-writing class at a middling university. So there.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Malcolm Gladwell, Blink

A young black man, new to America, stands on his front steps in New York City. It's hot, midnight in summer, so he's come out for some air. His door clicked locked behind him when he came out a few minutes ago, but not to worry - he has his keys.

A car pulls up. Four men jump out. All white. All with guns drawn. One shouts something at him. The man stares for a second, jumps back into the vestibule to open his door. The four white men run at him; the door won't open; he pulls out his wallet, holds it out so they won't attack him to get it. Gunfire.

Seven seconds after these four undercover NYPD officers stopped their unmarked car to see if this young black man was a robber who'd been operating in the neighborhood, Amadou Diallo is dead, shot forty-one times.

Malcolm Gladwell uses the Diallo case as a reference point in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking for how people function in emergency situations. There are several other reference points for different aspects of "thin-slicing," all of them compelling, but apart from Diallo the most interesting is Paul Van Riper. In 2002, Van Riper defeated the entire US Armed Forces in a Persian Gulf war-games exercise -- playing the role of a rogue dictator who, among other things, empowered his troops to operate more like guerrillas. (Read the book for more detail on THAT little gem!)

Blink is a great read, and it works really well as an extended essay of the type he writes so well for the New Yorker, but I didn't expect something observational: with a subtitle like this one,  I expected something programmatic, absolute, maybe even helpful. The Afterword written for this edition (along with the Book Club section - oh, help, we're predictable!) moves that direction, because Gladwell found himself getting bombarded with questions along the lines of "So what do we do now that we know this stuff?"

The gist is that with complex decisions, we're generally better off if we trust our unconscious; with simple decisions, we're better off if we analyze the options. If we don't trust our unconscious, we're paralyzed like the US military against Paul Van Riper. But if we don't find a way to train our unconscious properly, though, we end up screwing up like the NYPD officers who shot Diallo so many time so quickly before actually engaging with him.

Which isn't a small conclusion, and I can see all kinds of ways to use it for The Forces of Good, but I liked the chattiness of this book. Gladwell does conversational really, really well. The subtitle of this book, to me, is a very bad sign, because when I first saw this book in a bookstore, my own thin-slicing radar beeped a neon "Self-Help Book! Flee!" And I read enough that my book-cover radar is pretty good, so I hope Gladwell retains enough control over his own publishing to do the books he's most equipped for -- and to make his books look like what they are, rather than like something that might traditionally sell better.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

August 12 - Value Village

For $3.99 each, at my favourite scavenging site:
  • Charlie Connelly, Attention All Shipping: A Journey Round the Shipping Forecast (which looks like a really fun nonfiction book, even though it's about a purely British phenomena, namely the BBC "shipping forecast," that I'd never heard of until today)
  • Amanda Hale, Sounding the Blood (set in 1915 at a whaling station in the Queen Charlotte Islands, plus she lives on Hornby Island, a place I visit regularly)
  • Barry Kennedy, Through the Deadfall (a novel about a project to link Vancouver Island to the mainland by bridge and tunnel)
  • Marina Lewycka, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (one of the great novel titles of the past few years, and the jacket claims it's "a charming comedy of eros")
And no, no, I haven't had time to go looking for green blogs to read....

Wednesday, August 08, 2007


My links section on Things Green licks. Just not good enough. More depth and variety, I think, is what I want: the ones listed now are decent representative samples, but the only one of them I can't do without is the nerd-friendly, hardcore local Niches, from the vicinity of Athens, Georgia. There are others that I've enjoyed, but my enjoyment of green sites isn't as consistent as it is with book blogs. (And as some of you may have noticed, I keep dropping and adding book sites, too!)

The recent debate on these pages about Derrick Jensen has kept this in the front of my mind, but it's been brought to life by my renewed lust for foraging, wild berries, heritage vegetables, heritage fruits, etc. Next month we start getting home delivery of local vegetables, too! Not entirely organic, but frankly I'd rather go local non-organic than non-local organic. Mostly. I'd have to run the numbers on each item to feel really safe, but there aren't enough hours for the obsessions I've already made room and allowances for.

What was I saying? Ah yes.

I'm going to do some serious browsing over the next few days, once I finish (a) marking tech writing reports, (b) marking philosophy exams, (c) commenting on practicum report outlines, and (d) golfing on Thursday. (Am I a bad person for enjoying (b) more than the others on this list?!?)

Any suggestions? Hardcore damn-the-man activism, soft green consumerism, writings about specific locations, deep thoughts from pretty places -- really, anything goes at this point!

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Fiction slogging

I'm doing my best, but Annie Proulx's Accordion Crimes isn't going well. I enjoyed and respected her Shipping News, B.R. Myers' A Reader's Manifesto be damned, especially but not exclusively for the complicated and believable evolution of Quoyle (who had nothing in common with the ... well, let's just say the well-intentioned Kevin Spacey). Accordion Crimes isn't doing much for me.

It's like The Red Violin in print and superimposed on the history of immigration to and racial tension in America, but I'm only guessing: I'm not couth (spellcheck?-ed. stet, damn you, stet!-auth.) enough to have seen The Red Violin. Some colourful characters in a historically accurate time and place, with an accordion as part of the plot, and then someone dies: chapter break!

There are several good novels here, but the one these pieces find themselves in doesn't live up to any one of the phantoms they're drawn from. (I'm glad that someone out there agrees with me, I see!)

On the other hand, Malcolm Gladwell's Blink is going swimmingly. I picked it off the table this morning to scan it, since I borrowed it from a friend yesterday, and suddenly I'm in the fourth chapter and unable to resist sharing anecdotes with everyone I meet. A real treat.

Oddly, though, another blogger out there read these books at the same time two years ago. Plus ca change.