Friday, October 26, 2007

October 26 - UVic bookstore

Marianna Torgovnick, ed., Eloquent Obsessions: Writing Cultural Criticism -- a collection of essays mostly by (self-identified) "younger scholars" ($12.49, on the half-price table).

While their subjects are interesting in themselves (Gerald Graff on "Academic Writing and the Uses of Bad Publicity"; Jane Collins & Catherine Lutz in "Becoming America's Lens on the World" on the cultural role of National Geographic), the essays are intended as models of how one might go about the practice of cultural criticism, and since that can be done ham-fistedly, I look forward to seeing it done well.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

October 25 - Munro's

I rarely get to downtown Victoria, but Munro's Books will always be one of my very favourite bookstores. Their selection is almost always very good, especially for readers of literary fiction and interesting nonfiction, but their remainder tables are exceptional. I carried half a dozen books around with me, but in the end I left with only two, each for $5.99:
  • Mark Obmascik, The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession (in the US there's an annual yearlong birding marathon, and in 1998 Obmascik tracked three of the more obsessive competitors as they covered - UNBELIEVABLY - 275,000 miles), and
  • Robert Sullivan, Rats: Observations on the History and Habitats of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants (he spent a year of nights on a camp stool in an alley off Wall Street, watching rats; he also researched them extensively, but I wanted it for the ethnographic elements).
People are strange, bless 'em.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

October 22 - Bolen's

Two books subsidized by a birthday gift certificate:
  • Thomas King, The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative ($18.95 - I've been craving this one for a while), and
  • Nancy Turner, The Earth's Blanket: Traditional Teachings for Sustainable Living ($24.95 - she's the preeminent ethnobotanist for British Columbia, reaching south into what Americans call the Pacific Northwest; I expect great things of this book, which is much more academic - i.e. more densely footnoted - than the subtitle suggests).

Monday, October 22, 2007

Derrick Jensen in Victoria, cont.

A few choice lines from Derrick Jensen's talk at the University of Victoria on October 20, 2007, most of them verbatim and the rest close to it:
  • "On the ferry over this afternoon, I was looking all around, thinking how beautiful these islands must have been before this culture arrived, and how beautiful they'll be again once it's gone."
  • "We're all so busy pretending we have hope."
  • "I don't see myself as depressed or depressing. We're fucked. But life is really, really good. We're fucked, but life is really, really good."
  • "Is the world more diverse, more resilient, because you were born? If not, the world would be a better place if you had never been born. That's not a comment about you personally. It's a fact."
  • "The job of an activist is not to be morally pure. The job of an activist is to confront and take down an oppressive culture."
  • "One reason we don't defend the places we live is that we don't really live there: we live with Brad and Angelina and the Boston Red Sox and all the rest."
  • "In a way I am privileged to live in Germany in 1938, and to have a gift as a writer, because I don't have to pull any punches. I intend to go down swinging."
All very inspiring, lots of laughter and lots of applause throughout. I've heard that Jensen's Q&A sessions can get heated; he said last night, for example, that whenever he speaks in New York City, only 25 people come, and except for his agent, they all hate his guts. This, though, was warm and convivial, perhaps because the sponsors here were the Victoria Anarchist Reading Circle, the Camas Collective Bookshop, and Wild Earth, rather than the university itself.

Actually it's not true to call it entirely convivial. The first question in the Q&A described the talk as "mental masturbation," on the grounds that it didn't turn us into a united movement with a distinct mission. Jensen said something like, "First of all, fuck you. I try to be civil in my Q&A sessions, but if you call me a chronic masturbator, all bets are off."

It came around that the guy felt he was speaking for others in the audience, but no one was willing to admit it, and Jensen wound up answering thoroughly and compassionately anyway. Basically the response was, "I don't know your gifts. I'm here to help people wake up to the need to act, and I'm trying to model the process for figuring out what you can do. But I don't know what you'd be best suited for. The good thing about living in a time of crisis is that there are lots of options available for you." Lots of applause.

Probably the most important part of the evening for me was around Jensen's assertion that personal choice is more or less irrelevant. The cumulative impact of individuals is far less than the total industrial impact, so if you have to drive, drive; if you can't have a garden, don't. The caveat is all, though: IF you're otherwise making the world, and the local landbase, more flexible, resilient, and stable.

It wasn't the right room in which to ask about guilt, but it hangs over me constantly. I mean very well. I do little but talk, however, and occasionally write. I'm learning more about local botany and foraging, and that's one of the things Jensen is keen on (since urban dwellers will represent the majority of deaths after a crash, since they don't understand their local food sources), but that's not good enough. I know it isn't, but I don't see other options for me without changing my life more drastically than I'm capable of.

Hmm. Turns out I need to process a little more before I can write sensibly about this lecture....

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Derrick Jensen - October 20, Victoria BC

Derrick Jensen was in town last night, rocking the David Lam Auditorium at the University of Victoria. It's fitting, I think, that this room's normal use is for 300-student classes of Psychology 100.

More than 200 people came out to see Jensen, probably more than 250. Most of them looked a little less like an off-duty cop than I did, but that's OK. For the first time I saw someone with a mohawk consisting not of spikes, but of dreads; visually, I was considerably more out of place than he was. I can answer in the affirmative my friend's question as to whether there was an aroma of patchouli and armpit, but I repeat what I said in that earlier conversation: I'll put up with a lot in order to hear someone trying to speak the truth.

The Esquimalt singers and dancers, though, who took the first thirty or so minutes to present four songs, do not qualify as something to be put up with. The commitment and engagement of August Wilson, his three children, and his grand-nephew were inspiring. I am grateful for the opportunity to teach on Coast Salish lands, which is where this university is located.

I'll post more than once about this lecture, in part because I'm home and my notes are at the office, but let's start with this: after the songs were done, I was disappointed for the next half-hour. In the end I'm confident that this should be blamed on me rather than on Derrick Jensen, but it affected my response.

I was disappointed not by Jensen's message, but because I thought I'd already downloaded this talk from Google Video. Nowick Gray* suggests in his review of yesterday's lecture that Jensen speaks off the cuff, but having watched Jensen on film before, I disagree. It comes off that way, sure, and the effect might be authentic, but Jensen repeats seemingly off-the-cuff remarks word for word, in lectures months apart. His prose has a ruthless intensity to it, though joy and humour are present as well; his lecture schtick pushes the ruthlessness of focus off to the side, but that's strategic. He has a terrific sense of audience -- really a terrific sense of audience, and you don't get that from his prose because his books are going out to the converted, and those readers can handle barely mediated intensity.

But eventually I realized he was hitting some different points, even if he was mostly reading sections from different books and essays he's written. Besides, who am I to require a speaker to come up with something new every single time? And even more importantly, why should he change something that he's spent so much effort to research? (I think he gets a few details wrong in his research, mind you, but it'd be nit-picking to emphasize them, and flat-out wrong to write off his project on that basis.)

It all starts from this: (1) An economy based on non-renewable resources is by definition unsustainable. (2) An economy based on the hyperexploitation of renewable resources is by definition unsustainable. (3) An economy based on the word and concept "resources," rather than particular names, is unsustainable, and this culture's depending on the distancing word "resources" dooms us.

Once you accept these premises, and really the third is the only one that seems debatable, the rest follows logically. There are skirmishes along the way, significant enough that I certainly don't think every consequence needs to be accepted, and I'm no closer to facing the overwhelmingness of it all than I was on first reading Endgame vol 2 this summer, but still. If our unsustainable economy gets close enough to exhausting those things on which it depends, there's going to be a crash. What the crash will look like is open to debate, but Jensen thinks it'll be ugly enough that we'd be better served forcing a crash sooner rather than later, so the powerful won't exhaust absolutely everything and enslave the rest of us in an attempt to prolong their lifestyle of dominance. There are lots of similarly dark visions out there (though some are funny as well).

The multi-part question Jensen asks really is a simple one.

If you think the culture is doomed, which means a crash will come, how are you participating in preparations for the crash? If you are preparing for a crash, how are your actions aimed at community rather than individual survival? If you think the culture is doomed, and you think a slow crash will be worse than a sudden one, what are you doing to speed up the crash?

Two hours to elaborate on these questions, establish premises, swap stories, but really once you accept the concept of crash, what's left is to think about to do next. As he's framed it himself, "What do you love? What are your gifts? And what is the largest, most pressing problem you can help to solve, using the gifts that are unique to you in all the universe? What does your landbase need to survive? Are you going to do it?"

I cannot yet answer these questions. I keep asking them of myself, though, so I'm happy to report that the self-loathing remains under at least some control.

Jensen said this was a top-five audience for him, because we laughed knowingly at the right places. He interrupted himself to tell us this after we applauded (not just laughed at) a joke that he said rarely works: 15 years ago, when despair in his environmental activist work had him crying constantly and facing a breakdown, a friend said, "Take some time, recover, the problems will still be there when you come back." While some members of other audiences laugh, apparently West Coasters (American or Canadian) are the only people who think this is hilarious.

More on another day, when I'm in the same place as my lecture notes.
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* Nowick Gray has posted a thoughtful and more detailed review of Jensen's Victoria lecture here, but I'll try to outdo him tomorrow. I recognized his picture on the site as that of a fellow attendee, a couple of rows back, and I'm sure I've seen him at other lectures and events over the last few years.

Richard B. Wright, Clara Callan

I'm OK with the success of Richard B. Wright's Clara Callan: winning both the Governor-General's Award and the Giller Prize in 2001, with more than 200,000 copies sold in Canada. But I'm much more than OK with the idea that the reasons behind its success explain why this novel bored me out of my mind.

Wright's a very good writer. These are believable characters, in a detail-rich and realistic setting (small-town Ontario plus New York City, in the mid-1930s), and they're thoughtful in interesting ways. But it's so, so not for me: I kept imagining Ontario-based fiction prize judges checking off all the boxes for highbrow CanLit: Ontario setting, preferably small-town; leftish politics, preferably including non-threatening Communism; at least one character a schoolteacher; historical significance, but also non-threatening (Spanish Civil War, prelude to WW2, references in the afterword to McCarthyism); alcohol; rape; infidelity. "Check - I smell awards!"

Wright's a very good novelist. But this is a nonessential novel for me, so much so that I kept thinking I'd read bits of this novel before. Looming behind it, for example, is the far superior (but darker) Ann-Marie Macdonald's Fall On Your Knees, and I'm kind of grumpy that I had to spend a few days reading this: I might have quit on it, not because I disliked it (as was the case with Orhan Pamuk's Snow), but because it seemed so ... unnecessary.

I bet the mook club uses this as a chance to articulate more clearly what we want to read, so we don't end up with this sort of thing again. None of us had any idea what it was about; we only knew the title and the awards, so we're going to want to choose books we know something about.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Derrick Jensen, again

OK, I went and bought me a ticket to see Derrick Jensen. (I picked it up at a swell joint called the Camas Collective Books and Infoshop, which even has a farmer's market on Saturdays.) I managed not to buy an armload of books, but I'm not going to be that lucky every time.

More importantly, this ticket has made it more important that I try to figure out what it is about Jensen that alternately engages me and puts me off. I'm fine with his passion, and I share his concern about the future, but there's something that -- not to bother nuancing my way through -- really annoys me about his writing.

It's not the hyper-confidence, because I'm used to that from Brian Fawcett (whose Virtual Clearcut is on my shortlist of essential reading, and who I think is always worth reading, except maybe Gender Wars, but that's another issue). It's not the connections he draws between his personal life and larger issues, or I'd never read any nonfiction at all.

I think -- though I'm still working this out -- that I don't buy the insanity argument. And this matters a great deal, because he starts from the premise that humanity as a species is insane. In one formulation early in A Language Older Than Words, he talks about monkeys raised in laboratories by scientists working to figure out just how mad they can be driven by (among other things) complete isolation, random violence, and frequent electrical shocks. Not unpredictably, these monkeys are then completely incapable of caring for infant monkeys. So far, so horrible.

But Jensen takes one more step, and it's here that I don't walk with him. He argues that the horrifying statistics about child physical and sexual abuse among humans indicates that humanity as a species is no more sane, and no more capable of being healed, than is an individual monkey tortured from birth onward. I don't buy the totalizing impulse of this; it's sylllogistic, a failed analogy.

The damnable thing is that because this is Jensen's underpinning, I'm having a hard time pursuing his ideas about strategy, response, activism, and so on. Statues made of matchsticks crumble into one another, etc. 

And I wish the best of luck to the BC Teachers for Peace and Global Education, who are hosting Derrick Jensen this Friday in Surrey as their keynote speaker. They may not have noticed how supportive he is of direct action, and how confrontational he can be with those who promote peace rather than resistance....

Monday, October 15, 2007

Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman

Simon Winchester, if he'd lived 150 years ago, would certainly have been a minor character in his charming history The Professor and the Madman: not because he'd have been either of the titular characters, but because he'd have participated eagerly in the project that linked these two men, W.C. Minor and James Murray. He doesn't say as much, but it's clear from every page of this work, subtitled A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, that he'd have been right in there with the hundreds of amateur lexicographers who collected all those illustrative quotations that make the OED such an inconceivably useful reference.

In other words, Winchester is a writer, not an academic, and more power to him. He's a terrific writer, and his scholarship is very good (I hear, though I'm no expert on the OED or Victorian England), so he follows in the same tradition that allowed the OED to come into existence.

The story:

The young, sensitive, Ceylon-born American doctor W.C. Minor begins to lose his mind while a surgeon in US Civil War. Booted out of the army, moves to London. His mind continues to go -- he believes he's abducted nightly and forced to perform lewd acts with lewd women, and worse, often by men who live under the floorboards in his room. One night in 1872 he runs from his room after an abductor seen in his room (who his landlady said couldn't have accessed the house) and shoots a passerby. Not guilty by reason of insanity, confined to a British asylum until 1910, when he's shipped to America for continued hospitalization until his death in 1920, after 48 years of confinement.

Scottish quasi-savant and autodidact James Murray wanders happily through Elysian fields of scholarship but is eventually tapped, in 1878, to be the first editor of what would become the Oxford English Dictionary (which a committee of the Philological Association had been trying to bring to life since 1857, after a suggestion by Richard Chernevix Trench). Murray sends into the world a request to all readers that they help find illustrative quotations from all periods of the language, showing how a word has evolved.

The OED takes vastly longer to complete than anyone expected, and turns out to be vastly larger than expected as well: two years to complete became forty-four; a hundred thousand slips submitted by readers became six million; 414,825 words defined, with 1,827,306 illustrative quotations, printed by hand with metal type totalling 178 miles in length.

Minor, in Broadmoor Asylum, becomes perhaps the greatest unpaid friend of the OED, submitting many thousands of citations from his growing and impressive private library (the neighbouring cell at Broadmoor), always for the volume just in press at the time.

Through the book runs the narrative of Dr. Minor's gradual and half-century-long descent into what Winchester tentatively diagnoses as paranoid schizophrenia. The ... crowning moment is likely his cutting off his own penis, in 1902, after successfully taking adequate precautions against infection and inordinate blood loss, but it is all through a sad and engaging tale of a man who lost himself. On the other hand, the book isn't just about Minor; it's also a more or less gripping yarn about lexicography, about the greatest dictionary-making effort in the planet's history.

It needs to be said, too, that Winchester dedicates the book to George Merrett, the man killed by Minor. Merrett was a poor labouring man, with a wife and several small children; Londoners contributed significantly to a charity for them, Minor's stepmother gave each of the children a hefty payment on reaching majority, and Minor himself apologized to Eliza Merrett, the man's wife. For some months, indeed, she visited him regularly at the asylum, bringing packages from the London booksellers who kept him supplied.

God bless us, every one.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

October 14 - two stops

First off, a garage sale not far from home had a really nice selection of local books. They were asking a lot for the good ones, but I asked if I might talk to them another day if some of them were left over. I took only:
  • Gilean Douglas, Silence Is My Homeland: Life on Teal River ($1.50) and
  • British Columbia Official Centennial Record: 1858-1958, A Century to Celebrate ($2.50)
I was belatedly introduced to Gilean Douglas only this summer, by a professor visiting from Masaryk University in Brno, in the Czech Republic. I've had my eye out for Douglas ever since, so I'm pleased to make her acquaintance.

Later, at Tanner's in Sidney, I picked up Terry Glavin's A Death Feast in Dimlahamid ($16), which has been expanded since its first edition to discuss the Delgamuukw decision. He's a hell of a writer, and I'm pleased to add this one to my Glavin collection.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Derrick Jensen

Some weeks ago we had some tussles over Derrick Jensen, who's an environmental activist, writer, and serious crank. He's speaking in my town next weekend, and I'm considering getting tickets. Any thoughts?

A sample of his prose:
If those in power really aren't reachable, and if the majority of people probably never will act to defend their--and our--landbases and bodies, and if the culture is in fact enacting a death urge that will lead to planetary annihilation unless it is stopped, and if you care about your body, your landbase, what are you going to do? What are the right actions to take?
We need to bring down civilization now. We need not hesitate any longer. The planet is collapsing before our eyes, and we do nothing. We hold our little protests, we make our little signs, we write our little letters and our big books, and the world burns.
Should be interesting, at least. Should I give him twelve bucks?

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels

I first read Gulliver's Travels when I was about eight years old, in a thin little abridged version for children. I don't have that copy anymore, and I've read the real thing three or four times since, so I've gotten over how fully the satire was sanitized.

But you know, going through it again this week reminds me how much FUN it was to really do eighteenth-century studies! I miss it, I really do. The shit-throwing Yahoos, the profligate sexuality against which Lemuel Gulliver really doth protest too much (like the Brobdingnagian maiden who strips him naked and has him straddle her bare nipple), the experiments at the academy of Lagado on Balnibarbi (all of which are derived from actual experiments of the time, even the attempt to derive sunshine from cucumbers, to store it in jars against cloudy days): they don't write them like this anymore.

Or maybe they do - what the hell do I know about the wider field of contemporary literature?

I'm happy teaching general lit and comp courses, but I'll have to see what I can do about reclaiming expertise of some kind or another....

October 12 - subTEXT

Two with First Nations connections:
  • Gregory Scofield, I Knew Two Metis Women ($12: a quasi-biography of Scofield's mother and aunt, in the guise of many separate poems)
  • Dara Culhane Speck, An Error in Judgement: The Politics of Medical Care in an Indian/White Community ($10: from 1987, about the 1979 death by appendicitis of a young First Nations girl in Alert Bay, BC)
Culhane Speck's book looks like it'll be deeply compelling. When young Renee Smith died, the community found a way to investigate the medical system, from a local perspective but also reaching out to the provincial and federal governments. Between January 1977 and January 1979, Alert Bay had an average of 600 white residents and 1200 First Nations residents; during this same period, there was one white death and forty-four First Nations deaths. In hospital, Renee Smith asked one provoking question that set off the investigation: why do only Indians die? I'm looking forward to this book.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

M. Wylie Blanchet, The Curve of Time

If you haven't read Blanchet's The Curve of Time, you haven't earned the right to live on the British Columbia coast. You just haven't. You're not alone in not having earned it, even among those millions who do, but really -- change your ways.

First published in Britain in 1961, then in 1968 in Sidney, BC, by tiny Gray's Publishing, The Curve of Time has been on or near the bestseller list in the province ever since. I haven't been able to figure out how many copies have sold, but ... lots. I grew up with the understanding that there were two books necessary on any British Columbian's shelf: Robert Service's collected works, and The Curve of Time. This wasn't meant to indicate literary merit, clearly, just that it's foundational material for understanding this particular place.

I'm the one insisting on its literary merit, not my parents.

It's told as a more or less single narrative, but it draws on a decade or more of summer trips between Vancouver Island and the mainland, on the little boat the Caprice. Blanchet had five small children and was left single after the disappearance of her husband in 1927, not long after the last was born. There is no mention of the husband, no mention of love interests at all: this is no more and no less than a story of a woman and her children, travelling together through love and risk in pursuit of huckleberries and trout and warm places to swim.

The title is a reference to Maurice Maeterlinck's book The Fourth Dimension, which was on board the boat for one year and talked about time as the fourth dimension, since it allows us a different kind of perspective on the three physical dimensions. Blanchet begins the book with this reference and reaches back to it a few times, but hers is a gentle rather than a showy literariness. It explains her decision to tell stories out of order, to have events seem to follow each other even though the children suddenly get rather older, or much younger.

And the events really are lovely. We would now view her treatment of the First Nations villages as disrespectful, certainly, and the family's surreptitious entries into padlocked longhouses would justifiably be grounds for criminal charges now. Still, she approaches the world, including First Nations individuals and groups, as well as the white individuals she meets, with a sense of wonder and warmth that makes this book a long-time fellow traveller in my sense of self.

I'm always so pleased to make this book's acquaintance again; this was the first full read in 10 years, maybe longer, but I've dipped into it regularly since then. It's probably the one book I've read more than any other, with the possible exception of (embarrassingly) the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Are you ready to earn the right to live here, whether or not you already do?

October 9 - UVic Bookstore

Only one book, but a gem, I think:
  • Chuck Zerby, The Devil's Details: A History of Footnotes ($9.50)
At least one footnote on almost every page, and it looks like serious fun. One of Zerby's heroes is Pierre Bayle, whose nine pages on Virgil in The Dictionary, Historical and Critical, include 44 lines of text, 1,144 footnotes, and 109 margin notes. No, those aren't typos -- and this Bayle character is my kind of guy!

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Fred Bodsworth, Last of the Curlews

It regularly happens that a pretense at knowledge or expertise is brutally exposed. This is generally something that pleases me, even when it's my own pretense, and that's certainly the case this time. I'd heard dimly of Fred Bodsworth, but not about his short novel Last of the Curlews, and that's a shame. It's worth reading, especially but not exclusively by people with environmentalist leanings.

In the middle years of the 19th century, there were countless millions of Eskimo curlews, so many that it's estimated that two million birds were killed every year. Among the most accomplished fliers, they migrated annually from Alaska across the Arctic tundra to Labrador, from there to Argentina (flying straight across the Atlantic, unable to stop since they weren't seabirds), and finally working south to Patagonia. They would then fly north over the Andes and through the Great Plains, covering a few hundred miles in a day, several thousand miles twice every year. As far as Bodsworth knew, the last pair of Eskimo curlews were seen in 1945.*

It's difficult for me to be objective about a story like this one, given the content and my politics, but I do think the writing itself is worth paying attention to. The story is told in alternating chapters, between faked articles summarized from a journal called The Gantlet on the one hand, and on the other third-person omniscient narration that manages to get believably into the bird's brain with very little anthropomorphism. The journal gives all the necessary context, while the chapters drive the narrative forward. And the narrative does drive forward, even though the conclusion is obvious, given (a) the title of the book and (b) the history of the species.

The effort at avoiding anthropomorphism is notable, and so is the generation of legitimate tension in the chronicle of a death foretold -- of an extinction foretold. Last of the Curlews is only 107 pages long in my old-school New Canadian Library edition (that misspells the author's name on the back cover, charmingly), so there was little chance my interest would fade, but it was tough to keep putting this down. I did keep putting it down, because of the marking that keeps piling up, but I kept picking it up whenever I could.

I hope you'll pick it up as well.

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* Bodsworth's book was published in 1954, at which time the species was believed to be extinct. A pair was subsequently photographed in 1962 at Galveston, Texas, a specimen was collected (shot! actually shot!) in 1963, and there have been a few unconfirmed sightings since then. Still, there hasn't been a confirmed sighting in 44 years, and there were enough of them a century ago that two million of them could be killed in a season. Close enough for me, even without the chilling remark on the Texas Birds Records Committee website documenting the 1962 Galveston photos: "These images may represent the entire photographic record of this species in the wild." (And even those photos are occasionally questioned.)