Friday, March 28, 2008

I love Theresa Kishkan

It's happened to me only rarely, that I've forced myself to ration out the reading in a book, so much pleasure am I getting from time in its company. The short stories in Alistair MacLeod's Island were one such case, where I wouldn't read more than one story a day after I'd made it three stories in. Tim Bowling's The Witness Ghost was another, this one volume of verse so vastly more potent in my eyes than his earlier books.

And Theresa Kishkan's Phantom Limb is the newest in this very small list. Grounded as well as lyrical, materialist as well as philosophic, these essays are just knock-me-down beautiful. I'll do a review when I'm done them all, but it may be a while. I can't bear to put this book down, finished, as soon as I might if I read straight through.

Phantom Limb was nominated for the Hubert Evans BC Nonfiction Book Prize this year, and I'll be jiggered if it doesn't win. Admittedly, Robert Bringhurst has always been a critical favourite, Don Gayton's gardening memoir is sure to be terrific (though I haven't yet picked it up), and the juggernaut of The 100-Mile Diet is both seriously well written and broadly influential. But only one of the nominees is a book that for years I'll think of giving to those close to my heart to share something of what I think it means to be alive, and that's Phantom Limb.

I'm SO buying more of her work.

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Belatedly, most belatedly, I've now read Richard Dawkins' atheist manual The God Delusion. Good stuff, I suppose - good info, surely, but not a book I took much pleasure in.

I'm an atheist already, though as I've explained occasionally, I'm haunted by what I assume to be the ineffable delight in believing oneself cared for by One Responsible For All. There's something sweet in that vision, like a doted-upon childhood, and there's even something bracing in the idea of being held to account for one's actions and thoughts. These things do not make me believe, nor do they (in Dawkins' phrase) make me believe in belief. They function to let me cut the godful some slack, because I understand their desire though I consider their faith to be misguided.

I'm an atheist already, and I don't know what I was meant to get from this book. I guess it'd be useful as a debating manual, reference material if I wanted to be out converting the religious. But for me, here in Canada, belief itself isn't the enemy it might well be in the America described by Dawkins, where (for example) the American executive branch arms Israel with the specific intent that Israel be powerful enough to act its part in the biblically prophesied Armageddon (or Second Coming, I can't be bothered to check which), without wondering especially about questions of justice or long-term relations of sectarian, political, or other natures. If you're going to do good works -- socially, politically, culturally, or environmentally -- then welcome to the team. Wear any jersey that fits. As long as you don't kick your teammates in the shins, you're welcome here.

Of course I recognize that Dawkins and the more passionate of his followers would rather deal with root as well as branch of this one troublesome tree, and that I'm more worried about branches from overlapping trees in this orchard. My fight isn't his, and that's fine. I just wish his book had been more readable - even though I delighted in the final chapter, and even though we had a most congenial and philosophic discussion about it last night at book club.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

March 20 - UVic Bookstore

Well, I went back. This time I failed to leave Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation behind, but at 75% off $19 (= $4.75), who cares? Really I'm more pleased though with Dick and Syd Cannings' Mountains and Northern Forests, the first stand-alone volume expanded out of a section of their terrific British Columbia: A Natural History. Again 75% off, this time from $19.95 (=$4.99).

For pete's sake, if you're in Victoria, hit this sale. Really.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Green warfare in Iraq?

I thought this was a fascinating story about the ecological impact of the war in Iraq, including some ways to reduce that impact through innovative approaches. Go, Army!

In The Know: How Can We Make The War In Iraq More Eco-Friendly?

(Sorry about the ad before the news clip. Also, hee hee.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

ClustrMaps redux

I like my ClustrMaps info. I don't get all that many visitors, so if I was motivated by reputational impact, it wouldn't be vanity driving me so much as it would be self-flagellation.

But no - I just like seeing where people are from. And you know, it's so interesting to me that someone from the Azores stopped by! Very few have visited from Africa, Russia, or South America, but the European nations have done well, and there's a sprinkling throughout Southeast Asia.

Wherever you're from, welcome. And have a good day.


Terry Glavin put me onto this - it deserves every viewer possible. Happy St. Paddy's Day, lads and lasses:

Monday, March 17, 2008

March 17 - UVic Bookstore

It's a joyous time in the UVic Bookstore, with pretty good "clearing-out" sales on clothing and apparel and so on, but it's especially important to know that there's 20% off books other than textbooks, and 70% off selected textbooks. Plus their membership card gets you an additional 10% off regular prices, or 5% off sale prices.

I managed to leave behind Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulations, as well as Geoffrey Scott's compendious Canada's Vegetation: A World Perspective, but only to pick up these ones:
  • Theresa Kishkan, Phantom Limb: Essays ($15.95 less 30%, and it looks gorgeous - methinks I'll teach this volume in the fall), and
  • Derek Wall, Babylon and Beyond: The Economics of Anti-Capitalist, Anti-Globalist, and Radical Green Movements ($37.25 less 75%, and it looks more readable than its subtitle might suggest...).

Saturday, March 15, 2008

March 14 - Bolen's

For the book club I picked up Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion ($18.95), which I expect to appreciate but which I can't really see a reason to read. I mean, I'm already an atheist, so stop yelling at me, man :-)

And a special note. We buy a lot of kids' books around here, but far too many are in the Franklin, Little Bear, and Dora series. I buy others occasionally, to enforce breadth of experience, dammit, breadth of experience, but they don't turn up here. I must, however, plug today's purchase of Paul Owen Lewis' gem Frog Girl. it does a pretty good job (though not perfect) of introducing Northwest Coast myths and cultural practices. There's some pastiche of styles ("hey, isn't that guy wearing a Tlingit hat with a Haida blanket?"), and the story is more overtly moralistic than it really needs to be - but it's children's lit, after all. Gorgeous art, heart in the right place.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Yes, please

Why yes, yes you CAN buy me this shirt for any upcoming occasion: thanks so much.

(Available for purchase at Ironic Sans.)

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

March 4 - UVic Bookstore

One useful-looking book, one of whose authors will be working at UVic starting this summer, rumour has it, as a Canada Research Chair in First Nations studies -- Indigenizing the Academy: Transforming Scholarship and Empowering Communities, ed. Devon Abbott Mihesuah and Angela Cavender Wilson ($24.95 - 30%).

Monday, March 03, 2008

Richard Preston, The Wild Trees

Dude. You have so gotta read this book. I mean - dude!

I'm distrustful of my appreciation for this book, Richard Preston's creative nonfiction novel The Wild Trees. The characters are skilfully drawn; the dramatic moments are punched and tangy; the environmental cred of its heroes is difficult to argue. But somehow, it feels to me like a book destined to be a bestseller, taking an easy route through a difficult subject.

Charismatic megafauna: the term was coined to refer to the emphasis on glamorous species rather than keystone species (whales rather than plankton, or pandas rather than ... whatever wee important thing lives near pandas, I don't know). It's a mildly useful shorthand critique of certain environmental discourses, because it suggests a lack of depth in the discourse itself, rather like greenwashing.

I say this because redwoods, in Preston's handling of them, are charismatic megaflora. The largest living things on the planet, with the possible exception of subterranean mycelium complexes, the tallest redwood reaches almost 380 feet, while the biggest is 30 feet across at chest height. The people involved want to talk about lichen varieties, including some which grow only on the oldest known redwood tree and therefore might be linked to particular evolutionary cycles; they admire the huckleberry groves that grow three hundred feet above the ground, and the ability of redwoods to sprout roots from their tops to cannibalize their own water-holding rot; they remark upon bonsai trees of other species that grow atop these giants; they celebrate the sense of scale that the giants bring to their small human lives.

But really, there's a lot of gnarly climbing in this book, dude (intentionally ignorant phrasing, I hope?-ed.), and that's powerfully at odds with the environmental message Preston wants to convey on behalf of his subject trees and people. It's a fun and easy read, which are good things, but it's hard to pay full enough attention to the environmental commentary with the climbing bravado and the mythologizing of discoverers.

Mario Vaden has a very good page, with photo albums, on the Grove of Titans, and I strongly encourage you to go there. I'd place some of his photos here, but they're copyrighted, and without a fair use comment on his page, I'm not going to lift them. I will, however, refer you to YouTube, which includes a short video about the climbing of the very tallest redwood tree. Read the book, by all means, but frankly I'd rather see you donate the $16 ($19 in Canada) to a green organization.

David R. Boyd, ed., Northern Wild

David Boyd lives near here, on Saltspring Island I think, but I haven't met him. After reading the collection of essays he edited as Northern Wild: Best Contemporary Canadian Nature Writing, though, I'd kind of like to meet him, because mostly he appreciates the same kinds of things I do in Canadian writing about nature. Mind you, Robert Wiersema, whose reviews I generally trust, was quite harsh on this volume seven years ago in Quill & Quire, but I think it's because Rob expected or wanted something from the book that Boyd was just never going to give him.

In part it's a question of definition. That phrase "nature writing" is more loaded than it seems, because it carries within it the full heritage of Thoreau and hints of American Romanticism, plus Jack London and even (in Canada) Robert Service. Something that describes itself as "nature writing" should never be understood as "writing about nature." Rob comments that "the collection becomes bland, with a monotonous reverential quality," which he connects to the volume's failure to address darker elements of nature in deference to a generalized state of wonder. He's right about the consistently reverential quality, but not about its blandness or that its consistence is really monotony.

Because it's nature writing, mostly. The pieces he singles out for praise push against that phrase, rather than fitting neatly within it. Nature writing isn't my bag either, so my tastes actually run toward some of the same pieces Wiersema favoured in this review, but I also liked some of the more lyrical writing that's fairly conventional nature writing.

Highlights for me (apart from the obvious choices of Sharon Butala and Terry Glavin) were Beth Powning's "Home" and Kevin Van Tighem's "Recognition." Powning in particular is a writer I need to spend more time with; I don't know her work at all, but I'm prepared to be dazzled.

Robert Bringhurst, Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music

Robert Bringhurst is an iconic figure whose importance is such that his peripheral place in the Canadian literary landscape means that the landscape is being viewed wrong. Come on, how can a celebrated typographer who also writes poetry not be seriously cool?

And yet, blasphemously, I liked only bits of Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music, his 1986 collection that had Robin Skelton raving that Bringhurst might be the one poet "who can reclaim the dignity, wit, brilliance, and wisdom it has recently appeared to have mislaid." And they weren't even the bits I was supposed to like. The Buddhist poem series "Book of Silences," for example, which should have been the most important section of this volume, felt simultaneously weighty and empty; I've remarked before on my unease with what feels to me like an escapist use of Buddhism to avoid the burden of Western heritage, and this is another example of that. If I took it more seriously presumably I'd find more in it to take seriously, but the tautological character of this chance at connection is exactly what I find both unnerving and annoying about Western uses of Buddhism.

The bits I liked were remarks in the prose setting for what I took to be the intended poetical jewel: "belief ... is merely dead thought, severed from thinking," stood out for me (p.10), and I imagine it'll resonate for my atheist reader. A longer valuable passage occurs as he describes his relation to Western culture, and to Canadian culture more specifically: "I have tried to pack up into my poems all it contained that looked worth stealing, and to resituate that wealth, that salvageable wisdom, in someplace spiritually distinct: some other dimension of the physical space I inhabit, and which the maze of governments, real-estate agencies and development corporations supposes it owns" (p.102). Recognizing the likely failure of this task, he notes that "there is nothing else to do, for there is nowhere else to go. Home is where the stones have not stopped breathing and where the light still lives" (p.103).

But the poetry left me cold, mostly. I did like the "Lyell Island Variations," but frankly, not enough to place them against the flashes I found in the prose.