Saturday, May 30, 2009

Sid Marty, Black Grizzly etc

A short note, for a few reasons. First, I'm badly sleep-deprived due to conference organization duties, and second, I don't have the nice things that I would to say about Sid Marty's Governor-General's Award-nominated Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek.

Terry Glavin's a favourite writer of mine, and he loved this book (on his blog, in Canadian Geographic, and as a GG judge this year). I tend to think of GG-nominated books as worthy, even when I don't find their subject congenial, but this one ... the subject is distinctly congenial, but I just didn't enjoy the writing here at all.

To me it veers between imaginative creative nonfiction, with reasonable justification for imagining the thought processes of a couple of bears, and fairly clumsy (and overly long-form) journalism. I mean, the cumbersome references to interview dates got old quickly, and the shifts between perspectives and modes were never smooth. Great subject, and I know Marty spent a lot of time on this book, but I don't see much sign of artistry as such. His earlier book Leaning on the Wind remains close to my heart, though, so maybe part of my reaction comes from being just a little resentful that he didn't give me what he did there.

But I don't think that's the whole story. For whatever reason, Marty kept three stories distinct (the attacks, his reaction to them, and his subsequent research 20 years later), and there's no obvious signal for what that reason might be.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Harold Rhenisch, Winging Home

I really like Harold Rhenisch's writing, I do - but after Tom Thomson's Shack, Winging Home is the second of his books from which I've come away seriously baffled.

The project is a wonderful one. He sets about to pay careful attention to how his vision has to shift from how it developed during his upbringing and adult life in the southern Okanagan (Keremeos, Cawston, etc.), if he's ever going to learn how to make sense of his new surroundings in the Cariboo (108 Mile Ranch, 150 Mile House, etc.). Colours don't make sense to him anymore, with the different qualities of light and snow and humidity and so on. In his careful attention to how colours shift in the world he's looking at, he finds himself spending a huge amount of time watching birds, and so the book really is A Palette of Birds, as the subtitle has it, because it's through birds both that he comes to understand his vision of the world, and that you're meant to understand both this new vision.

The thing is, he relies enormously in this book on metaphor -- and to me, some of them overwhelm what he's trying to achieve. It's an audacious project, in the best sense of the word, but I don't know that his audacity pays off.

In one paragraph, for example, describing some crows waiting for leftovers after some eagles finish with the carcass of a winter-killed muskrat, he compares the crows to "the subalterns always milling around in the background of German military photographs from the Second World War--tall, thin, relaxed, chatting, maps in hand, their uniforms buttoned up tightly around their necks"; as well as to "waiters and Maitre d' circling a table at a five-star restaurant"; and also to "the Nez Perce with their Appaloosa ponies and their war paint coming down out of Union Gap after John Wayne" (p.89).

In another, he reports that the snow "looked like a lacy pattern of icing sugar on a chocolate torte in a fancy bakery shaded by plane trees in Baden Baden" (p.74).

I take the point, I think, which I believe is that our ways of seeing the world are inexorably bound by culture, but -- and certainly part of this is my fatigue presently -- I'm not sure whether it's a lesson I needed to be sustained across this many pages. I loved parts of this book, such as the intimacy of his closing address to his wife, and I smiled regularity at the, yes, audacity of it all, and there was never a time when I remotely considered NOT finishing the book, but on the whole, I dunno. Maybe with some more pondering I'll get a better sense of what I actually thought of it!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Des Kennedy, An Ecology of Enchantment

Just the ticket, is what this book was for me a couple of weeks ago, when I needed some calming.

Des Kennedy is an author I've had a hard time getting into. His west coast novel, The Garden Club and the Kumquat Campaign, is about subjects that really should make it my cup of tea, but the title (along with the cover summary) put me off badly. The half-rhyme jokey reference to Clayoquot Sound had an unreasonably large effect on me, augmented by the advertised eccentricity of the book's Gulf Islands characters, and with more books in the world than time in my life, it never made it to my reading list (thought it has been sitting quietly on my shelves). To my ears, it sounded like the sort of thing likely to be thought funny by a boomer who's been on the Gulf Islands too long and is basically writing to/for his friends, one of whom happens to have an influence with a publishing house.

I enjoyed flipping through his gardening book Living Things We Love to Hate, though, so I became a little more kindly disposed toward Kennedy. When I saw the title of his newest book, though, I knew I had to give Kennedy a try. Now that I've read An Ecology of Enchantment: A Year in a Country Garden, I'm moving The Kumquat Campaign onto my reading list for summer.

In An Ecology of Enchantment, Kennedy manages to write from a position of knowledge without shutting out those of us without nearly so much knowledge. It's broken into 52 sections, one for each week of the gardening year, and the great majority of them are pensive and descriptive and genuinely evocative. There's a really nice attention to sensory detail - perhaps to sensuous detail, maybe even sensual - that's set off nicely by the regular hints at domestic discord between gardeners, or bits of self-deprecating humour at the state of a shed or the loss of a glove. Great sense of balance, though I would happily have read only the descriptive stuff.

It strikes me that there may have been an excellent editor at HarperCollins helping with this book: not that Des Kennedy's not capable of writing well, because clearly he is, but the writing has a very assured quality somehow, and the book is so much stronger than Living Things We Love to Hate (albeit for a different audience and a different purpose) that it feels to me that he worked with someone capable of drawing the very best out of him.

And if Kennedy can write better than this, well, I got me another writer for the personal pantheon.

The title, by the way, turns out not to be all that helpful. An Ecology of Enchantment sounds terrific, and I do see some possible connections to David Abram's similarly alliterative The Spell of the Sensuous, but it's a gardening book. For a book about ecology and enchantment, you'll have to go somewhere else, maybe to Matthew Dickerson (whose book Narnia and the Fields of Arbol: The Environmental Vision of CS Lewis I'm reading now, and whose book on Tolkien I've loaned to a student).

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

May 25 - Value Village

I'm a couple of reviews behind, what with the giant conference bearing down train-like on me, but I did get downtown for a wee shopping trip yesterday. I was surprised to discover Value Village having a 50% sale on everything, so while I was only there for a couple of shirts (why pay retail?), I found a few books as well:
  • George S. Allen & John N. Owens, The Life History of Douglas-Fir ($2.99 - printed by the federal Forestry Service)
  • Eduardo Duran & Bonnie Duran, Native American Postcolonial Psychology ($3.99 - how does a book like this end up at Value Village, anyway?)
  • Alan Thein Durning, This Place on Earth: Home and the Practice of Permanence ($3.99 - a topic that makes me say, comfortedly, "Aaaahhhh...")
  • Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth ($4.99)
  • Mark Hume (with Harvey Thommasen), River of the Angry Moon: Seasons on the Bella Coola ($4.99)
  • Joseph E. & Anne D. Forester, Silver Fox Odyssey: The History of the Canadian Silver Fox Industry ($2.99 - wicked cool, in an appalling sort of way)
  • Kirkpatrick Sale, The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy ($4.99)
  • Joanna Streetly, Paddling Through Time: A Kayaking Journey Through Clayoquot Sound ($3.99 - my second copy, drat it all)
  • Sheila Watson, The Double Hook (free, like every fifth book at the Village, and at least my second copy!)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

It's a classic, Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac, and it's been a talisman for a few generations of environmental types now. Ah, sweet, sweet was the day I recall as my first encounter with this book, recognizing in another's perspectives a fundamental harmony with my own - what? Oh, sorry. Nostalgia does funny things, and I'm always interested to see how the return to a classic works, especially when you remember it fondly.

My response is somewhat mixed, though, as it was in my late teens when I first stumbled across it. For one thing, the blurb on the reverse of the Ballantine edition - still making money after all these years, no doubt with the same typos still uncorrected - is a masterpiece of hyperbole and misrepresentation, and it suggests a profound disconnection between the book itself and at least part of its reception history. For another, it's a collection of disparate pieces, not all of them left in immaculate form by Aldo Leopold, and not all of them edited to the same standard by his son Luna Leopold. As a casual reader on my first readerly visit to Leopold's Wisconsin, I saw only that there was repetition and even some inconsistency (in his discussion of the words "land" and "country," for example); it wasn't until I learned a bit more about its publication history that I made a lasting peace with what I now take to be the book's editing inconsistencies rather than the author's lack of clarity.

It's a wonderful read, this book, and some of its passages meant that Leopold legitimately earned his place on the core environmentalist bookshelf. A Sand County Almanac feels somewhat dated to me, though, in a way that Walden doesn't, in Leopold's evocation of hunting and farming lifestyles, but nothing wrong with that: it's where nostalgia comes from, and nostalgia can be - though isn't necessarily - a force for positive change.

But that blurb needs to be stripped from the Ballantine edition, an edition which really should be updated if Ballantine is to justify charging now more than twice what they did for the EXACT SAME PAGES a decade ago, three times what they did two decades ago. This long period of profitable but unhelpful passivity on Ballantine's part is the main reason that I'm teaching from the Oxford edition in the fall, some aspects of which unhelpfulness are exemplified by the blurb:
A series of astonishing portraits of the natural world, A Sand County Almanac explores the breathtaking diversity of the unspoiled American landscape at the peak of its beauty and majesty.
Amateurish, that's I call that blurb. There was nothing "unspoiled" about the landscape Leopold was addressing, and what made the 30s or so the "peak" of America's landscape beauty? And really, it's just plain cruel for one to be astonished as well to have one's breath taken away.

In Leopold's defense, I really do mean that this book is a wonderful read, and I'm excited by the chance to teach it. The natural description is very clear, the philosophy engaging, and the sense of history palpable.

One of these times, though, I should actually review a book rather than report on my response to it....