Saturday, June 27, 2009

Patricia Klindienst, The Earth Knows My Name

The title to this book doesn't work for me, not at all, but the subtitle sold me on it in the ASLE publisher's exhibit, from the table run by Beacon Press -- Patricia Klindienst's The Earth Knows My Name: Food, Culture, and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic Americans. The title feels mushy to me, but there's something precise and attractive about the elements of that subtitle.

I bought this book at the same time as I picked up Nancy Gift's A Weed By Any Other Name, also from Beacon, which so far remains on my shelf. I'm guessing Gift's book won't last the summer unread, though, based partly on its subject (embracing clover and the dandelion, rejecting the swathe of grass) and partly on the very high quality of Klindienst's non-academic but seriously reputable book for the same press.

The basic approach here is straightforward. Klindienst gives us eight chapters, each of which deals with one garden or with a few connected gardens, in pursuit of assorted questions around soil health and cultural community. Not all of them work equally well for me, but there are some gems. Individual lines jump out, as with the German man quoted as telling one of our gardeners, "If you cannot see where your food comes from, you are doomed to live in ugliness" (p.84). Individual scenes stand out, as with the tree fruit in the Punjabi garden in Fullerton, California. The details of this book are exceptional, and I would delightedly have read another half-dozen chapters.

The message is a bit foggy, though, as the title made me fear. These people dedicate their lives to the soil, and as a result most of them have intense connections to and within their local communities, so intense that I don't see any way for some of them to have connections to a broader community. Others have very little connection even to their local communities, so while they're showing tremendous allegiance to the earth (the Earth?), their human connections seem more strongly based in nostalgia than in anything else. And what of those of us without the available hours? How do we connect?

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Wild Coast

It turns out that Kim Stanley Robinson has a schtick, an MO, a standard procedure: his novels end at a convenient mid-point, rather than at the end of the action or the thinking. I felt that with Icehenge, and I definitely felt it with The Wild Coast. Whereas the former novel occurs on Mars and Pluto (among other non-Terran sites), this one occurs on Earth, specifically in northern California. Whereas the former deals with the outcome of humanity's mostly successful overcoming of nationalisms, the latter is consumed by their failure.

In other words, lots of differences, but I was still annoyed with where he decided to quit writing. It's an aesthetic decision, certainly, and the implication is of course that we've got work to do before the world becomes A Better Place, but still. Finish the damned story, man.

On the other hand, I really like how he so effectively buries very large issues. In Icehenge, humans live several hundred years now. In The Wild Coast, the US has been bombed almost out of existence. These points matter a great deal, but he doesn't bother explaining either one in much detail. We just have to figure it out, and I can respect that -- it shows some respect for the audience, and for that reason I'm OK with being annoyed at his endings. I won't keep working through the KSR oeuvre, but I'm content with what I've seen of it so far.

Plot summary: we spend our time with members of a small village in California, some sixty-three years after an enormous but mostly unexplained bombing campaign against the US succeeded in nearly obliterating the nation. The UN appears to be allowing nations to patrol the costs, bombing all attempts to recover, but there's no real reason given for this, or indeed much clarity about quite what's going on. The story is that of a young man trying to become an actual man, and what role he may grow into with his community. The novel is interested in the idea of story itself, and how communities exist as the manifestations of their own stories. Plenty of action, with some romance (PG-rated) and violence (ditto), but it felt like a teen novel rather than an adult science fiction work.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Kim Stanley Robinson, Icehenge

Slumming? Some might say that, sure, but not me: I proudly read Kim Stanley Robinson's science fiction classic Icehenge over the last few days. If you want a detailed review, here's a positive and thorough one; I'm just here to say that it was basically fun, but also thought-provoking, and I was disappointed by the ending. It's no space opera, so it's not that I had any firm (or justified!) expectation of closure, but I did want more than this.

This could be a good summer, reading for actual pleasure. What a concept. Admittedly there were several papers at the recent ASLE conference on Robinson and environment, so I stumbled his way on a semi-obligatory, quasi-research excursion, but really it was just a chance to explore a library other than my own for a change. Most refreshing to escape the hothouse.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger

Meh.

No, actually it was pretty good, Aravind Adiga's Booker-winning novel The White Tiger. I was gripped, excited, thrilled, etc. Except when I put it down, because I wasn't all that excited to pick it up again. And once I'd finished, I was ready for something else, and it's almost entirely slipped my mind only a few days after having completed it. I don't mind that it won the Booker, because as barely a half-assed reviewer, I haven't read the other nominees, and I'm not sure what else should have been nominated, but I admit that I kept thinking, "Really? This was the best choice?"

Here's the thing. It's closer in feel to Slumdog Millionaire than to anything by Salman Rushdie, and that's what I want to read when I'm thinking about India. I mean, Rohinton Mistry is a hell of a writer, and Adiga's a reasonably good competitor and comparison for Mistry, but neither of them compares to Rushdie. Maybe Adiga will get there, I don't know. This is his first novel, after all, and his "book club edition" interview includes the great good remark that he thinks of most business writing as "bullshit," so he's bright considering that he spent several years as a business writer.

But given enough time to think over past years, I'm confident I could think of at least a dozen non-nominated Booker-eligible novels I prefer to this one. "Score another one for Danny Boyle," I'd say, if it didn't sound so petty/unfair....

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am

Jacques Derrida has always made my head hurt, as he has the heads of so many others, but to me it's always been a good kind of hurt. (No, John Mellencamp, I don't need to hear from you at this point....) I've been puzzling around the edges of his ideas of animality for a long time, and this summer -- since I've had so much free time, and such an excess of uncommitted intellectual energy -- I decided it was time to read The Animal That Therefore I Am.

Unsurprisingly, it took me forever to read this book, about eight weeks, and as with everything Derrida, my attitude veered between finding it akin to obvious performance art, and finding it wildly ingenious. I've taught his brilliant essay "Before the Law" a number of times, even though I'm convinced I only follow maybe two-thirds of what he's talking about in that piece, and I can see myself trying to use sections of The Animal That Therefore I Am as well, and with the same effect on me.

Among the usual more open-hearted reviews of this book, there are some snide reviews online, and Derrida deserves them. After all, this book begins with his story of being naked in his washroom, feeling self-conscious because his cat is staring at him. Derrida's well aware that we don't (yet?) know what a cat would be thinking in such a situation, so the odd but quotidian domestic tableau leads him to ponder the essences of both animality and humanity, whether there is such a thing as animality-in-general, how we might even provisionally define (self-)consciousness, and dozens of other points. But still, we start with a naked philosopher, and that's trouble!

Among the book's many seductive passages is a lovely little insistence, though expressed in typically thorny prose, about his bodily experience of texts and ideas:
given the infinite complications that I am in the process of recalling, I have a particularly animalist perception and interpretation of what I do, think, write, live, but, in fact, of everything, of the whole of history, culture, and so-called human society, at every level, macro- or microscopic. My sole concern is not that of interrupting this animalist 'vision' but of taking care not to sacrifice to it any difference or alterity, the fold of any complication, the opening of any abyss to come. (p.92)
Do I follow all of it? Of course not. But in this book, even in a first reading, I get more of a sense of voice and experience and uniqueness than I've felt in anything else by him that I've read. As usual it's easy to call his prose style as singularly unpleasant, in that you have to read his prose slowly and repeatedly, irregularly but often circling back to the beginning of his accursedly long and parenthetical sentences, but you know what? I kind of fell in love with this book, much to my surprise.

If you want a taste of Derrida's writing about animals, Critical Inquiry posted a snippet online that it published as a short stand-alone piece. Good stuff, though barely enough to give you a sense of what you'd be in for if you tackled the book as a whole.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Leach wins! Leach wins!

Canada's publishing industry features a handful of standout magazines publishing excellent long-form journalism. I'm delighted to see that David Leach -- colleague, friend, and fellow member of the Mook Club -- won the gold medal at this year's National Magazine Awards, in the sports and recreation category, for his piece in Explore entitled "A Deadly Crossing." Well deserved, fella!

And in unrelated news, I see that it's now possible to have computer-generated nonsense accepted for publication in academic journals. Oh, to be creative.... I mean, how exactly is an academic supposed to compete with ACTUAL technobabble?

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

ASLE bloggers, so far

A few blogs out there about ASLE in Victoria -- happy browsing!
Update
Here are a few more, the first three sent out by Adrian Ivakhiv to the ASLE listserv, and the last by jo(e) of Writing as Joe who has also been posting:

Additional update: Rhona McAdam has a wonderfully useful post up that lists all the texts she heard mentioned in various panels, with hyperlinks to as many of the online versions as she can find. Now THIS is obsessiveness I can get on board with!

ASLE books

World enough and time, world enough and time -- last week what felt like the entire world came to the University of Victoria (hi, world!) to attend the ASLE conference. I only managed a quick browse of the publishers' exhibit, and had no free time for the authors' reception, but I did pick up two very cool books that together encapsulate things I'll likely spend the rest of the summer doing and thinking about:
  • Nancy Gift, A Weed By Any Other Name: The Virtues of a Messy Lawn, or, Learning to Love the Plants We Don't Plant ($26)
  • Patricia Klindienst, The Earth Knows My Name: Food, Culture, and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic Americans ($19)
Not a lot of folks out there blogging the conference yet, but I'll see if I can't aggregate a few of them here later on. Once I get up from my nap, that is.