Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Wally Lamb, The Hour I First Believed

Honestly, I could not believe how long was Wally Lamb's newest novel, The Hour I First Believed, the current book club selection. It's way too strong to say that I hated this book. But I didn't love it, and by the end I was seriously cranky about it.

Am I the only person who thinks that Lamb's editors were too cowed by his previous sales figures to insist that he cut fully two hundred pages out of this beast?

It's fashionable to call fat books "sprawling," maybe "layered," or even "multi-faceted," but I'm telling you that The Hour I First Believed is a bloated mess that buries within it two solid novels and the germ of at least another handful. I think it was daring to take on the Columbine shootings, and I appreciated the link to New Orleans, and the veteran of the Iraq war was interesting, and the history of US women's prisons had potential, and then the Quirk family letters plus diaries from the 1860s to 1880s were ....

Could someone please just get this guy an editor? His characters are believable, his prose solid, his dialogue very good -- but this is a novel he should NOT have been allowed to get away with.

JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit

When I was in elementary school, I remember watching in Miss Lindsay's class an animated film of The Hobbit. I hadn't read the book yet, but I think I must have gone on to read it before much longer, because it was a memorable, inspiring movie. I don't have the faintest idea of when I last read the book, or how many times I've read it (maybe four now?), but after reading it again last week, I can confidently say that it's an absolute classic in the now-decaying genre of the long-form children's story.

What else is there to say? Most of Tolkien's followers are committed to the Lord of the Rings series, and the especially hardcore are bound to the Silmarillion, but for my money, it doesn't get any better than The Hobbit. Longer, more intricate, more fully realized, yeah -- but no better. There's drama, there's the commoner amongst the elite, there's humour, there's none of that icky love stuff.... OK, admittedly, there aren't female characters, but does that matter? ;-)

Late August book buys

A few days in Vancouver and Whistler, very pleasant for the most part, yielded a few things, and then I stumbled across a few today back home again:

Albion Books, August 18
  • Edward Hoagland, The Edward Hoagland Reader ($6)

Book Warehouse, August 18
  • Wally Lamb, The Hour I First Believed ($7.99 -- book club selection for this month)
  • JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit ($16)

Cole's Books, August 25
  • Gordon Hak, Turning Trees into Dollars: The British Columbia Coastal Lumber Industry, 1858-1913 ($3.99 for a fantastic book from the U of Toronto Press, a price explicable only within the mysteries of mass-market retailing
  • Elizabeth May, At the Cutting Edge: The Crisis in Canada's Forests - revised and expanded edition ($4.99, ditto re price)

Friday, August 21, 2009

Christopher Milne, The Open Garden

Of course I knew Christopher Milne -- who doesn't know the real Christopher Robin, after all? But I hadn't read his story "The Windfall," and I wasn't familiar with his essays, four of which were collected with this story into a smallish book entitled The Open Garden: A Story with Four Essays.

And just between us, I didn't need to read "The Windfall." Kind of interesting, in a gender-essentialist sort of way, the way Milne retells the Eden narrative, but not much more than that.

The essays, though: I thought those were right gems! Honestly, I'll be reading and rereading these for a long time, and assigning them in classes as terrific examples of expository prose; of nature writing; and of memoir. I don't want to muck them up with too many words of my own, fatigued as I am tonight, and unprepared for wise comment, but honestly, you'd be doing yourself SUCH a favour if you just went off and had a quick read. It's a wee book, but thoughtful, insightful and wildly diverting. Good stuff indeed.

Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild

I wasn't entirely sure whether I'd read this book before, Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild. I'd given it away at least once, but that's not the same thing, and I'm pretty confident now that I hadn't read it before. Turns out I didn't really need to, though it did give me better context for the movie version I watched the other night (on my computer, with headphones so I could appreciate Kristen Stewart's singing just a little better!) -- the story was about what I'd gathered it was, and Krakauer's writing was about how it usually is.

It's a painful story, the death and short life of Chris McCandless. He doesn't make it all that easy for just anyone to like him ("Alexander Supertramp"? really?), but his passion and his exceptionalism and his sense of quest are genuinely attractive, especially to people who'd really like to see the world become a better place in some particular ways -- ie, to so many of us environmentalists, though not all of us. And Krakauer does a good job with his characters and story, and I think he did a really nice job of building his own experiences into the story (in part to explain McCandless' attractiveness to so many of the people who knew him or heard of him after his death).

But does it need a larger audience than it has already found? I don't think so. I was pondering, as I read, whether I thought the book would endure for very long; it depends, I guess, on when and how the global economy collapses, but McCandless' story will resonate for a long time with most of the potential collapse forms, and Krakauer's telling of his story is just fine.

It's no Golden Spruce, of course, but then what is?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

JRR Tolkien, Lord of the Rings

Yep, one post for all three books: I've made it back through JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings cycle. (And then last night I saw on the Munro's Books sale table the new Children of Hurin that Christopher Tolkien put together, but I resisted.)

I'm not sure now how I didn't read this until I was an undergraduate, especially since I read CS Lewis' Narnia series several times in my teens. Maybe that explains it, actually; maybe one can be either a Lewisite or a Tolkienian, but not both. Whatever the reason, I enjoyed each novel in the series -- Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and Return of the King -- when I first read them all, and I enjoyed them again. I'm still not sure how, though, they've attained their cultish status. Tolkien's imagined world is enormously detailed and varied, certainly, but I'm not sure that explains it. I mean, the two heroes of the story are basically gardeners. From this root a mighty oak wouldn't normally be expected to grow (the Peter Sellers film of Being There notwithstanding, of course -- a film everyone should see at least a few times).

A delight, these books, genuinely, even if to me the delight is rather lighter than the heft of the pages....

Gilean Douglas, Seascape with Figures

She's something of a cult figure on the West Coast, Gilean Douglas. Her regular pieces in the Victoria Times-Colonist in years long gone by were treasured by her readers, and they were genuinely unlike anything else you would have seen in a BC newspaper. Dispatches from another age, in some ways, but also crafted as finely -- though in smaller form -- as the territorial or touristic dispatches of Edward Hoagland and his ilk that appeared in places like Harper's. Douglas, though, lived in place and wrote about where she lived, minutely, rather than travelling with Hoaglandian machismo. This, to me, is a very good thing indeed.

Douglas's books are out of print, unbelievably (to me, at least), and while I've had some trouble personally with capturing out of books the sense of pleasure that her contemporary readers found in her articles, I've had some good luck now with her poetry, though not uncomplicatedly so.

Specifically, I found Seascape with Figures, published in 1967 by The Prairie Press in Iowa City, to be a pleasant enough book. Its pages include some keen observation, some appropriately thoughtful rumination, and distinct stylistic grace. In other words, I responded middlingly to her verse, just as I have to her prose.

Until two of the final poems, which struck me as utter gems. I can do no better justice to Douglas or her book than to quote one of these poems here in full, and ask you to read it slowly to yourself:
"I would come back"

Life has not been kind to me.
I have suffered want and cold;
I have lost, I have bled,
I have left my best unsaid;
I am growing greyly old
In a harsh futility.

But I would come back once more,--
Live again each crippled day--
Just to smell forest loam,
Just to watch a lark fly home;
I would walk a rougher way
To hear sea wind on shore.

Taras Grescoe, Bottomfeeder

I finished Taras Grescoe's book Bottomfeeder while on holidays, and immediately gave it away. Those of you who know me personally (rather than virtually) will know what this means: that I think it's an important book that other people really do need to read -- now, dammit, now! Thus it is with Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood.

Now that I've given it away, of course, I'm going to have to buy it again. There's a tremendous amount of information in the book, and it's written very well, to boot, so I think it's essential reading for two separate reasons. If I ever put together the course proposal I've been pondering on "Environmental Activism and Literature," this book might well go on the list. I'm not sure how well the book will last, as its data is very current, but frankly that's just another reason to buy the book now, dammit, now.

Let me put it this way: If you eat seafood AT ALL, and you've ever had a SINGLE thought about sustainability ("what does 'dolphin-friendly tuna' mean?" or "I wonder where this shrimp came from" or "what's the difference between Atlantic and Pacific salmon?"), you're defenseless against the seafood industry until you've read Bottomfeeder.

Fraud rates are very high, both at retail outlets and restaurants; that tasty scallop might be a chunk punched out of a skate wing, and that slice of bluefin tuna might be horsemeat. A High-Liner salmon fillet sold in San Diego will have travelled 22,000 kilometres by the time it hits a store freezer (farmed in Chile; filleted in China; boxed in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia; trucked to California). Frozen shrimp is often pink because it was soaked in known carcinogenic substances before it was frozen. A single meal of bluefin tuna will give you 350% of your weekly toxic dose of mercury.

As a start, go and read Grescoe's diverse op-ed pieces archived on his website, published all over the place. You'll be glad you did.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

August 9 - HUGGS booksale on Hornby Island

Alas, the reader who attends a charity booksale. It's tough to find time to choose carefully, because there's always an elderly woman using her elbows and counting on chivalry to excuse her ill-mannered behaviour, and a queue behind you, and more to see than you can possible manage. But I've been around enough of these sales now that I don't mind standing annoyingly still for long periods, and it paid off this time. For $20 (some of which was really a donation, on top of the amount they were asking for), I picked up the following:
  • Annie Dillard, An American Childhood
  • Gretel Ehrlich, Islands, the Universe, Home
  • ed. Susan Hiller, The Myth of Primitivism: Perspectives on Art
  • Tony Hiss, The Experience of Place
  • Bill Holm, Boxelder Bug Variations: A Meditation on an Idea in Language and Music
  • Robert Kaplan, The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero
  • Kenneth Macrae Leighton, Oar and Sail: An Odyssey of the West Coast
  • ed. David Meltzer, The San Francisco Poets
  • Christopher Milne, The Open Garden: A Story with Four Essays
  • David Rothenberg, Why Birds Sing: A Journey into the Mystery of Bird Song
  • Maria Tippett and Douglas Cole, From Desolation to Splendour: Changing Perceptions of the British Columbia Landscape
  • Dorothy Wordsworth, Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth (World's Classics ed., by Helen Darbishire)
  • Jan Zwicky, Thirty-seven Small Songs & Thirteen Silences
Some real gems here, certainly, though likely a few things that might not get their spines cracked for some time!

August 6-8, wandering

A few books from points north, as we wandered this summer:
  • Gilean Douglas, Seascape with Figures ($12.95, autographed, from a wee used bookstore in Campbell River)
  • Bridget Stutchbury, Silence of the Songbirds: How We Are Losing the World's Songbirds and What We Can Do to Save Them ($19.95, 32 Books on Hornby Island), and
  • Amanda Hale, My Sweet Curiosity ($20, autographed, from the author at the Farmer's Market on Hornby Island)
The big purchase was at the HUGGS charity booksale on Hornby, but I'll use another post for that....