Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Sept 29 - UVic Bookstore

It's good to supervise an Honours student, because sometimes in desperation you just have to go buy books you've been meaning to pick up for yourself anyway, when you don't get around to the library early enough. This week, it's Laurie Ricou's wonderful volume Salal: Listening for the Northwest Understory ($34.95).

This is one of those rare books that turn out to repay repeated visits better than it does the first browse. No pyrotechnics here, Salal is a quiet book that works hard to inhabit this particular place through every means of knowing that its author can imagine. Hey, if you don't want to take my word for it, check out the reviews in Geist and Canadian Literature. And if you'd rather get his word, you can always listen to him on CBC!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

September 22 - Bolen's

I needed to pick up Madeleine L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time ($8.50) for teaching purposes, but I wanted to browse around for some book club ideas. We need, I think, to get onto some calmer and more lighthearted books after slogging through Gwynne Dyer's Climate Wars, so I think I've got some ideas.

But I was also delighted to stumble across Theresa Kishkan's new novel The Age of Waterlilies ($19.95), which I picked up and have thus far forced myself only to dip into. Apparently it shifts back and forth between Walhachin in around 1913, and Victoria around 1962, and my childhood camping trips to Deadman Valley and Snohoosh Lake combine with my current residence here to make this a must-read. It'd be a must-read even if I didn't enjoy her other books so much, but many weeks won't go by before I finish this one!

Madeleine L'Engle, A Wrinkle in Time

What fun, what fun! Well, sort of. I fondly recall reading A Wrinkle in Time back in about fifth grade, and while I know I went back to it at least a couple more times after that, it may have been twenty years since I last read something by Madeleine L'Engle. This novel is good and earnest and pleasant, definitely, but I'm not sure my student will think it so, and I'm meeting with her later this morning to talk about its relative environmentalism.

L'Engle's first novel, A Wrinkle in Time continues to sell well, having remained in print continuously since 1962, and continues to play a vital cultural role, having made regular appearances on the American Library Association's list of most-challenged books (#23 overall, 1990-1999, immediately below Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen and Roald Dahl's The Witches, and right above Charles Silverstein's The New Joy of Gay Sex).

(And actually, if you've got time on your hands, you could do worse than to pore over the list of challenged books and figure out how to support the independence and good-hearted subversiveness of your local library!)

Where was I going with this?

Right. A Wrinkle in Time remains a gripping read, albeit one for a distinctly younger set than I thought it was for.

Environmentally speaking, I'm fascinated by L'Engle's insistence on describing the physical setting immediately on the opening of a new scene; she's really attentive to questions of vegetation, topography, and geology. The Murry family has a garden, too, which isn't the least bit relevant to the plot but presumably is meant to be a marker of their collective character. And as geeky, nerdy, brainy as Meg Murry and Charles Wallace Murry are, they're both constantly drawn to the outdoors.

My favourite element remains the occasional references to the inexplicable, and in particular to how we can sometimes understand things beyond our comprehension. For example, as Meg tries to grasp how five-dimensional space relates to Euclidean geometry, she suddenly cries out, "I got it! For just a moment I got it! I can't possibly explain it now, but there for a second I saw it!" (pp.88-89). That's how math always worked for me: I had the hardest time manufacturing calculations that would look like I was showing my work, because too often I could just put down the right answer, right through Calculus but already in later elementary school, so it felt really neat to see a book character with something like my own abilities -- and in a heroic role. Nerd as hero, what a concept!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Gwynne Dyer, Climate Wars

Last night, when I finished Gwynne Dyer's Climate Wars, I walked to the kitchen to take off my glasses and my watch (a routine whose origin I no longer recall, and whose purpose is increasingly unclear), and on the way I stopped to look out the dining room window. Standing beside the liquor, I thought hard about having a serious drink. It's not like it's going to have an impact on the global environment -- and it's not like things are going well enough, according to Dyer, that one should remain sober and optimistic.

Feel free to listen to Dyer on the CBC talking about these ideas, in a three-part series on the brilliant series Ideas, but I don't have the strength for it.

The book is divided into forward-looking scenarios and explanatory/exploratory chapters. Basically, the scenarios are meant to scare the pants off you, and generally they do, and the chapters are meant to clarify just why your level of fear should remain high enough that your pants won't stay on without suspenders, as well as to let us in on some of the ideas people are working on to halt climate change. Some of those ideas seem crazy (ie, 16 trillion partly transparent metre-wide spaceships in geosynchronous orbit to reduce solar radiation -- pages 203-05, the idea of one Roger Angel), but others are far less so. Really, this book is the story of the remaining ideas that might let us fix our way technologically out of this mess, without our substantially changing our lives.

In Dyer's view there's no way humanity will be able to reduce carbon dioxide emissions nearly rapidly enough to avoid catastrophic effects. If he's right, we really only have two options: (1) die horrifically and catastrophically as a species, possibly in an ocean-driven global extinction entirely of our own making that could take out 96% or so of the species on this planet, or (2) take on the collective job of "planetary maintenance engineer." Hardly a romantic idea, micromanaging the entire planet, but given the alternative....

By the end of the book I was calm enough not to need that drink I was pondering, but only just. Dyer opens the book strongly, with some detailed geopolitical analysis that looks at the likelihood of warfare in different regions caused by climate change, but this fades away into the investigation of Big Ideas. I wished he'd kept up with the politics, because it's a strength for him, but I did understand his desire to look for solutions rather than more questions.

Goodness knows I'd like some solutions.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sept 15 - UVic Bookstore

I have to say that I'm excited to read bell hooks' new volume Belonging: A Culture of Place ($25.95), freshly picked up today. I need to get back to Scott Russell Sanders' Conservationist Manifesto first, through which I've been dragging my feet for some time now, but I think matching these two books will be really interesting (and hopefully invigorating as well!).

Edit: I've been moving casually through hooks' Belonging, and honestly, it's been a really long time since I've seen as slipshod an editing job as this. Routledge ("An imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business," as the copyright page sings) should be embarrassed by the quality of this text. Or maybe it's an antipatriarchy thing, but it doesn't feel like it. An extra comma to leave two in sequence, typos that a spellchecker won't catch, a misquotation from a psalm: none of this feels like bell hooks' fault, so until I learn otherwise, I'm blaming Routledge for busting up what would otherwise be a really thoughtful, rewarding read.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind

Two weeks without a book purchased or read? Really? Sadly, dear reader, yes - it's been that kind of time around here lately.

Mind you, the whole time I've been plugging cheerfully away at Roderick Nash's classic work of intellectual history Wilderness and the American Mind. I've dug through it a few times before, the classic process for an academic, but I don't recall reading it right through.

Certainly there's been plenty of terrific work done since the book's revised edition of the early '70s, even with its (albeit fairly tentative) suggestions about the counterculture that had arisen in the late '60s, and for a contemporary reader Nash has FAR too little to say about First Nations on this continent. But still, these weaknesses just mark the book as the product of a time we're working hard to outgrow. Not there yet, not by a long way, but Nash is visible behind the wonderful books of Lawrence Buell, Dan Philippon, Rochelle Johnson, and so many others of my intellectual heroes. (And very good folks, too, I can say from recent experience!)

I think I'd absorbed almost all of the book's lessons before I spent the dribbles of time I found for it over the last few weeks, and I think I make many of its enduring points already in class, but that's OK. It remains well worth your time, and I certainly found it worth my own precious time.

Now, back to the regular semester's programming....