Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Scott Russell Sanders, A Conservationist Manifesto

You know, sometimes a book just doesn't work out the way it should for you. Your friends think there'll be some chemistry, it looks like your type, the wine's excellent -- but you stare at each other over dinner and wonder what the hell your friends were thinking. Things weren't quite so bad with Scott Russell Sanders' A Conservationist Manifesto, but much to my surprise, they weren't much better, either.

And I mean it when I say I was surprised by this. Scott Russell Sanders is deeply committed to ideas of place and environment and ethics, and his Writing from the Center was one of my favourite reads of 2006. These two things should mean I'd love this book, since it's a collection of essays exploring ideas of home and place and being, and anyone who's visited this blog more than once will have noticed these are three of my own obsessions. But no. Love this book, I did not. I did appreciate sections, and I'll get there by the end of this post, but I find myself so worked up by the frustration of NOT loving it altogether that it's not easy to talk about what I appreciated.

I had enormous trouble finishing this book, and in a very bad sign for it, I didn't feel badly that I was letting other books jump the queue. After all, back on September 15 (in the context of whinging about how horrifyingly poor was the editing of bell hooks' Belonging: A Culture of Place), I mumbled something about getting back to Sanders' book. And it took until the day before yesterday before I picked it up again.

One reason for this is that I don't enjoy essay collections that cover the same ground too often. Returning to the same interests, using the same metaphors, sure, these are signs of focused attention. Here, some of the essays repeat each other so closely that I just don't think they belong in the same book. (The essays touching on the Limberlost Swamp, in particular, are what I'm thinking of here.)

Another reason (danger! ranting atheist!) is that I have no faith that Christianity can be much help, environmentally speaking, and Sanders does. I share his anxiety that we will not stop ourselves and allow the world to remain habitable for humans (a story he affectingly tells in "For the Children"), but I do not share his sense that Christianity can be repaired and called back to its spirit in order to promote the planet's ongoing inhabitability. I don't trust its spirit, and I don't think it's a question of repair. Once you remove the non-existent God from the mix, Christianity is no different from Rotary or the Elks or Kiwanis, no more than a group of people trying to do their best. Except that in the case of religion, there's a vast amount of wasted energy, wondering about a God that has never existed. (Should I temper that? Hmm.)

And in a more petty vein (danger! ranting academic!), I got cranky when Sanders talked about literary theory. Either he's deliberately misrepresenting the work of people like Timothy Morton and Dana Phillips (though without mentioning them), or he legitimately doesn't understand their work. Neither one is a flattering prospect, so I hope there's a third way. Perhaps deliberate hyperbole, I don't know. Until I figure it out, then the presence in this book of "The Warehouse and the Wilderness" is in my eyes a fatal flaw.

Still reading, are you?

Here's the key to my reading of this book. The ecological potential of A Conservationist Manifesto was massive, and it only lived up to a small part of its potential. That small part, it does really well: I can see with great clarity how it is that Sanders has come to love Indiana as he has, and I can genuinely imagine changing my own life so that it more closely mirrors the way he lives in Bloomington. I adored numerous fragments of this book, and I dogeared more pages than I'm comfortable admitting in the potential presence of librarians. But it's a true essay collection, without the seamlessness I'd like to see that blends the pieces together, after their initial publication.

Nobody out me me to him until after ASLE 2011 in Bloomington, OK?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Douglas Coupland, Generation A

I will always read new work by Douglas Coupland. To paraphrase a friend with whom I was once much closer, Coupland's writing the world I actually live in -- you just have to ignore the detail that it's labelled as fiction, and the other detail that none of the events being described have ever happened to you or to anyone you know. OK, they've never happened to me, and actually some of them might well have happened to some people I know, but let the rhetoric stand.

Generation A, Coupland's new novel, is just as flawed and unforgettable as any of his other best fiction: Generation X, Life After God, and Microserfs, to my eyes (though I do have real fondness for Eleanor Rigby and Girlfriend in a Coma...). The characters verge on caricature, the plotting around Serge and the drug is beyond absurd, the ending is tidy and somewhere between implausible and inevitable, and the stories told by the characters are awfully like those told by all his other characters in all his other books, but damn, it works anyway. At its best, this book measures up with Coupland's best previous work. It's not all there, but it never is with him, is it?

The gist: on a near-future Earth where bees have become extinct and society seems on the verge of collapse as a result, five people are stung. What are their stories? And not just their biographies: what stories would they tell, if pressed to tell stories, about the worlds they imagine?

One of the five, a Sri Lankan named Harj who works at a Colombo call centre, describes himself as "a chunk of disgraced meat at the end of a phone line, forced by the global economy to discuss colour samples and waffle-knit jerseys with people who wish they were dead" (p.59). Not all of them have the same ruthlessness of vision, but I think all of them would find a version of home in his thoughts immediately after this self-description: "Is this a world a holy man might deem worthy of saving? What if there was a new Messiah--would he coldly look at atmospheric CO2 levels and call it quits before he began? Would he go find some newer, fresher planet to save instead?" Margaret Atwood (Oryx & Crake, and The Year of the Flood) and Ian McEwan (Solar) are even larger figures currently writing fiction about environmental crisis, with McEwan's due out in March 2010, but Coupland's been here before. A few of his books have touched on this ground before, most notably Girlfriend in a Coma, but this is far beyond anything he's tried. It's not as thorough as Atwood's efforts, but it's handily worth the price of admission.

Read the book. You might hate it, but worse things could happen. Make the case in the comments that you based your purchase largely on this review, and I might even send you some money. If I feel like it, and if you tell the story well enough.

(And on a blogger-professional note, I'm gratified that he took my advice about blurbs when I got unreasonably cranky about the one on the softcover version of The Gum Thief from Chris Ayres' review in the Times of the hardcover. Nary a blurb here, except the bang-on observation that "Generation A mirrors 1991's Generation X. It explores new ways of looking at the acts of reading and storytelling in a digital world." Yes, it does, and yes, it does. Well played, sir.)

(And no, obviously I DON'T think he took my advice. Puh-leeze.)

Jasper Fforde, First Among Sequels

Serves me right, I guess. Jasper Fforde's First Among Sequels has been on my shelf for some time (though my book-focused obsessiveness, bizarrely, seems to have let me down for the first time as a blogger so that I can't see when I picked up a book I've been about to review), and it's been within sight for weeks now as a reward for finishing this gruelling semester.

In other words, too much pressure for it to rise to the occasion.

It's good, really, and if you've been happy with the others, you'll be happy here again. It's my least favourite of Fforde's books I've read so far, though. There are some inspired bits, such as the idea that if politicians don't regularly do dumb things, there will arise a "Stupidity Surplus" that can only be remedied through stupidity offsets (cue reasonably sensible humour over climate crisis, sniping at both "sides," if one can boil it down that way), and the byzantine plot involving multiple versions of Thursday's son Friday (active in the ChronoGuard) is handled smoothly and effectively.

But I wanted more of the laughs I had with the earlier books; I wanted more absurdity, more abandon, and a richer milieu (like that provided by, among other things, the previous volumes' fake chapter epigraphs from newspapers). My response to this one is muted, even though I persist in thinking that Jasper Fforde is one of the most inventive -- and successfully inventive -- writers currently working.

December 28 - Bolen Books

Another visit to Bolen's, for two more volumes, one a book I'd ordered and one a book I'd had my eye on:
  • David Gessner, Sick of Nature ($22.50), and
  • Mark Leiren-Young, The Green Chain: Nothing Is Ever Clear-Cut ($19.95).
You can get an excellent taste for the flavour of Gessner's book from an abbreviated version of the cover essay that first appeared five years ago in the Boston Globe, and Leiren-Young's is a collection of interviews from his terrific podcast series "Trees and Us" on The Tyee. I'm really enjoying Gessner's book already, having failed to resist dipping into it, and I plan on liking Leiren-Young's as well, since I've appreciated the podcast versions of the interviews.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Shields & Campion, The Company of Others

If you've read anything recently posted here, you'll think I'm lying: honestly, though, tears don't come easily to me when I'm reading. Not that I giggled at Bambi or chuckled at Tiny Tim or anything, but it's just not a standard option for me, and I'm genuinely surprised when it happens. A friend I used to have told me once that he always knew when stress was getting to him, because he couldn't watch TV commercials anymore without tearing up. That's part of the reason for why I've been responding that way more often recently, sure, but this time, I'm blaming the book. And I'm right to do that.

Sandra Shields and David Campion's little book The Company of Others: Stories of Belonging is exactly as moving and extraordinary as its blurb claims it is. (I've complained repeatedly on this blog about the blurb as a cursedly misleading genre, as misguided in their own way as rantings about the Elders of Zion, or even the self-importantly polysyllabic stylings of Conrad Black, but this blurb is on the money -- Arsenal Pulp Press is to be commended for its prose here! And certainly for the book itself, as well.)

The Company of Others was produced with the cooperation of PLAN (Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network), an international group that helps facilitate and maintain social networks intended to support the vulnerable among us. The content is deceptively simple: five short photo-essays with accompanying text, each essay offering a portrait of a different Canadian social network connected to PLAN. The key figures in the circles seem unremarkable themselves: Jeff Moorcroft, who has an intellectual disability; Betty Terbasket, an Okanagan grandmother whose memory is fading; Margaret Enns, who has Down's Syndrome; Rick Ottoni, who has schizophrenia; and Erin Tesan, who like Jeff has an intellectual disability. Shields and Campion spent a week or two with each circle, just going grocery shopping and to the mall and to church, and spending time at home with the members of the circles.

I started dipping into the book as soon as I bought it, after admiring Shields' and Campion's work from afar on their site Field Notes, enough that I tried to find some way to get them at the June 2009 ASLE conference at UVic, but I couldn't keep dipping in. Coffee-table books, like National Geographic magazine for me, are books I can spend a few minutes at a time occupying, and I thought I could do that with this book, which in spite of its very small size (6.6" x 6") looks like a miniaturized version of a coffee-table book. But nope. I kept spending longer and longer with it, and having to start again and again, until finally one day last week I decided just to read the thing.

Except that I was in a hurry, and I had to walk across campus finishing it off as I headed for my daughter's school. And that's when the tears started, so many that I had to sit down for a minute to catch my breath.

I don't know what the future will hold for my daughter, who has some special needs from causes nobody has been able to pinpoint. I barely understand what the present holds for her. But PLAN, and the book that Sandra Shields and David Campion have put out with/for them, left me feeling engaged, and afraid, and invigorated, at the prospect of living in this present as fully as we can. The warmth and the richness of the lives documented in The Company of Others made me feel like I was coming home. And as the parent of a child with special needs, that's a feeling you'll go a long way for.

Sandra, David: I hope I get the chance to meet you one of these days, so I can shake your hands. But you'd better be prepared for a hug. I do my best to read books I expect to find valuable, so I tend not to blow much time on books that I expect won't earn a place on my shelves, but this one is getting put on a lot of other people's shelves this Christmas. Thank you for this, enormously.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Theresa Kishkan, Age of Water Lilies

I finished this novel back around Remembrance Day, fittingly enough, and while I wrote its author immediately to tell her how much I'd enjoyed the book, for a variety of complicated reasons I didn't get around to posting a review here. These things happen. As my students know, it's been a busy few weeks even if one were to think only about school.

Now, I don't mind saying that it's been some time since I've had genuine tears in my eyes while reading a novel, as I did while finishing the second half of Theresa Kishkan's The Age of Water Lilies. This may say more about my usual choice of novels, or about my general callousness, than it does about Kishkan's book, but I really was very greatly moved by her main character, Flora Oakden.

For some reason, though, and at the time I couldn't have said why, I had real trouble settling into The Age of Water Lilies when I started it several weeks earlier. Something to do with the workload, the time of year, and so on: but I didn't feel fully welcomed into it. It wasn't comfortable, and I didn't expect that. The story that gets most of the narrative focus is set in the BC Interior, at a town called Walhachin, so it's part of my extended home (so to speak), and Kishkan's nonfiction has been among my favourite reads over the last 18 months. A recipe for love, no?

Now that I've had time to digest the experience, I think it's related to the clarity of Kishkan's portrayal of the time period of Walhachin's glory (such as it was!). The transplanted Victorian culture of Walhachin just isn't a version of BC I'm used to thinking about, and even though I've almost always known Walhachin's flumes and have both fished and swum in Snohoosh and Vidette Lakes, I hadn't fully recognized their post-Victorian, pre-WWI elements. So, as much as I appreciated Flora and Gus as characters, I didn't feel much intimacy with them: with Gus, maybe, since there are ways in which he feels like an Ian Tyson character -- and that's a high compliment, incidentally -- but not in the transplanted Victorian context in which they were living.

Part of my trouble settling in, too, was that I really -- if unconsciously -- wanted to hear Kishkan herself talking about these places and people, since I'm used to reading her essays instead of her fiction. It helped to hear her read some of the pages, because it meant I could hear a little more clearly what she were going for, but I don't think it's a cheat on my part: if I hadn't enjoyed the essays, I don't know I would have had the same trouble with the voice in The Age of Water Lilies!

Death is expected in a historical novel that covers a long period of time, but they really affected me. The permanence of Flora's loss, as Kishkan portrayed it, really shook me. My grandmothers both married men who had come back from the Second World War, but they both lost brothers (one during the war, and one to pneumonia before it), and this novel gave me some very welcome insight into this somewhat mysterious part of their lives. One of them passed away in early 2008, and the other has lost enough of her memory that I don't know I can talk to her about her about her brother Robert, but The Age of Water Lilies gave me two things to hold onto: (1) I wouldn't have known to ask her about him properly before finishing the novel, and (2) I don't think I need to ask her now anyway, because I think that I finally understand something new about the persistence of her grief. This novel gave me both these insights, and I'm grateful for them.

I don't know that The Age of Water Lilies is an easy enough novel to find the readership it deserves, because I do wonder whether I was responding to something a bit prickly about the early sections (rather than just to the difference in voice and the alternate version of my BC and my workload distractions), but my goodness, this is a novel for its author to be proud of. It'll last, this one.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

December 2 - UVic Bookstore

Two books on order, two others that leapt fortuitously to hand:
  • Robert A. Heinlein & Spider Robinson, Variable Star ($4.99)
  • Derrick Jensen & Stephanie McMillan, As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial ($18.50 - a protest graphic novel)
  • John Lent, Monet's Garden ($11.95 - already reviewed here)
  • Sandra Shields & David Campion, The Company of Others: Stories of Belonging ($24.95 - a photo essay with text)
It was one of my great regrets at the ASLE conference that I didn't get to hear Shields and Campion, since in the end they were were unable to attend. Their combination of text and photography in pursuit of social awareness is always powerful, and this little book is particularly inspiring and challenging. It's going to get read and reread an awful lot, I think....