Friday, January 15, 2010

January 15 - Volume Two

I'm not sure how they've done it, but Russell Books not only has remained viable enough to renovate and greatly expand its space on Fort Street, but a few years ago it also opened a second downtown location. Madness, but that's where I made my third and final bookstore stop of the day today:
  • Gilean Douglas, Kodachromes at Midday ($4.99, lovely BC poetry)
  • ed. Ann Gilliam, Voices for the Earth: A Treasury of the Sierra Club Bulletin, 1893-1977 ($9.99 and fanTAStic!)
  • ed. Hildegarde Hannum, People, Land, and Community: Collected E.F. Schumacher Society Lectures ($7.99; essays -- that began as lectures -- by people like Wendell Berry, Jane Jacobs, Thomas Berry, Winona LaDuke, Kirkpatrick Sale...)
  • Julia Harrison, Being a Tourist: Finding Meaning in Pleasure Travel ($5.99, academic but aimed at a slightly wider audience, from UBC Press)
  • John Hay, In Defense of Nature ($5.95, a classic 1969 text by the mentor of David Gessner, whose Sick of Nature was recently reviewed here)
  • Freeman King, Nature Rambles with Freeman King ($3.99, a slim volume of essays about spots around Victoria, by the legendary local naturalist)
  • ed. Yvonne Mearns Klan, The Old Red Shirt: Pioneer Poets of British Columbia ($9.99, an anthology from the Transmontanus series out of New Star Books)
  • Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers ($3.99)
  • Rita Wong, monkeypuzzle ($5.50, the first book from one of this province's most interesting and accomplished young poets -- as well as a super individual, not to be get all technical or anything)

January 15 - Shepherd Books

Shepherd Books on Fort Street (with one of the least helpful web sites I've found, to be honest, so I'm not even linking to it!) is one of my favourite bookstores, but it's small enough that I often find myself browsing for quite a while but only coming up with a book or two.

But you know, they serve my interests pretty well, and if you wanted the better quality of fiction in used form, it looks to me like Shepherd would be one of your best options. Not what I'm looking for, but really, how many other people would go into a store and buy:
  • David Day, The Cowichan ($3.95, 1970s poetry about logging in BC)
  • William Dietrich, The Final Forest: The Battle for the Last Great Trees of the Pacific Northwest ($8, investigative journalism)
  • Joseph Kastner, A Species of Eternity ($9.95, decidedly academic: "The wilderness adventures and discoveries of America's earliest naturalists")
  • rob mclennan, red earth ($6, poetry from someone I think I went to university with, though I can't be sure)
  • Richard Rodriguez, Brown: The Last Discovery of America ($10.50, memoir: "Rodriguez argues that America has been brown since its inception--since the moment when the African and the European met in the Indian eye")

January 15 - UVic Bookstore

A couple of things jumped off the shelves at me this morning: Madhur Anand and Adam Dickinson's co-edited collection Regreen: New Canadian Ecological Poetry ($18 very well spent, I think), and an essay collection edited by Donald Swearer called Ecology and the Environment: Perspectives from the Humanities. Swearer's may turn out to be somewhat obvious, but some excellent contributors, and it might work as a course text down the road.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Robert Kaplan, The Nothing That Is

It all seemed to make sense at the time, but now, just 24 hours after putting down Robert Kaplan's fascinating little book The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero, I'm having real trouble recapturing my understanding of what he was telling me.

The book itself is pretty much what the subtitle promises, an inquiry into the development of zero as an idea, a sign, a tool, a token, and so on, throughout human history. We know precious little about zero, sort of, except that it's a kind of hinge between sets of numbers: real and imaginary, rational and irrational, that sort of thing. Kaplan nevertheless has a go at sharing what little we know, in as accessible a form as possible, even if the tone makes it feel peculiarly like a fat 19th-century tome of intellectual history, complete with chatty asides and direct conversation with the reader and what I think might be deliberate (and hence possibly self-ironizing) self-importance.

There's lots of local colour through the ages, as Kaplan spends time with assorted mathematicians. A favourite for me was Bhaskara, an Indian mathematician who in 1150 AD wrote the Lilavati, a collection of math questions with responses included. Here's the one question Kaplan quotes in full from the Lilavati:
Beautiful and dear delightful girl, whose eyes are like a faun's! If you are skilled in multiplication, tell me, what is 135 times 12? (p.71)
Or perhaps even funnier, Kaplan recounts the outcome of a telephone call a science writer recently made to MIT to ask if you could count by zeros (the way you can count 1,2,3 by 1's, or 2,4,6 by 2's):
He held on to the phone while the question reverberated up the corridors and down, until the answer came back that no one could really say for sure; and anyway they were interested only in numbers that had been invented after 1972, so he had better call Harvard. (p.163)
I snorted aloud about that one, but I have a feeling that it's a nerd index issue, the extent to which you find it amusing....

We shift our scene between Greece and India several times, and spend centuries wandering Europe with mystics and scientists, eccentrics and systems thinkers. We learn a surprising amount about the surprisingly complicated math behind the Mayan calendar system, and we get glimpses of numerous other places and times as well. Really, though, it's about how we got to where we are now, so all these other stories feel subordinated to the absolute and mysterious present. And that, I'm not qualified to talk about.

Near book's end, Kaplan alludes to a saying attributed to John von Neumann, that in math it's not so much that you understand anything, so much as you get used to it (p.209). Maybe that's why I feel today as I do -- that I haven't had the time to get used to Kaplan's story. I'm not diving back in anytime soon, mostly because of available time (world enough and time, etc.), but he strikes me as a reliable guide. Know any general-interest nerds? Because this book just might excite them enough to interrupt, for a few hours, a rousing session of Dungeons and Dragons!

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

David Gessner, Sick of Nature

I've spent some time over the last few days pondering my response to David Gessner's essay collection Sick of Nature. It's got some copy-editing weaknesses, though nothing like those in Bell Hooks' Belonging that I've complained about before, and it's got some repetition, though not as much as that in Scott Russell Sanders' Conservationist Manifesto. There's enough of both to distract me, though, so I needed to think it over before committing to my feelings about the book.

(Sidenote: "Thinking it over" is probably something I should have done about Sanders' book before posting about it, but these things happen. The indefatigable Simmons Buntin remarks in his review of A Conservationist Manifesto at Terrain.org that the book hasn't been reviewed widely enough and offered some suggestions about (a) why that's so and (b) why it should be read widely. While my comment isn't as formal a review as most, my doubts about the book might be louder than they would be for a more widely reviewed book. If you're at all uncomfortable with or unsure about my comments, read Simmons' review -- he makes a lot of sense, perhaps more than I do.)

But to Gessner's book, which, in spite of the potential for provoking some displeasure from me, I enjoyed very much indeed.

As the back cover notes, the book follows, more or less, "the making of a reluctant nature writer." The title article, an abbreviated version of which can be read in the Boston Globe, looks at Gessner's distaste for what normally counts as nature writing: a tone of hushed reverence, the expression of deep thoughts in pretty places, awed descriptions of charismatic megafauna, that sort of thing. Bullshit, mostly, is how it started to seem to him, and he tried to quit the habit. As time went on, though, he remembered or recognized the wide diversity within the genre, and even found room for himself and his own practices within what's a very large tent.

But nature writing, as he notes in the title essay, is read by the converted. Is this book for anyone else?

Yes, it is. Absolutely. It helps if you're somewhat interested in how humans might want to see themselves in relation to nature (or environment, or ecosystem, or bioregion, or whatever other term might make sense for you), but these essays are the working out in public of how a writer is going to remain a writer. And more than that, of how a particular man is going to live in the world, in full awareness of his past: an Ultimate Frisbee obsession, a drunken undergraduate career, a difficult relationship with his now-deceased father, a new family, and so on. What, Gessner asks, is the way forward that lets him carry with him and make sense of this past, the past that so many of us end up leaving behind and either forgetting or regretting?

It's nature writing, but it's a long way from the stereotype that prompted the title essay, and it's a nature worth getting to know. More than that, it's the portrait of a guy I'd be pleased to know; it's a personable, engaging book, and that's not always the case with the nonfiction I read. Distinctly recommended, this one!

Monday, January 04, 2010

Jensen & McMillan, As The World Burns

I'm thinking that 2010 is going to be a slow reading year for me, but time will tell. This means that I was tempted to call this my first review of the year, to get a jump on things, but no -- it's rightfully the overdue final review of 2009 instead, and that's what I'll call it.

Stephanie McMillan and Derrick Jensen are individually two of the more agitated and agitating of the agitprop folk, so when they came together to write the graphic novel As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial, you pretty much knew it wasn't going to be sunshine and roses. And it isn't.

The basic story is straightforward: two girls try to figure out how to live sustainably. The one is optimistic, like Al Gore in a dress with little hearts on it, while the other is in a black dress and therefore cynical: Sartre in pigtails, perhaps. By book's end, some animals have been sprung from a vivisection lab, robots have been given a permit by the US government to eat the earth, and there's been violent conflict aimed at overcoming the robots and saving the earth. It's what the converted will want to read, but maybe it'll reach younger audiences than Jensen's work usually does. I've got some issues with Jensen's approach, as I said in past reviews of his work (here, here, and here) and of an appearance in Victoria (here and here), but fundamentally I recognize his despair and his anger.

The core to Jensen's and McMillan's politics is collective action. We need to work together rather than to obsess about individual actions like those recommended at the end of An Inconvenient Truth: lightbulbs won't get us all the way home. The less optimistic girl in the book comments, in response to being asked why she bothers living sustainably when we're doomed: "I never said there's no point to living responsibly. But I don't delude myself into believing that what I have for lunch, mush less what dishwashing soap I use, can stop the system from destroying the planet" (p.37). It's a war for the planet's future, in their view, and we've all got to choose sides.

Of the two sides the authors set up, clearly I'm on theirs -- but honestly, the opposition is impossibly absolute (animals and "wild humans" vs. earth-destroying robots aided by a lunatic US President and troglodytically sociopathic corporate executives). In US presidential elections, blue states stay blue, and red states stay red; these elections are won and lost based on what happens in swing states. This book wants to see blue states and red ones, without swing states, and I'm not sure I know anyone whose perspective is as absolute as either one portrayed in As the World Burns. It's not a real opposition; it's not one that provokes my engagement, because it's too obvious what side to join.

And if the unrepresented is in fact the real world, well, I'm not sure what's gained by the book. It's a good effort, certainly, and I'll have a couple of the pages posted on my office door for the foreseeable future, but I don't know who wants to read it....