Friday, June 25, 2010

Eugene Meese, A Magpie's Smile

A book club selection: but why can't I keep the name straight? Eugene Meese, I know the author's name cold, but sometimes I call it A Magpie Smiles, sometimes A Magpie Smile, even The Magpie's Smile, but odds aren't great that I can spit out the correct title, that being A Magpie's Smile.

We've read a few smaller-press Western Canadian mystery novels in the club, and this is another good read -- more like Stan Evans than like Ron Chudley. A Magpie's Smile is set in Calgary, 1977, so there's lots of good details about the city's evolution during the 70s oil boom as perspective on the more recent oil boom (which may or may not be continuing, depending who you ask). Remaining alive in the present are all the thematic issues that Meese raises about immigration, the deservedly poor, uncontrolled urban development, and so on, but they're rooted really tightly in a particular historical context that Meese evokes well. He was a journalist in Calgary in the 70s, so presumably he's got some sound memories to draw on.

Or as sound as anyone's memories might be from those hallowed years.

It's self-consciously pulpy at points, presumably both catering for an imagined audience and self-consciously ironizing the author's literary pretensions, but that's not always a distraction. On the other hand, sometimes it is. Though as well done as such things can be, the early bra-change scene seemed entirely unnecessary, for example, I think reflecting on the publisher's or author's low expectations of the average mystery reader. (If you're read the book, you'll know the scene. If you haven't, well, it's not overly distracting, but not at all central to the plot.) This novel would work pretty well as a movie, I'd say, especially the dramatic closing scenes and the nice little coda of a final section.

I'm more or less okay with the negative review in Quill & Quire, though I'd never have expected to see a mystery novel positively reviewed there (if reviewed at all in Q&Q). The negative review at The Mystery Site is more interesting to me for what it says about the reviewer, though, than about the book; apparently as a mystery novel, A Magpie's Smile is too much novel and not enough mystery, and the real problem is that you don't spend enough time with the killer or the investigation, getting instead too much of the detective.

No, I disagree. The real problem is simply that Meese has multiple audiences for this novel, and he fails to please any of them by trying a little too hard to please all of them. It's not literary enough, it's not enough like contemporary mystery writing, it's too much of a historical novel, and so on.

But this is a standard problem in Canadian writing, faced by not just A Magpie's Smile but The Englishman's Boy, Girlfriend in a Coma, even The Edible Woman. If the audience is small, you may want to appeal to multiple audiences, right? RIght? No, because it's more likely to alienate everyone than to engage everyone, and you're better off with a small but intense group of followers. [Insert a Christ joke here, if you like. Or a terrorism one, if that's more your style, or even one about the 2010 French footballers at the World Cup.]

Bottom line: If you like mysteries, especially those set in Canada, then it'll work for you. Just don't read it with too jaundiced an eye!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Brian Brett, Trauma Farm

June has been mostly occupied with helping others renovate a house bought specifically for resale (ugh) and with a non-progressing article on an eighteenth-century poem about trees, apples, orchards, and cider. The work on John Phillips' Cyder has at least kept me reading, but it's been scattered rather than focused -- which is fine, but there it is. Still, I did manage to find some reading time, and in the midst of some material about environmental aesthetics and Augustan Whig/Tory land politics, some excellent company was found in Brian Brett's Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life.

This review's by-now-standard confessional is simply that I'd been turned off Brett's poetry because for some reason I'd associated it with what I think of as the annoyingly self-congratulatory "ain't we bad boys" wannabe-Beat schtick of Al Purdy, Peter Trower, and that sort. But I don't know if I've read more than a few of his poems, and the ones appearing in Trauma Farm are excellent (if a touch too understatedly colloquial even for me). Reconsideration time, in other words.

For now, though, it's important simply that I say how much I enjoyed this book. It's not unrelated to the almanac approach that Des Kennedy took in An Ecology of Enchantment, but whereas Kennedy wrote his in the form of a weekly calendar, Brett's covers the 24 hours of a single day, one that he says is 18 years long (the length of his time at the farm on Saltspring Island). He does cheat, because there aren't blank chapters for his sleep, so really he's divided his waking hours into 24 sections, but with that overlooked, it becomes easy to appreciate the book. Some reviewers have found Brett's literary style off-putting, when you're used to and/or expecting the serious tone of a history or a farming advice book, but it's polished and intimate and even at times self-ironizingly flashy, so I really appreciated the care with which the prose style was handled.

Somehow I managed not to dog-ear any pages, so I could readily pull out some quotations and look like I'd made careful notes, but it's actually a ploy to force myself to read it again right quickly. I've put it on the shortlist of possible texts for a course I'm co-teaching in January, so that's given it priority enough status on the bookpile that I just can't dawdle for quotations to appease you people just now.

Oh, alright then, just one:
"When I consider the sixteenth-century peasant who supposedly knew so little, I think of someone who could smell hay and recognize its food value, identify hundreds of medicinal flowers, berries, and vegetables, and tell you when to plant or harvest and how to preserve; someone who could milk a cow and create or fix almost any tool in the house; someone who lived for the most part in grace with a natural environment (when not being a victim of the feudal politics of the era). Comparing 'old knowledge' with the knowledge of how to operate a remote control or play a new video game, it's clear that an important range of experience has been lost. What can we say to a world where a child on a bus in Vancouver looks our the window and says to his mother, 'Is that a crow?'" (p.181)
Setting aside, obviously, the vexed question of whether a state of environmental grace was available to a sixteenth-century peasant, it's a decent bit, from a book stuffed with them. Read and enjoy!