Friday, July 30, 2010

Betty Lowman Carey, Bijaboji

For the record, no, Betty Lowman Carey's memoir Bijaboji isn't connected in any way with the Robin Williams movie of the dissimilar name. For one thing, Williams' movie wouldn't have made any sense if its subtitle was North to Alaska by Oar. (I particularly appreciated the way that each time I looked at it, the cover made me hear Johnny Horton singing "NORTH! To Alaska, go north, the rush is on.")

The brief synopsis: In 1937, during a stretch of time that saw her turn 23, young Betty Lowman rowed a dugout canoe from near Anacortes, Washington, to Ketchikan, Alaska. Her father had given it to her when she turned 18, and she decided that she'd make this fairly epic row; her father, being a father and all, threw a number of roadblocks in her path, including the requirement that she graduate university and prove she could swim ten miles in Puget Sound. Once most of the blocks were surmounted, she waited for him to head for Alaska to work, and took off after him. Some 1300 miles later, after 66 days on the water (mostly rowing), Lowman found herself in Ketchikan.

The book's billed as a pure adventure, a one-woman-against-the-wild page-turner, but that's not really what you get. Certainly there are adventures, and she does travel by herself against pretty impressive odds, but she spends a lot of time travelling from one person to another, carrying messages and greetings, being fed shockingly well and housed very decently, and getting impeccable information about tides and currents. The BC coast, in 1937, seems chockablock with loggers and fishers and lighthouse keepers, and she says almost as much in her afterword that briefly recounts her parallel trip back in 1963 (lots more big boats, far fewer individuals around to talk to). In those 25 years, a community was dismantled, and while I don't romanticize the almost feudal labouring existences of many people in that community, I don't think we're better off with a few companies dominating all resource-related work on the coast. It's resource extraction now, rather than work, and an opportunity got lost in that shift.

Where was I?

Oh yes. One of the really endearing elements of this book for me was the persistent way that Lowman remarked on the desirability of so many of the men she encountered. Seemingly every few pages another handsome chap is either behaving chivalrously, batting his eyelashes, or working with his shirt off. (Very Matthew McConaughey, men of the coast circa 1937.) Coupled with her infrequent, fairly quiet remarks about her own insecurity as a muscular, 160-pound canoeist, these descriptions of masculine beauty stand out both poignantly and humorously.

As a book, though? It's a pretty straight travel journal. Maybe it could count as memoir, but the self-reflection isn't especially complex or surprising. It might be travel writing, but again, there's not a ton of complexity to it. Reading it will give you time with a lovely character at an interesting time for a fascinating place, but it's descriptive rather than philosophic. I don't give my students great marks for descriptive work -- but Betty Lowman has given us some very good descriptive work in Bijaboji: North to Alaska by Oar. (Sing it, Johnny.) And that's worth something.

July 30 - Munro's

A couple of kids' books today at a trourist-crowded Munro's, plus also Lisa Moore's very cool-looking novel Alligator ($6.99 in hardcover) -- maybe I'll even read it before school starts again!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

July 27 - Chapters & the village

A quick visit today to perhaps the least bookish bookstore I ever go into, and it's pretty rare that I go: Chapters. If my daughter hadn't gotten a gift certificate for her birthday, well, I wouldn't have bought:
  • Nick Jans, The Grizzly Maze: Timothy Treadwell's Fatal Obsession with Alaskan Bears ($6.99: probably a good pickup, since I'm supposed to be teaching animality in January), and
  • Norah Vincent, Voluntary Madness: My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin ($5.99: I apreciated her Self-Made Man we read for the book club last year, even if I wasn't entirely sold, and this one should avoid the awkward gender issues that didn't work for me, as well as looking even more like Barbara Ehrenreich's excellent Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America).
And then for $2.99 later on at Value Village, I picked up Ted and Stanley Czolowski's classic wee book (mostly pictures) The World of Stanley Park. A nice example of how one looked at nature in 1974, I'd say!

Fun (?) fact: the Stanley Park Zoo began life as "little more than one bear chained to a tree stump" (p.60). Whoa.

Friday, July 23, 2010

July 22 - Choyces (Sointula)

Still on the road, and yet apparently not without room in the backpack. After a very pleasant day on Malcolm Island, including a visit to the lighthouse at Pulteney Point, I picked up a couple of books at Choyces in bustling downtown Sointula:
  • Betty Lowman Carey, Bijaboji: North to Alaska by Oar ($24.95, the memoir of how the then-23-year-old Carey in 1937 paddled solo a 13-foot dugout canoe from Anacortes, Washington, to Ketchikan, Alaska)
  • Judith Williams, Dynamite Stories ($16, another in the Transmontanus series edited by Terry Glavin).

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Barbara Hurd, Entering the Stone

I'm tired, and I found lots of reasons to quibble with Barbara Hurd's nature-writing memoir Entering the Stone: On Caves and Feeling Through the Dark, but in the end, one test matters. I kept reading the book. I finished it quickly, but it's a thoughtful and provoking read.

Not, though, in quite the way I expected it to be. Nothing about the book (expect possibly the metaphorishness of the subtitle's second half) suggested it'd be about anything other than caves, caving, and the meaning of caves, but the key thread running through the chapters was the offstage death of the author's friend Jeanne. She only stops by once in a while, and never for long, but she's in Hurd's mind throughout this book. Entering the Stone counts as nature writing, certainly, but the memoir component is strong enough that the book falls neatly into neither genre.

My main quibble is based, I think, in the fact that I'm camping on the northern tip of Vancouver Island with members of BC's logging community. We spent five hours in a vehicle today, for example, so we could visit a staggeringly beautiful beach that's been made accessible only by Western Forest Products' decision not to deactivate a logging road, and that's been kept beautiful because of WFP's decision not to log as near the beach as they could have.

And I think they'd find Hurd's book girly and a bit precious, so much so that I don't see them ever reading the thing, so while I kept reading the book and kept thinking about its ideas, its preciousness is one thing I kept thinking about.

After all, nature writing is a secret handshake of a genre. It excludes, often deliberately, many of those people who love the places eligible to be featured in such writing, and it can even make targets out of these people. The world is a complicated place, of course, but it'd be nice if we could share our interests, no?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Thomas Wharton - Icefields

Finally, finally I've read Thomas Wharton's Icefields, a novel recommended to me by friends and colleagues and, most importantly, those rare few who fall into both categories. I had some trepidation about this, after my response to Sid Marty's well-reviewed and similarly recommended Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek, but in the end I've come away feeling quite positively about it all.

Well, mostly. On the one hand, Icefields is a lyrical, character-rich vignette from the early days of Jasper's development and settling. There are several ways in which the novel would seem deserving of its accolades and awards, and the choice of Jack Hodgins to write the lengthy back-cover blurb which stands in for a summary of the novel strikes me as highly appropriate: in Icefields, Wharton has done for Jasper some version of what Hodgins did for northern Vancouver Island in The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne. For casual fans of West Coast literature, a deserved comparison to Hodgins is high praise indeed.

Mind you, even though Hodgins won the Governor-General's Award for The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne, and he was only shortlisted for it with The Invention of the World and Spit Delaney's Island, the two shortlisted works have had more to do with Hodgins' long-standing reputation as the preeminent novelist of place from/for this particular place. I'm not sure how to put this, but let me try anyway: Wharton's done a wonderful job at a relatively narrow task, but many tasks remain to be done before I'll be entirely convinced of his role vis-a-vis writing Jasper as place.

The relationships between characters are alternately striking and haunting, depending on who you're spending time with, and the icefields themselves are impressively evoked. I came away feeling like I knew more about how Jasper evolved, and some of his writing was memorably effective, as in the beautifully crafted section detailing the return of young Jim Trask to Jasper after the Great War. And it's worth saying that I'm comfortable teaching this novel in January, in my planned team-teaching course that's gone solo, even though my partner isn't going to be there to teach it.

It's just that it's a small, intimate book. That's okay, in fact it's more than okay, but it's not really how the book was sold to me. If that's how I'd heard of it, I'd have been more than happy with Icefields. If you're looking for an intimate historical novel, rather than a sweeping one, set in the Rockies, then this just might be the book for you. After all, it's been the book of choice for an awful lot of people since it came out, and some of them I even trust.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

July 13 - Rathtrevor nature house

The provincial parks system in British Columbia is yet another facet of public works getting bashed by assorted levels of government. Campgrounds, for example, are all run on contract by private companies and individuals who have to meet assorted standards without receiving any funds for it. The operators are thus put in the odd position of being required to be the lowest bidder providing the widest range of services for which campers won't have to pay. The nature house at Rathtrevor Park is precisely one of these services, and the operator has hired a young naturalist who does his best without much money (or experience, but that's another story) to teach kids about nature. We had a great time this week at a few sessions, and I threw a fair bit of cash at the Nature House store on ice cream, toys, and, inevitably, books.

In other words:
  • Jay Bookman, Caught in the Current: Searching for Simplicity in the Technological Age ($1.40, which is actually about several guys on an annual kayaking trip, rather than being a management or self-improvement book [not that I don't need improvement, clearly])
  • David M. Carroll, Swampwalker’s Journal: A Wetlands Year ($14.50)
  • Hannah Holmes, Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn ($6.30)
  • Barbara Hurd, Entering the Stone: On Caves and Feeling Through the Dark ($6.30)
The next time I'm there, I just might clean out their sale shelves and buy some more full-price nature books as well. For such a small store, they had an excellent selection of nature writing, along with miscellaneous manuals and informational texts. Go! Buy! Donate!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Morton & Proctor, Heart of the Raincoast

Heart of the Raincoast: A Life Story, by Alexandra Morton and Billy Proctor (mostly Morton, really, with some passages from Billy Proctor and some verse from his mother Jae), is on the one hand, one of those small-press local-interest books you see looking a bit mournful on racks in not-quite-bookstores. And it's published by TouchWood, which I've rumbled about previously for not offering the most careful copy-editing or the most helpful editing in relation to plot and related points. So, it looks a risky proposition from the outset, and after having read the book now, I don't see it as a book that my literature students need to read.

But on the other hand, Heart of the Raincoast is a book that belongs on the shelves of anyone who cares about change on the BC coast, both cultural change and environmental change. There's a naivety to the structure and prose of the book, which to me makes it feel as if Morton was learning on the job about how to communicate more effectively in her own voice in print, and this will no doubt be a turnoff for more literary readers who happen to flip through it on one of the BC Ferries or in a tourist shop, but it works, and here's why.

This memoir is the life story of Billy Proctor, of the (mostly) non-Aboriginal inhabitants of the Broughton Archipelago since the early 20th century, of coastal BC communities more generally, and of "the environment" on the BC coast. The stories blend together, because nothing sensible comes from trying to tease apart these stories. The first nine chapters, with their apparently unnecessary details about annual income in the 1950s and boat horsepower in the 1940s and so on, are essential information that allow you to make sense -- richly and lastingly -- in the final chapter, in which Proctor makes a clear, passionate call for a different approach to fisheries conservation on the BC coast. It comes to be about fish, in the end, rather than fisheries, even for a boot-wearing lifelong fisherman like Billy Proctor, but it can only be all about fish if you understand how he gets to this position. You need to understand who he is and how he got that way, and Morton's naivety as a writer (possibly only her apparent naivety?) allows Proctor's character to develop far more effectively than it might in a more polished book.

Mind you, we're well past the five-year window that this book gave, in the late 90s, for turning around fish populations on the BC coast, and the collapse continues far longer than Morton and Proctor expected. She continues to advocate on behalf of fish, and it's a great thing that there remain enough fish around on whose behalf to take an advocacy stance, but times are extremely tough for salmon on the coast. The book hasn't worked, in other words, but it's worth reading anyway. And then go read something by Terry Glavin (like this, or this, or maybe this). Because something just has to happen. We've been beating the crap out of this province for a hell of a long time, and it just has to stop.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Stephanie Meyer, Twilight

Why yes, yes, I actually have read Stephanie Meyer's blockbuster Twilight. What's your point, and what surprises you about this? I even enjoyed it -- does that surprise you?

I'd been pondering whether to include it in a graduate course on West Coast literature, though it's a tough thing to consider wisely without having read the novel, and after watching the DVD on the mammoth 13" screen of my laptop. Well, now I've read it, and while I'm no closer to a decision, a few things do come to mind as I continue the standard (ie, interminable) academic pondering.

First, Stephanie Meyer has a good feel for suspense, in the ways that teenagers feel their lives deeply and painfully from one moment to the next: angst has rarely felt so important as it does here. (Is Twilight this generation's Catcher in the Rye? Discuss.)

Second, Stephanie Meyer isn't bashful about riding a horse until the legs fall off. If it's worth once drawing our attention to the narrator Bella's skipping heartbeat in the presence of vampire Edward, it's worth drawing our attention there a dozen times. (For any hockey fans reading, it's like the way stories about athletic commitment tend to include snide -- but brief -- references to Kyle Wellwood's tum.)

Third, the narrative really does depend in fascinating ways on the specific landscape and meteorology of the Olympic Peninsula, in Washington State. Meyer's not entirely accurate about the weather, but she's plugged into local (or at least regional) views of Olympic weather, and that's a big deal to me. Place matters.

Fourth, well, suspense and angst work pretty well for teenage literature. Did I mention that already? (Is Twilight this generation's Little House on the Prairie? Discuss.)

And kudos, by the way, for whoever the heck turned this 500-page novel into a screenplay and movie, because the changes flat-out worked on screen, and the book was respected in the transition. For good or ill, the movie was faithful to the book.

And now I'm off to recover my faithfulness to small presses....

July 9 - Munro's

One of the happiest places on earth, Munro's Books, especially when visited between dinner at Spinnaker's and a post-dinner pint at the Irish Times. Bless/curse their sale tables, which today included:
  • Craig Childs, The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild ($6.99) and
  • Ian Verchère, V0N 1B0: General delivery, Whistler BC, introduced by Douglas Coupland ($3.99, inexplicably, and even autographed).

Verchère's book looks at first glance like a good match for Coupland's own City of Glass, about Vancouver, which I enjoy very much, and it rather distracted some of our party at the Times. A good sign, I think.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

David Leach, Fatal Tide

Dude can write, I tell you.

It's been way too long since I convinced David Leach to cycle to my house and sell me a copy of Fatal Tide: When the Race of a Lifetime Goes Wrong. I'm suspecting that it languished on my TBR pile (which isn't nearly as organized as this photogenic one) simply because I know him well enough that I trusted it'd be good, and because I see him often enough that I wasn't necessarily missing out, but (a) these are just suspicions, and (b) I'm making them up.

Because the bottom line is that this book is much better even than I thought it would be, and I've read enough of Leach's essays in explore and British Columbia and elsewhere that I expected it would be really well researched and engagingly written. It hasn't sold all that well (I gather, though I don't know for sure), and there are some likely reasons behind that, but I'm betting here that its readers are almost unanimously happy with it.

The obvious point of comparison is with Jon Krakauer's disaster nature books Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, both of which have sold ridiculously well and the first of which even led to a pretty good movie. (Honestly, who knew that Eddie Vedder could do soundtrack music like a young Henry Mancini? And I wonder if that Kristen Stewart will do any more acting; she did well.) Compared to Fatal Tide, Krakauer's books have some unfair advantages that can't really be overcome by a book that's seeking a similar readership.

Into the Wild has a main character who's self-aware and who dies very slowly, leaving a journal whose pages chart the writer's gradual and horrifyingly inevitable death; Fatal Tide's Rene Arsenault wakes up absurdly healthy on June 1, 2002, and successfully completes the first two events of a multi-sport extreme adventure race, suddenly dying in silence during the final stage. Into Thin Air is set at the summit of Mount Everest, for pete's sake, and Krakauer was actually present during the catastrophe about which he's writing; Leach visited New Brunswick numerous times and interviewed dozens of people in pursuit of the most intimate, detailed portrait he could provide -- but it's New Brunswick, and it's not his own story, but Rene Arsenault's.

Really, though, this just explains why Krakauer's books have sold so well. They're somewhat formulaic, though relatively short on cliche, and the prose can sometimes thud, but he has an unerring eye for a story worth telling. In Fatal Tide, Leach has a similarly valuable story, but it's shorter on glamour, and the greater quality of his writing hasn't yet overcome Krakauer's headstart of a readily saleable story (rather than a valuable one). I really did sprint through Fatal Tide, because it grabbed me and didn't let go, making it pleasant but awkward company on my recent conference trip to Vancouver.

To sum up: This book deserves a much wider readership, and I'm looking forward with even more anticipation to the product of Leach's current expedition to Israel. Hopefully Viking will put out Fatal Tide in paperback soon, because imho, a hardcover was a bad idea. Fatal Tide is the kind of book very likely indeed to be given as a gift to thousands of outdoors types -- but never ever as a hardcover, because it'd screw up the shape of the pack.

Hardcovers are so 1973. C'mon, Viking, publish the book the way it really should appear!

(Unnecessary but genuine sign of commitment: One of the courses I regularly teach occurs at the intersection of literature and environment, a special-topics course whose focus changes annually, and it turns out that I've been unconsciously pondering a course in which Fatal Tide would fit pretty nicely. I'm thinking "Encountering the Wild," possibly, with several versions of what "the Wild" might mean, but only since finishing this book. Gretchen Legler's On The Ice: An Intimate Portrait of Life at McMurdo Station Antarctica; something by Krakauer, obviously; maybe Sid Marty's Black Bear of Whiskey Creek, in spite of my abundant misgivings; that sort of thing. Any thoughts?)

June 30 - Value Village

So I was at Value Village for some shorts, doing my bit to combat the fashion marketing machine, when into my shopping basket fell Stephanie Meyer's Twilight (can I say, because it counts as West Coast literature? no?) and -- rather more predictably -- Paul George's Big Trees, Not Big Stumps: 25 years of campaigning to save wilderness with the Wilderness Committee (autographed to "Janet and John," and with the accompanying DVD still in the back cover, amazingly). A divided soul, possibly, but one that's rooted here, at least.